Architectural richness and the romance of a time gone by help to define today’s Flatiron District. Since April 2007, the BID staff has been highlighting the area’s most historic structures as well as some of the people and businesses that have either thrived here for decades or are noteworthy for other reasons.

Jul 6, 2021

Discover Flatiron: Inventor Nikola Tesla Takes on Tech at Radio Wave Building

To commemorate the New York City designation of July 10, 1997 as Nikola Tesla Day, the Flatiron Partnership recalls the electric power inventor’s life in the neighborhood during the 1890s. Tesla resided and conducted scientific experiments at the Gerlach Hotel, now known in his honor as the Radio Wave Building at 49 West 27th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. Wireless remote control was one of Tesla’s notable creations, and he held its first demonstration at the 1898 Electrical Exhibition in Madison Square Garden on 26th Street.

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Photo Credit: Commons WikiMedia

Born on July 10, 1856 in the Croatian village of Smiljan, Nikola Tesla was the fourth of five children. His father was a Serbian Orthodox priest, and mother, a household appliances inventor and manager of the family’s farm. While in high school, their son Nikola could “do integral calculus in his head,” notes thoughtco.com, and was so inspired by the demonstrations of electricity in his physics class that it “made him want to know more of this wonderful force.” He would receive a college scholarship for further study at Austria’s Graz Polytechnic School.  

In 1882, Tesla accepted an offer to work at Thomas Edison’s Continental Edison Company in Paris. Two years later, he relocated to New York City for a job opportunity at Edison Machine Works, along “with the hope that Edison would help finance and develop a Tesla invention, an alternating-current (AC) motor and electrical system,” wrote The New York Times on December 30, 2017. “But Edison was instead investing in highly inefficient direct-current (DC) systems, and he had Tesla re-engineer a DC power plant on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan.”

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Pictured: The first practical remote-controlled robot via PBS

According to history.com, Tesla “worked there for a year, impressing Edison with his diligence and ingenuity. At one point Edison told Tesla he would pay $50,000 for an improved design for his DC dynamos. After months of experimentation, Tesla presented a solution and asked for the money. Edison demurred, saying, ‘Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.’” Tesla left the Edison team, and the pair soon engaged in an electrical power rivalry known as the “War of the Currents.” Their competition included the 1892 bid by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, where Tesla sold his AC patent and was now a consultant, and Edison’s General Electric firm vying for Chicago’s World’s Fair electricity contract, which Westinghouse won.

During 1892, Tesla had also moved to the Gerlach Hotel at 49 West 27th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. Constructed as French flats between 1882-83, the 11-story structure was designed by August Hatfield. But by the 1890s, it was operating as a hotel. Explained Richard Munson in Tesla: Inventor of the Modern about the tech pioneer’s time there, “After arising at 6:30 a.m., having gotten three hours of sleep, Tesla enjoyed a light breakfast, performed a few gymnastic exercises, and began his daily thirty block walk” pass Madison Square Garden and Madison Square Park to his Lower Manhattan lab. Tesla had installed at the Gerlach, a “receiver on the hotel’s roof in order to capture some of the first radio transmissions from his downtown workshop,” wrote Munson. The author also revealed that while Tesla strolled, he “counted his steps, making sure they were divisible by three.” His “obsession with the number three and fastidious washing,” notes history.com, were “dismissed as the eccentricities of genius.” 

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Pictured: Submergible version of Tesla's remote-controlled craft.via PBS

By 1898, Tesla was ready to showcase one of his most innovative inventions, the first radio-controlled vessel, at an exhibit held in Madison Square Garden on 26th Street. The event’s opening day on May 2nd included a wired message from President William McKinley in Washington, D.C. The Commander in Chief expressed that it gave him “great pleasure to open the Electrical Exhibition in Greater New York, and to participate in this wonderful demonstration of the latest method of recording and publishing by means of electricity,” reported The New York Times on May 3, 1898.  “I am glad to know that the resources of the wonderful electrical arts have already been so far advanced in the United States that American electrical goods are welcome the world over.”

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Photo Credit: Nikola Tesla demonstrates his Tesla coil “Magnifying Transmitter via ThoughtCo

Tesla’s presentation was considered to be “a scientific tour de force, a demonstration completely beyond the generally accepted limits of technology,” according to pbs.org. “Everyone expected surprises from Tesla, but few were prepared for the sight of a small, odd-looking, iron-hulled boat scooting across an indoor pond (specifically built for the display). In an era when only a handful of people knew about radio waves, some thought that Tesla was controlling the small ship with his mind. In actuality, he was sending signals to the mechanism using a small box with control levers on the side. Tesla's device was literally the birth of robotics.” 

