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.

Feb 10, 2020

Discover Flatiron: The Launch of Silicon Alley

This February the Flatiron Partnership flashes back to the 1990s to honor Silicon Alley, a region that innovative tech startups helped define and mark an era of groundbreaking economic growth in the Flatiron District.

Origin 

Silicon Alley’s prime location was near the Flatiron Building at the intersection of 23rd Street, Fifth Avenue, and Broadway. This so-called “alley,” however, would later expand down Broadway as far south as the Financial District and north to Columbia University in Morningside Heights. According to The New York Times on December 13, 1998, “Silicon Alley is the shorthand term used to describe the new-media and related companies echoing the Silicon Valley label for the concentration of computer-related companies near San Francisco.”

The origin of the name Silicon Alley remains up for debate. Some published reports have indicated that the moniker came about through a job advertisement. “Jason Denmark, a recruiter, is often credited with coming up with the name when he was attempting to bring developers from California to New York,” according to the website theculturetrip.com. “Mr. Denmark posted a job advert in February 1995 with the title “NYC–silicon ALLEY.”

Other sources cite Mark Stahlman, a tech strategist, former investment banker, and a founder of the industry group New York New Media Association, as the person who coined the catchphrase in 1995. “We were media," Stahlman told The Wall Street Journal in an April 29, 2014 interview. "We were marketing. We were changing the world. Silicon Valley was chips, computers, and hardware."

Flatiron: The Early Years of Silicon Alley 

The early years in Flatiron’s Silicon Alley were marked by rapid expansion as “new media companies that were primarily internet content businesses aligned closely with the advertising and entertainment sectors,” according to the book Entrepreneurship in Emerging Regions Around the World.

Says Scott Kerr, President of Silvertone Consulting, a brand strategy company, “The dot-com boom sparked big changes in the city's economy.” As the former head of global marketing at Real Media, a digital ad network and ad serving software company at 260 Fifth Avenue, Kerr notes “job gains among internet companies helped reshape whole neighborhoods, as Silicon Alley companies snapped up cheap office space that other businesses traditionally ignored.”

And, recalls Kerr, a number of promotional techniques employed by these businesses often seemed “insane.” He says that “Real Media used a variety of guerilla marketing tactics to rise above the chaos endemic in the online ad world during the internet’s nascent evolution–from blanketing our ad campaign on all the phone booths in Silicon Alley, to mobile billboards driving 24/7 around the neighborhood, to handing out Real Media-branded tchotchkes.” Kerr notes that  Real Media grew from a team of five employees to 420 in 25 offices in 17 countries with annual sales reaching nearly $60 million.

Other notable startups included Prodigy, which provided internet access through a dial-up connection, as well as digital marketing company Razorfish, and DoubleClick, an online advertising firm. “DoubleClick was the most successful Silicon Alley company to come out of the first tech boom and had a giant billboard on 22nd Street and Broadway that read: DoubleClick Welcomes You to Silicon Alley,” remembers Kerr. And when it came to securing funds for this industry, Flatiron Partners often led the way as the “primary source of venture capital for this new breed of tech companies,” reports the website builtinnyc.com.

Tech Industry Growth, Burst, & Comeback 

Another key marketing tool that contributed to business growth was online publications. In  1995, @NY, which reportedly became the first-ever digital media outlet to cover the area’s tech industry, was launched by journalists Jason Chervokas and Tom Watson. “With 1,300 readers after just fives issues,” wrote New York magazine on November 13, 1995, “@NY, a decidedly unsung internet newsletter about all matters multimedia, has already become a virtual town hall for the city’s disjointed new-media community.”

Additional notable publications included Silicon Alley Reporter, a magazine launched in 1996 by Jason McCabe Calacanis as 16 photocopied pages stapled together and left on tables at downtown coffee houses and area startups,” wrote The Wall Street Journal on February 29, 2000. “When some issues were tossed out by annoyed store owners, the Brooklyn native started slipping them between copies of the Village Voice–that way, they would be harder to throw away.”

The individuals who were employed in Silicon Alley were often graduates of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, which was headed by Red Burns, deemed the “godmother of Silicon Alley,” reported The New York Times on August 26, 2013. Burns was responsible for helping to turn out 3,000 graduates, with many becoming “part of the brain trust of Silicon Alley,” noted The Times. Many of the graduates would later find employment at companies such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft as well as small startups.

Many employees also relied on Silicon Alley’s social scene that often served as a networking opportunity where “deals were made,” according to Entrepreneurship in Emerging Regions Around the World. “At the height of the internet boom, there were as many as a dozen parties every single night of the week. These parties were characterized by lavishness and outrageousness. Large quantities of alcohol, drugs, go-go dancers, strippers, belly dancers and DJs showing porn flicks were not uncommon.”

By the century’s end, Silicon Alley had created a labor force of 250,000 jobs for the nearly 8,500 companies that had generated annual revenues of $17 billion, noted a 2000 survey conducted by the New York New Media Association. During this period, wrote the publication City Journal, “the Citizens Budget Commission found that New York had more registered domain names—electronic addresses on the internet—than any other city in the country, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, indicating the large volume of Gotham's online activity.”

By 2001, however, “a generation of young entrepreneurs who had ridden the “World Wide Web” to overnight fortunes and rock star status saw their paper millions vanish overnight as the Nasdaq index collapsed by 78 percent,” reported The New York Times on November 25, 2001. “Dozens of companies went out of business during the burst of the technology bubble, and the economic slowdown following the 9/11 attacks took more,” noted The New York Times on March 12, 2006. “Employment in information technology in New York City plummeted to around 35,000 at the end of 2005 from around 50,000 in 2000, according to the New York State Labor Department.”

Silicon Alley Reporter also decided to cease publication of its magazine. ''You can't have a magazine about unemployed people,” Silicon Alley Reporter’s Publisher Jason McCabe Calacanis told The New York Times on October 8, 2001.

Flatiron Today 

But within a few years, Silicon Valley tech giants such as Google and Facebook would arrive in New York City, thus creating a comeback for the industry in a big way. From 2007 to 2017, the Flatiron District alone has had significant job growth in the technology, advertising, media, and information-related sectors, noted a report issued by the Flatiron Partnership in Q3 2019. Of the 26,145 new jobs created in the neighborhood during this period, nearly half have been within the professional, scientific, and technical services sectors.

Some notable tech companies in the district include SeatGeek, DropBox, Sony, theSkimm, Xandr, Yext, Dailymotion, and Taboola.  

  Photo: Billboard at Broadway & Fifth Avenue by Erik Freeland

Jan 21, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Filming on Location in Flatiron

As the 92nd Oscars marks the end of this year’s awards season on February 9th, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership looks back at recent notable productions filmed in the neighborhood.

Directed by Academy Award nominee Noah Baumbach, the 2019 Netflix movie Marriage Story delves into the divorce of an artistic couple portrayed by Oscar-nominated actors Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Film location permits for the drama included East 21st Street, between Broadway and Park Avenue South; Park Avenue South, between East 20th Street and East 22nd Streets; and Broadway, between East 20th and East 22nd Streets.

The multiple award-winning Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel stars Golden Globe and Emmy Award winner Rachel Brosnahan in the title role as a housewife-turned-stand-up-comedian. Film location permits for the show’s third season included Madison Avenue, between East 24th and East 25th Streets; East 24th Street, between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue South; and East 27th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues. The series is available to stream on Amazon’s Prime Video service, whose founder Jeff Bezos is the reported owner of three Flatiron District units at 212 Fifth Avenue, between 25th and 26th Streets.

High Flying Bird, a 2019 Netflix movie drama about the business challenges faced by a sports agent played by André Holland was filmed on an iPhone by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh. Permit locations for filming in the neighborhood included West 25th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. The filmmaker also has had real estate ties to the Flatiron District, which have reportedly included a painting studio and office space.

Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winner Damian Lewis stars as a self-made hedge fund manager in Billions, the Showtime drama series about the high-stakes world of finance and politics. Film location permits for the show’s fourth season included Park Avenue South, between East 20th and East 22nd Streets; and East 21st Street, between Park Avenue South and Broadway.