This groundbreaking technology inside the Garden was not the only sign of change around the neighborhood. At the end of the 19th century, the Gerlach had also temporarily shut its doors in 1899, and Tesla made a move to Midtown Manhattan. “In his heyday,” wrote Time magazine on November 27, 1944, Tesla “lived at the Waldorf-Astoria and had a fabulous reputation as a host. He invariably took his guests to his laboratory and treated them to an electrical display, which included the then startling trick of passing 1,000,000 volts through his body.” Tesla continued to occupy hotels most of his life, which included a 10-year stay at The New Yorker Hotel, where he reportedly died of coronary thrombosis on January 7, 1943 at the age of 86. 

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 Photo Credit: Radio Fidelity of Guglielmo Marconi

Six months after his death, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an earlier decision on Tesla’s radio patent, thus naming him the real inventor of the radio, not Guglielmo Marconi, who had received the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in wireless telegraphy. “The Court had a selfish reason for doing so,” notes pbs.org about the controversial ruling. “The Marconi Company was suing the United States government for use of its patents in World War I. The Court simply avoided the action by restoring the priority of Tesla's patent over Marconi.” In recognition of Tesla’s triumphs in radio technology while living and working in Madison Square, a commemorative plaque was placed at 49 West 27th Street by the Yugoslav-American Bicentennial Committee on January 7, 1977, which was also 34 years after Tesla’s passing.

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Pictured: Decree of Nikola Tesla mentioning his background, contributions to science, and to the general public via Tesla Society

Then, 20 years later, a proclamation to declare July 10, 1997 as Nikola Tesla Day was issued by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on the 141st anniversary of Tesla’s birth. The decree read, in part, “Nikola Tesla spent his last four decades living in obscurity in our city. He had patented more 700 inventions in the United States, and his work made possible increased productivity in industry, the modern applications of alternate current electric power, modern communications, and such advances as robotics, computers, satellites, and microwaves.” 

Thumbnail: Department of Energy
Photo Credit: Atlas Obscura 

Jun 21, 2021

Discover Flatiron: Madison Square North Named Historic District in 2001

This month Madison Square North marks its 20th anniversary as a designated historic district. To celebrate the June 26, 2001 classification by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Flatiron Partnership will highlight here events that paved the way for this decision in the area extending from 25th to 29th Streets, between Madison and Sixth Avenues. 

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Photo Credit: LPC Report

During the late 1800s, Madison Square North was known as an entertainment epicenter, a hub for hotels, and the place for brownstone palaces owned by the city’s prominent citizens. According to Miriam Berman’s book Madison Square: The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks, residents of the former farmland settlement included American Museum of Natural History co-founder Benjamin H. Field, industrialist James Burden, and the Schieffelin family, pharmaceutical developers who were also “the first to refine petroleum in New York City.”

By 1895, however, large office buildings began to surface in the neighborhood, and this construction boom brought an increased “scale and intensity” to the area, noted the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Madison Square North Historic Designation Report issued in 2001. “Some of the earliest examples were the Baudouine Building (1896), Revillon Building (1896), Townsend Building (1897), St. James Building (1896-98) and Brunswick Building (1906-7),” indicated the report. “Ten or more stories tall, most were designed in the Classical Revival or Beaux-Arts style. Architectural firms and related businesses became the primary tenants.”

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Photo Credit: LPC Report

 

Commercial building construction would continue to thrive in the community at the turn of the century. The LPC report noted that “the growing presence of financial institutions around 1900 coincides with the neighborhood’s transformation from an area of late evening activities to one dominated by office workers.” And with the 1910 debut of the Pennsylvania Station railway depot in nearby Midtown Manhattan, there would be greater access for companies from across the country to Madison Square North. The region was now becoming a much more desirable business destination with the added inclusion of loft buildings as part of its property portfolio.

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Photo Credit: LPC Report

“Targeted to mainly wholesale merchants, these slender twelve- to eighteen-story tall buildings featured separate freight lobbies, high ceilings, and large floor plates interrupted by a minimum of columns,” wrote the LPC report about the neighborhood’s loft-style structures. One notable skyscraper in the area was 261 Fifth Avenue (1928-29), located between 28th and 29th Streets. The LPC described the 26-story, Art Deco tower with “distinctive polychrome terra-cotta ornament and geometric brickwork” as one “built to house showrooms, offices, and lofts.”