(Credit: All Things Law and Order)

Now in its 21st season, NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is TV’s longest-running live-action prime-time program. Emmy Award winner Mariska Hargitay stars as SVU head Lt. Olivia Benson. Film permit locations for the show’s 20th season included Park Avenue South, between East 24th and East 28th Streets; East 26th Street, between Lexington Avenue and Park Avenue South; and East 25th Street, between Park Avenue South and Madison Avenue.

Adapted from The New York Times bestselling young adult novel by Nicola Yoon and directed by Ry Russo-Young, 2019’s The Sun is Also a Star starred Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton as two teens who meet one fateful day in New York City. Film permit locations for the movie drama included Broadway, between West 25th and West 26th Streets; Fifth Avenue, between West 24th and West 26th Streets; and West 25th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue.

God Friended Me, a CBS drama series now in its second season, features an atheist depicted by Brandon Micheal Hall who gets an online “friend request” from “God.” For its debut season, film permits included West 24trh Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue; West 25th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue; East 27th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues; and the Flatiron Public Plazas at the intersection of 23rd Street, Broadway, and Fifth Avenue.


(Credit: Nike's Ready to Run campaign via Youtube)

The Flatiron Public Plazas also served as a filming location for Nike’s Ready to Run NYC ad campaign in 2019. Featured in a video is runner Eliud Kipchoge, who made history last year by completing a marathon in under two hours. “If you’re in New York,” declares the Kenyan-born Kipchoge in the segment, “you’re a runner. Even if you don’t know it yet.”

Comic Billy Eichner frequently roams the sidewalks of the Flatiron District and asks pedestrians outrageous pop-culture trivia questions with some notable celebs. Recent episodes included features with Mariah Carey, Kate McKinnon, and The Jonas Brothers often starting at the corner of 24th Street and Broadway, and the making rounds on 23rd Street often between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. 


Photo Credit: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel via Amazon Prime 

Dec 10, 2019

Discover Flatiron: Christmas Society at Madison Square Garden

When Madison Square Garden’s second redesign of the 26th Street and Madison Avenue site opened for business in 1890, the new indoor arena set out to keep its status as a first-class event space. One way the venue attained this goal was serving as the location for a charitable holiday party that would distribute thousands of gifts and goody bags to New York City’s neediest children. This month, the Flatiron Partnership recalls the philanthropic efforts of the innovative Christmas Society and their Garden gathering held on Christmas Day 1891.

“To make the day memorable for the unfortunate little ones, to bring smiles to prematurely old faces, and to fill the old-young hearts with wonder and delight, are the self-imposed tasks of the newly-organized Christmas Society,” wrote The New York Times on December 3, 1891about the group’s pledge to aid others. The Society, reported The Sun on December 22, 1891, would also “afford an opportunity for the children of the rich to exercise the divine virtue of benevolence.”

During this era of excess, known as the Gilded Age, “industrialists lived high on the hog, but most of the working class lived below poverty level,” noted the website History.com. “While the wealthy lived in opulent homes, dined on succulent food, and showered their children with gifts, the poor were crammed into filthy tenement apartments, struggled to put a loaf of bread on the table, and accompanied their children to a sweatshop where they faced a 12-hour workday.”

For Syracuse native Oliver Sumner Teall, a Yale graduate and Albany Law alum who was now in New York City’s elite political and social circles, his concern for the lives of impoverished children during the year-end holiday season led to the creation of the Christmas Society. Teall served as President. Lispenard Stewart, once a New York State Senator, held the title of Treasurer. And, Herbert Livingston Satterlee, who later became Assistant Secretary of the Navy under U.S. President and Flatiron native Theodore Roosevelt, was named Society Secretary.

“The children of the rich are given toys and presents at all times of the year, and receive many more at Christmas,” proclaimed Teall about the vast evidence of economic inequality among the classes in New York City. “It is the object of the Society to afford them an opportunity to give from their abundance to the children of the poor; for though churches and charitable institutions provide for many, there are thousands entirely neglected at Christmas.”


(Image: Byron Company. Charities, Salvation Army Christmas Dinner Kettle.
Museum of the City of New York.)