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Photo Credit: LPC Report

The property, however, became one of the last of its kind built during the community’s high-rise development period. The nation was now entering the Great Depression, which limited the level of building construction from 1929-1933. By 1939, wrote The WPA Guide to New York City, Madison Square North had evolved into an environment where “factories and salesrooms of the toy, novelty, silk, woolen, and men's clothing industries and headquarters of benevolent and welfare organizations are scrambled throughout.” It would take decades for Madison Square North to make a return to the real estate spotlight once again, albeit in an unexpected way.

A renewed interest in the neighborhood was launched, in part, by the early efforts of the newly- formed Landmarks Preservation Commission. Created in 1965, the municipal agency set out to help safeguard historically significant structures within the five boroughs. Soon, a number of Madison Square North properties and premises in the surrounding region began to receive LPC historic designation status. They included the Flatiron Building at 175 Fifth Avenue in 1966, Gilsey House at 1200 Broadway in 1979, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower at 5 Madison Avenue in 1989, and the New York Life Insurance Building at 51 Madison Avenue in 2000.

In addition to the building designations, a plan was introduced to name a portion of Madison Square North a historic district. The LPC proposed 10 blocks and 96 buildings in the neighborhood, which encompassed the area that extended from 25th to 29th Streets, between Madison and Sixth Avenues. “At first glance, it is a motley amalgam; not the kind of cohesive cityscape found in the nearby Ladies’ Mile Historic District,” according to The New York Times on July 15, 2001. And noted then LPC Chair Sherida E. Paulsen to the newspaper, “When I first came down here, I thought, ‘It doesn’t hang together.’ But then I realized, ‘My God, it’s intact.’”

Attendees at the LPC district designation public hearing on May 29, 2001 included representatives for then New York City Councilmember Christine Quinn, New York State Senator Thomas K. Duane, and New York State Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, as well as organizations such as the Historic Districts Council, New York Landmarks Conservancy, and the 29th Street Neighborhood Association. There were 14 people who spoke in favor of the designation, while three property owners opposed their buildings to be part of the plan.

Then, nearly one month after the LPC public hearing, the proposed historic district designation in Madison Square North was approved by the agency on June 26, 2001. The LPC’s findings report concluded that “on the basis of a careful consideration of the history, the architecture, and other features of this area, the Madison Square North Historic District contains buildings and other improvements which have a special character and a special historical and aesthetic interest and value and which represent one or more eras in the history of New York City and which cause this area, by reason of these factors, to a constitute a distinct section of the city.”

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Photo Credit: View of 26th Street looking east from LPC Report 

LPC Chair Paulsen further explained to The New York Times on July 1, 2001, “What is so unique and interesting is that the buildings there are really intact, with the original historic fabric of materials, storefronts, walls and windows. It was wonderful to find that level of integrity in these great commercial buildings, just sitting there in the middle of the city.” But, added New York State Senator Duane, who represented the vicinity in 2001, “We have to be vigilant so elements of the buildings are not destroyed even with the landmarking. This is a hot area right now.”

Thumbnail and Photo Credit: Madison Square North Historic District Designation Report by NYC Landmarks Preservation Commision

May 19, 2021

Discover Flatiron: David Glasgow Farragut, U.S. Navy’s First Admiral

In observance of Memorial Day, the Flatiron Partnership remembers David Glasgow Farragut, the U.S. Navy’s first Admiral. This year marks the 140th anniversary of the military legend’s Memorial Day 1881 statue dedication in Madison Square Park. Farragut, a Tennessee native with Spanish and Scotch-Irish heritage, became a naval commander for the North during the American Civil War. He is best known for his victory against the South at Alabama’s Battle of Mobile Bay where he spoke his immortal words, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

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Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Born in a cabin on July 5, 1801, near Knoxville, Tennessee, David (né James) Glasgow Farragut was the second son of George (né Jorge) Antonio Farragut-Mesquida, a Spanish merchant seaman turned farmer. George’s wife Elizabeth Shine hailed from North Carolina. A few years after the birth of David, the Farraguts and several of their children relocated to a 900-acre farm in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1808, however, Elizabeth passed away from yellow fever.

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Photo Credit: Hasting Historical Society

Following the loss of his wife, George would often take the children sailing on nearby Lake Pontchartrain. In the book The Life of David Glasgow Farragut (written by his son Loyall), David recalls those childhood years, “When the weather was bad, we usually slept on the beach of one of the numerous islands of the Lake, or else on the shore of the mainland, wrapped in the boat sail, and, if the weather was cold, we generally half-buried ourselves in the dry sand.” But soon after his start as a single parent, George decided to place his children in the foster care of friends and relatives. David was adopted by family acquaintance Navy Captain David Porter, a move that launched the beginning of Farragut’s remarkable career spent at sea.

At the age of 9, Farragut was mentored by Porter to become a Midshipman. The pair would then serve on the Essex ship during the War of 1812. Subsequently, Farragut was promoted to Prize Master in charge of captured ships at the age of 12 and had excelled as a ship’s officer by the time he was 20. Following decades of naval leadership, Farragut would face his biggest military challenge in 1864. It was also during this period that the veteran and his family made the decision to relocate to the North. Although a Southerner by birth and resident of Virginia, Farragut had become a Union loyalist. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Farragut, with his second wife Virginia and son Loyall, headed to Hastings-on-Hudson in New York State.

Farragut soon returned to life at sea for his historic battle at Mobile Bay. The crew and their 18 ships set sail for the Alabama coastline to close the Confederacy’s last port. “Farragut's fleet of wooden ships, along with four small ironclad monitors, began the attack on Mobile Bay early in the morning of August 5, 1864,” notes thelatinlibrary.com. “When the smoke of battle became so thick that he couldn't see, Farragut climbed the rigging of the Hartford and lashed himself near the top of the mainsail to get a better view. It wasn't long before the Tecumseh, one of the monitors leading the way, struck a torpedo and sank in a matter minutes.” Farragut declared, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!,” and told his seamen to pursue their blockade plans. The fleet was able to stay on course, seize the port, and capture the Confederate’s most powerful ironclad vessel known as the Tennessee, which held up a white flag in surrender to the Union.

The momentous victory by Farragut and his shipmates pushed the naval hero into the spotlight as one of the country’s preeminent combat icons. The conquest also led to Farragut’s appointment to the newly created role of the Navy’s first full Admiral in 1866. “The Battle of Mobile Bay lifted the morale of the North,” writes history.com about the 1864 Gulf of New Mexico conflict. The win also helped determine the person would become the next occupant of the White House in 1865. “The battle of the bay became the first in a series of Union victories that stretched to the fall presidential election, in which the incumbent, Abraham Lincoln, defeated Democratic challenger George McClellan, a former Union general,” notes the website.

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Photo Credit: Daytonian in Manhattan

Farragut’s celebrated status sparked debate about the Admiral’s own presidential bid. In 1868, however, Farragut reportedly declined to run for office. “I hasten to assure you that I have never for one moment entertained the idea of political life,” he said, “even were I certain of receiving the election of the Presidency.” The Farraguts were now Manhattan residents in a brownstone at 113 East 36th Street, between Park Avenue South and Lexington Avenue. The reported $33,000 property had been purchased by the Admiral in 1865 with a monetary gift he had received from a committee of lending merchants. But on August 14, 1870, Farragut would die of heart disease at the age of 69. Upon his passing, there was a huge outpour of support, with a public funeral held on September 30th, and businesses, including the Stock Exchange, closed in observance.

Farragut was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery on Webster Avenue at East 233rd Street in the Bronx, now a National Historic Landmark and final resting place for many of the “Who’s Who of American History.” A decade later in Manhattan, the New York Farragut Association honored the military giant with a donated 9-foot bronze monument of Farragut to be installed in the northern section of Madison Square Park at 25th Street. Neighborhood sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and area architect Stanford White, collaborators on the 26th Street Madison Square Garden, were the designers of the statue and its pedestal with extended exedra wings.

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Photo Credit: Madison Square Park

The May 25, 1881 Farragut monument dedication ceremony in Madison Square Park was held “in the presence of a throng of distinguished spectators, and with an imposing military display,” reported The New York Times the following day. Hundreds of ticket holders, as well as dignitaries, were seated on benches and stools surrounding the vicinity of Madison Square Park. And, according to The Times, “the balconies of Delmonico’s and the Hotel Brunswick were filled with ladies and gentlemen, and all the windows and neighboring roofs were put to use.”