Teall’s team soon made an appeal for holiday gifts for the underprivileged children. Prosperous patrons who reportedly made donations included members of the Carnegie family, whose wealth had been derived from steel manufacturing and the Vanderbilts of shipping and railroad fame. Madison Square Garden, located in the affluent Madison Square area and the residential community for many of the city’s wealthy, was selected by the Christmas Society as the site for their holiday party. Event ticket prices ranged from $1 for gallery seats to $20 box seats.

The efforts by Teall proved to be a philanthropic success when he revealed that “the Christmas Society has received in gifts, and donations of money with which to buy gifts, enough presents for 18,273 children and has found the children who need the presents.” By the time the Garden’s doors officially opened to the public on Christmas Day 1891 at 1:30 p.m., the line for children, along with their parents or guardians, had extended around the block.

For possible crowd control, 200 police officers were dispatched to the Garden, but little was needed for the nearly 10,000 adults and children from diverse ethnic backgrounds who came to the arena. “So many of those who tried to enter, however, had no tickets, that it was decided to admit all until the Garden was filled,” reported The New York Times on December 26, 1891.

Once inside, attendees marveled at the attractions. “Stretching from floor to roof were a hundred ropes, intermingled with streamers of red, white, and blue, which were burdened with the toys that had been sent into the Christmas Society,” wrote The Times. “Everything in the line of a plaything was on those ropes, from a $75 hobby horse to a penny doll. Down through the center of the Garden ran a platform, which was heaped high with presents.” Some 12,000 toys, more than 10,000 bags of candy, and as many bags of fruit were given to those in need.

Teall’s Christmas Society, however, would last for only two seasons. The group faced mounting resentment by “established charitable agencies, who saw it as drawing attention (and contributions) away from their own work,” according to Stephen Nissenbaum in his book The Battle for Christmas. The Society had also accumulated a financial deficit that surged from $748.39 in 1891 to $3,144.02 one year later, with Teall personally assuming the debt. And, just days before Christmas 1898, published reports disclosed that Teall was being sued for divorce.

By 1906, Teall had an estate valued at a mere $125 when he died of heart disease on June 7th at the age of 54. His legacy of generosity, however, apparently left an ever-lasting impact on the lives of many that Christmas Day 128 years ago. “Perhaps some or many youngsters received more than their share,” reported The New York Times on December 26, 1891 about the Society’s Garden party, “but nobody who assisted in the distribution was unhappy for having done so. For all of these saw smiles light up hundreds of pinched little faces as the result of their labors.”

Header Image: Jacob A. (Jacob Augustus) Riis.
Christmas gifts at 48 Henry Street. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.1.386 

 

 

Nov 19, 2019

Discover Flatiron: United Charities Building History

As we enter the 2019 holiday season of giving, the Flatiron Partnership offers a snapshot of the 1893 debut of the United Charities Building, a pioneer headquarters for a number of nonprofit organizations that provided social services to those in need. The Renaissance Revival-style building shared the address of 287 Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) and 105 East 22nd Street.  

The location for UCB had been the former site of St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church, once described as “one of the most massive and strongly-constructed buildings in the city,” wrote The New York Times on September 24, 1891. Noted designer of homes in the Hamptons, Robert H. Robertson, and the team of Rowe & Baker, who had offices at 10 West 23rd Street near Madison Square Park, were the architects behind the blueprint for UCB. The land where UCB would be built had been purchased by New York philanthropist and banker John S. Kennedy for a reported $300K. The estimated total construction costs for the 121,059 square foot building was valued between $500K and $700K. 

Kennedy nominated four organizations to inhabit UCB: the Children’s Aid Society, the Charity Organization Society, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, and the New York City Mission and Tract Society. The nominated organizations were desingated to benefit from USB as, “The building is expected to be self-supporting, and any surplus revenue, after providing for maintenance and perhaps extension, will be devoted to the general purposes of the four societies named,” according to The New York Times on March 10, 1891. The day before UCB officially opened its doors for occupancy on March 6, 1893, a dedication service for the property was held at the location. Scheduled attendees at the event included political dignities such as former New York City Mayor Abram S. Hewitt and future Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr., as well as members of the City’s wealthy Gilded Age society such as financiers J. P. Morgan and Russell Sage.