William H. Hunt, Secretary of the Navy, who was a keynote speaker at the event, said that the monument “stands a becoming ornament of this great and brilliant Metropolis,” wrote The Times. “In the midst of the haunts of busy men, intent on worldly and mere material pursuits, let it stand for all time to illustrate the nobler and higher aims of life; let its lesson be to all who shall pass beneath its shadow a lesson of patriotism purer than gold, more precious than the acquisitions of commerce!” Mayor William Grace, who had accepted the statue on behalf of the City of New York, noted, according to The Times, that “in one respect the venerable Admiral remained like the Midshipman of the Essex–his heart was always young. In manners and life he was always simple as a child–so plain and unostentatious that, at first meeting him, one was at a loss to reconcile his quiet and reserved presence with the idea of the heroic Farragut.”

Header Photo: Photo Credit: NYC Parks, Madison Square Park Memorial Statue
Thumbnail Photo: Wikipedia

Mar 30, 2021

Discover Flatiron: Memorial to Victims of the Injustice of the Holocaust

April 4-11 marks the Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, the nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust.  In memory of the victims of the Holocaust and in honor of the survivors as well as the rescuers and liberators, the Flatiron Partnership reverently recalls the historic installation of our neighborhood’s own Holocaust memorial while rededicating ourselves to the active promotion of human dignity and the confrontation of hate whenever and wherever it occurs.

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Photo Credit: Smithsonian Learning Lab

The marble obelisk-shaped sculpture, known as the Memorial to Victims of the Injustice of the Holocaust, is erected on an exterior wall of the annex at the Appellate Division Supreme Court of the State of New York on Madison Avenue and 25th Street. Created by artist Harriet Feigenbaum, the monument was the first of its kind to appear on a U.S. public building in 1990.

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Photo Credit: New York Courts

In 1987, the Appellate Division’s Presiding Justice Francis Murphy and attorney David Finkelstein were engaged in a meaningful discussion. The topic was “the indifference towards injustice,” remembered Finkelstein in a Daily News interview on January 21, 1990. “And the talk just leaned towards injustice being the cause of the Holocaust. The fact is that indifference continued for so long it created the Holocaust.” The subject prompted Justice Murphy to assemble a team of consultants to consider the idea of a privately funded Holocaust memorial.

To finance the monument, a reported $200,000 was raised from various New York City law firms. More than 60 artists applied for the commission, but only five were asked to submit their proposal to a panel comprised of Justice Murphy, a representative from the Department of Cultural Affairs, and three individuals connected to the arts. Then, in May 1988, the group selected Harriet Feigenbaum, who had attended Columbia and the National Academy of Design.  

For her proposal of a memorial, Feigenbaum studied for more than a month “photographs of the death houses and a rendering of the main camp at Auschwitz in Poland, drawn by a prison inmate in 1944,” according to The New York Times on July 27, 1988. Feigenbaum explained, “I want people to be drawn to the sculpture and to want to discover what the Holocaust was–the methodical method of murder, the horror that was Auschwitz.” She then traveled to Querceta, Italy to design the monument, which would be crafted from Carrara marble, the same type of milky white material that reportedly had been used to build the Appellate Division courthouse.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Upon its completion, the structure was shipped to New York City. The Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program describes Feigenbaum’s Holocaust memorial design as “a six-sided half column rising 27 feet above its base. The five-sided concave base extends one story below ground level, the overall height of the memorial being 38 feet. Carvings of flames along the length of the column recall the flames of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. They appear to blow in the direction of the courthouse as if to threaten the symbol of Justice. A relief of an aerial view of the main camp at Auschwitz is carved into the base at eye level. An inscription ‘Indifference to Injustice’ has been carved above the relief, ‘Is the Gate to Hell’ below it.”

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The monument also cites specific locations within the Auschwitz camp complex, including the Torture Chamber, Execution Wall, Gas Chamber, and Crematorium 1, Commandant's House. The Department of Cultural Affairs says that Feigenbaum’s primary source for her depiction of the death camp was “a photograph taken during an Allied bombing raid on August 25, 1944. By the selection of this photograph, the artist is saying that the Allies must have known of the camp and they took no action. On the base under the relief is a giant flame extending below ground level as a final reminder of Crematorium 1 at Auschwitz.” 

For the public unveiling of Feigenbaum’s Memorial to Victims of the Injustice of the Holocaust, dignitaries and the artist gathered outside the Appellate Division courthouse on May 22, 1990. One year later, on October 22, the sculptor’s installation would garner an Excellence in Design award from the city’s Public Design Commission. “Every day our city sees countless acts of human kindness, decency, and justice,” said Mayor David Dinkins at the May ceremony. “This memorial is one such act.” Former Mayor Ed Koch shared that “the survivors of the concentration camps are now elderly and many are feeble. Soon they will be gone and no one will be left to recall personally what happened. This monument will serve as a remembrance.”

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Photo Credit: PBDW Architects

Justice Murphy, who had also authorized the location of the memorial with clearance from Mayor Koch and the New York City Art Commission, expressed that “this Holocaust Memorial is now and forever a part of this Temple of Justice. It will speak forever of justice under law.” And, noted then New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, the memorial “transformed through the artistry of Harriet Feigenbaum from a mute shaft of Carrera marble into a powerful and striking symbol of monstrous injustice, will be for all who see it a reminder of events we dare not forget.”

Header Photo Credit: New York Courts

Thumnail Photo Credit: Untappedcities

Mar 2, 2021

Discover Flatiron: Theodate Pope, Trailblazing Architect

To mark the 40th anniversary of the origins of Women’s History Month, the Flatiron Partnership looks at Theodate Pope and her restoration of one of the neighborhood’s most notable properties of the 20th century. Pope was New York’s first licensed woman architect and received the commission to renovate the brownstone that was the birthplace of Theodore Roosevelt at 28 East 20th Street, between Broadway and Park Avenue South.

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(Photo Credit: 6sqft)

Born in Salem, Ohio on February 2, 1867 to Alfred Pope, an industrialist, and his wife Ada, a homemaker, Effie Pope was the couple’s only child. The Popes lived a life of privilege in nearby Cleveland. When Pope attended one of the area’s private girls’ schools, her classmates included the daughters of Presidents James Garfield and Rutherford Hayes. In 1886, Pope then left Cleveland to continue her education at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. Around this time, she also changed her given name to Theodate to honor her paternal grandmother.

When the family took a 10-month European tour beginning in 1888, the trip sparked a life-changing passion in Pope. She became “enchanted by the beauty of the English countryside, the Cotswold vernacular, and Tudor styles,” notes hillstead.org. In her diary, Pope wrote that she was “quite interested in Papa’s suggestion of my studying architecture. My interest in architecture has lasted perhaps two weeks (may it last as much longer). I mean to read up on the subject.” Reportedly, she soon decided to “be an architect, not a debutante.”

Pope studied with tutors from Princeton University, where women were not allowed to enroll in classes at that time. She then accepted an apprenticeship at McKim, Mead, & White in the 1890s. The architectural firm’s achievements included the second design of Madison Square Garden, then located at 26th Street and Madison Avenue. Previously, Pope and the company had served as design collaborators on her parents’ Farmington estate known as Hill-Stead. Her work there, however, would receive memorable recognition from someone who later played a considerable role in Pope’s career. On a visit to the residence in 1911, Theodore Roosevelt reportedly said that the property was “the ideal of what an American country home should be.”

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(Photo Credit: Hill-Stead Museum)

By 1916, Pope had become a licensed architect in a male-dominated profession where she had encountered obstacles. “Early in her career Theodate Pope submitted a photograph of herself for inclusion in a publication on prominent architects and their work,” according to connecticuthistory.org. “When the publication’s editors saw the photograph and realized that she was a woman, they opted not to include her in the book.” Pope’s perseverance for her craft, however, led her to an architectural assignment that would become history in the making.

In 1920, the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association commissioned Pope to reconstruct Theodore’s childhood home on East 20th Street. It was the 1848 brownstone where the former President had been born on October 27, 1858 and lived until the age of 14. But by 1916, the property had been demolished to make way for a two-story café. When Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, the Association decided to pay off the $25,043.63 mortgage that covered the brownstone’s location, as well as the adjoining building owned by Theodore’s uncle, Robert.

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(Photo Credit: National Park Services)

“This transaction completed the first step in a long process of restoring and renovating the late President's childhood home into a memorial,” notes nps.gov. “The Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association wanted to transform the buildings into more than just museums, they wanted to create an interactive experience to promote the principles that helped shape Theodore's strong character.” And, according to Real Estate Record and Builders Guide on August 21, 1920, “to make the plans of the restoration more certain, Mrs. [Anna Roosevelt] Cowles, the oldest sister of the Colonel [Theodore Roosevelt], was consulted and looked over the plans very carefully until they coincided with the memory of the old house.”

The property’s restoration blueprint contained specifications right down to the smallest details. “It was to be complete with family portraits, original furniture, and other Roosevelt heirlooms,” writes nps.gov. “Any original pieces that could not be salvaged were to be reproduced exactly. The 26 East 20th Street home would be renovated into a museum and a library, holding influential works, in addition Theodore's own writings. The fourth and fifth floors of both buildings would hold auditoriums where New York school children could attend assemblies on the history of the country and the state, as well as the life and work of Theodore Roosevelt.”

On January 6, 1921, the second anniversary of Theodore’s death, construction on the property got underway. It included the addition of a porch with a 7-foot tall railing “as it was when Roosevelt spent his boyhood days there trying to gain his health,” wrote Real Estate Record and Builders Guide. The publication also reported that the auditorium would seat 250, and be “complete with stage, dressing rooms, moving picture booths, storage room and complete serving pantry, which will be used when banquets are held.” Pope’s work received much praise. According to The New York Times on December 18, 2005, “Without salvaging any of the woodwork or floors, she erected on the site of 28 East 20th as near a replica as she could build.”

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(Photo Credit: 6sqft)

Then, in 1923 on what would have been the former President’s 65th birthday, the Roosevelt home reopened as a memorial and museum after a reported $1.2 million construction cost. Nearly four decades later, Pope’s project was designated a national historic site when President John F. Kennedy, who described the property as “priceless,” signed a bill on July 26, 1962. The brownstone would now be maintained by the National Park Service and officially known as the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. Subsequently, on March 15, 1966, the building was proclaimed a landmark by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The Commission cited particular aspects of the Gothic Revival-style property. “An unusual note of elegance is shown in the drawing room windows at first floor level, which are full length and open upon a handsome cast-iron balcony,” according to the organization’s report.  “Wing-walls were added at each end where the adjoining buildings project forward, thus helping to retain the brownstone character of the two houses which were preserved.” The Commission concluded that “on the basis of a careful consideration of the history, the architecture and other features of this building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission finds that the Theodore Roosevelt House has a special character, special historical and anesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.”

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(Photo Credit: Heritage Museum and Gardens)

Restoration of the Roosevelt brownstone was not the only major milestone in Pope’s life. She had also designed homes and schools primarily in Connecticut, such as Avon Old Fams, a boys’ prep school. In 1916, Pope married John Wallace Riddle, a diplomat who served as ambassador to Russia during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. And, for her entire life, Pope was the proud owner of a 1912 Packard Victoria, which was her first car and a gift from her parents.

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(Photo Credit: 6sqft)

Pope died at her home at Hill-Stead in Farmington on August 30, 1946. She was 79 years old. “Theodate Pope’s biography and lack of formal training do not fit easily into the traditional pattern of the professional architect of the early twentieth century,” wrote architectural historian James O’Gorman about Pope’s legacy in Hill-Stead: The Country Place of Theodate Pope Riddle. “That makes her achievement all the more noteworthy and nonetheless real. Many an architect has had to wait for years of experience to accomplish work of the personality, quality, and importance that she saw rise from her ideas on the knoll at Farmington.”

Header Photo Credit: National Park Services, Sketch Rendering of 28 East 20th Street,
Thumbnail Photo Credit: Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame

Feb 19, 2021

Discover Flatiron: James Weldon Johnson, Writer and Civil Rights Activist

In honor of Black History Month, the Flatiron Partnership takes a look at the trailblazing ties of civil rights activist and writer James Weldon Johnson in the neighborhood. Johnson’s legacy includes his vision for the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade on Fifth Avenue in 1917, and composing a campaign song for presidential candidate and Flatiron native Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.

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Photo Credit: Theodore Roosevelt Center

When James Weldon Johnson and his younger brother Rosamond left their hometown of Jacksonville, Florida for New York City in 1901, they set out for careers as Broadway music songwriters. The siblings had been “raised without a sense of limitations amid a society focused on segregating African Americans,” notes the website, Biography. Their father James was a freeborn Virginian hotel head waiter, and their Bahamian mother Helen was a teacher and musician.

Johnson, who was born in 1871, graduated from Atlanta University in 1894. The following year, he launched The Daily American newspaper, and in 1897, became the first African American to pass Florida’s bar exam since the Reconstruction era, notes Britanncia. Rosamond, who was two years younger and a music prodigy, had studied at the New England Conservatory. The pair’s interests in writing and music lead to their collaboration “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a poem written by Johnson and set to music by Rosamond.

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Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The brothers then teamed with Robert Cole to write theater tunes. In a five-year span, “they composed some 200 songs for Broadway and other musical productions, including such hit numbers as “Under the Bamboo Tree,” “The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground,” and “Didn’t He Ramble,” notes The Poetry Foundation. “The trio, who soon became known as “Those Ebony Offenbachs,” avoided writing for racially exploitative minstrel shows but often found themselves obliged to present simplified and stereotyped images of rural Black life to suit white audiences. But the Johnsons and Cole also produced works like the six-song suite titled The Evolution of Ragtime that helped document and expose important Black musical idioms.” 

During this period, the 1904 presidential campaign was also underway. Johnson had been recruited to become chairman of the house committee for New York City’s newly formed Colored Republican Club on West 53rd Street. “The campaign to elect Theodore Roosevelt to succeed himself in the Presidency was just beginning to warm up,” wrote Johnson in his 1933 autobiography Along This Way. Roosevelt, a progressive Republican, was also a New York City native who had grown up in a brownstone located on East 20th Street. When asked by one of the club officials to “give us something good to sing” for Roosevelt’s campaign, the team of Cole and Johnson delivered “You’re All Right Teddy” within days, reported The Sun on July 31, 1904.

“To appreciate that song you have to hear it with music,” according to The Sun about the melody’s presentation before a club audience.“There is a jubilee shout about the chorus which carries you off your feet. The quartet sang the words and the club chorus of fifty voices came into the chorus, and by the third repetition everyone was singing it. They encored and encored until the quartet ran out of words and [James] Johnson had to improvise on the spot. Then the audience tore the shingles down with applause.” Next came the candidate’s seal of approval. “Rosamond carefully made a manuscript copy, which was sent to Mr. Roosevelt,” remembered James. “He wrote complimenting us on having written ‘a bully good song.’”

Roosevelt was elected and upon his return to the White House, James was soon offered positions in the administration. Reportedly fluent in French and Spanish, Johnson was selected to serve as consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela in 1906, followed by Corinto, Nicaragua in 1909. He resigned from the latter post in 1913 when Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was elected President, and reportedly on the belief opportunities for advancement were limited due to racism.

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Photo Credit: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

In 1916, Johnson was named afield secretaryfor the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “Johnson worked at opening new branches and expanding membership,” notes naacp.org. “In 1920, the NAACP appointed him executive secretary. In this position, he was able to bring attention to racism, lynching, and segregation.” Johnson’s efforts included launching the idea for the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade on July 28, 1917 because of racially motivated acts of violence against Black people in East St. Louis, Illinois on July 2nd.

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Photo Credit: Miami Herald

The Fifth Avenue march began at 59th Street and concluded at 23rd Street. “On July 28, nine or ten thousand Negroes marched silently down Fifth Avenue to the sound only of muffled drums,” recalled Johnson. “The procession was headed by children, some of them not older than six, dressed in white. These were followed by the women dressed in white, and bringing up the rear came the men in dark clothes. The streets of New York have witnessed many strange sights, but I judge, never one stranger than this; certainly, never one more impressive. The parade moved in silence and was watched in silence. Among the watchers were those with tears in their eyes.”

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Photo Credit: Penguin Random House

After 10 years at the NAACP, Johnson resigned to pursue other job opportunities. They included a creative writing professorship at Fisk University, the historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1930, and as a visiting professor on the same subject at New York University beginning in 1934. Over the years, Johnson had either written or edited numerous works of literature such as his 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and the 1930 book Black Manhattan, which detailed African American life during the Harlem Renaissance.

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Photo Credit: Johnson Weldon Johnson Papers

Johnson was also a Harlem resident and had married Grace Nail, the daughter of a real estate developer, in 1910. Said Johnson of the time the couple first met, “She carried herself like a princess.” Sadly, on June 26, 1938 when the Johnsons were on vacation at their Wiscasset, Maine summer home, their car was hit by a train at a grade crossing. Johnson, who was then 67, had been killed and his wife suffered severe injuries.

Two days later following the loss of James Weldon Johnson, The New York Times noted that “few lives are so rich in various experience and accomplishment as his, so tragically ended.” In a pledge about his life as a Black man, the writer and civil rights activist once wrote: “I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell.”

Header Photo: James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts
Thumbnail Photo: Poetry Foundations