(Drawing by Hughson Hawley From: King's Handbook of New York City.
Planned, edited and published by Moses King, Boston, Mass. Copyright, 1892)

Other soon-to-be UCB occupants included The Hospital Book and Newspaper Society, the Society for the Prevention of Crime, and the New York Cooking School, which trained individuals “to cook cheap and nutritious food,” and “supply luncheon to all the employees in the building,” noted The New York Times on March 5, 1893. 

During this era, a number of charitable organizations were headed by women. According to the book Landmarks of American Women's History, the National Consumers’ League was “one of the most influential women’s reform organizations” and the group decided to locate their offices at UCB in 1899.

In addition to the offices that were being used by the charities, UCB featured five elevators, an assembly hall, artists’ studios, and ground-level space for two stores as well as a Penny Provident Fund branch, which promoted itself as a financial institution that would “better safeguard” the accounts of its low-income clients. There were also “free baths to be managed by the Children’s Aid Society,” according to The Times

One of the most appealing architectural aspects of UCB was its entranceway. In a 1986 report issued by the National Register of Historic Landmarks about UCB’s pending status as a landmark, the entry doors were described as being “flanked by granite Ionic columns. The arch is enhanced by guilloché, egg and dart, and bead and reel patterns. On either side of the arch are decorative cartouches. Surmounting the entrance is the legend United Charities Building in bronze letters, and a tripartite semi-circular window with floral pilasters.” Five years later, on July 17, 1991, and nearly a century after its opening, UCB was designated a National Historic Landmark.

(
(Picture by  Beyond My Ke vis Wikipedia)

But in 2014, and for the very first time in the building’s real estate history, UCB went on the market to be sold. The property was purchased by a developer for a reported $128 million, with the intent to build condominiums. “This deal is part of a larger trend, where nonprofits city-wide are taking advantage of a hot condo-development market and selling off their headquarters, downsizing to smaller ones or moving to less pricey areas,” reported the website Curbed New York on September 14, 2014. 

Following a gut-renovation of the property, however, Spaces, a global office and room provider, became UCB’s newest occupant leasing more than 100K square feet in the mixed-used property, noted published reports. And acclaimed British steakhouse Hawskmoor indicated its first U.S. restaurant would open at the building’s ground-level location. 

The legacy of charity launched by financier John S. Kennedy, however, still maintains an active role within the Flatiron District today. The UCB founder’s idea of a place “to which all applicants for aid might apply with assurance that their needs would be promptly carefully considered” continues more than a century later, with almost 30 nonprofit organizations that offer various services throughout the community.

Header Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery 

Sep 27, 2019

Discover Flatiron: The Art Students League of New York

In NYC, October is also known as Archtober, or Architecture and Design Month, the annual 31-day celebration of the stellar architectural sights found within the five boroughs, including Manhattan’s Flatiron District! In addition, October 3, 1887, marks of the debut of the Art Students League of New York in Flatiron at 143-147 East 23rd Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. In celebration of the League’s arrival in the neighborhood more than 130 years ago, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look back at the early days of one of the nation's premier schools for aspiring artists and designers and its five-year occupancy in the area. 

When the Art Students League classes were launched on September 15, 1875, the organization was comprised mostly of women, who had been students at the National Academy of Design in New York City. As new League members, their mission would be, according to the Art Students League of New York’s website, “emphasizing the importance of artistic creativity, maintaining the greatest respect for artists who devote their lives to art, and educating students in the process of making art in an environment where anyone who wishes to pursue an art education can realize his or her full potential.” The League would also reportedly become the first major institute to allow women to do live drawings.

The League’s first school occupied the top floor of a building located at 108 Fifth Avenue near the corner of 16th Street. In 1878, the League voted to become an incorporated organization and also sought a charter from the State of New York. “This revolutionary approach to running an art education institution, which remains in place today,” notes the League’s website, “assured students a central part in the future of the League and granted them power in making decisions that would affect their own development as artists.”


(via Art Students League of New York) 

In 1882, the League, now growing in popularity with an enrollment of nearly 500 students, relocated to lease much larger headquarters on the top three floors of 38 West 14th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The League would shortly thereafter seek an even more sizable accommodation for their expanding operations within the Flatiron District. On October 3, 1887, the League commenced classes at 143-147 East 23rd Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. This site had been the former wareroom of Sohmer & Co., the noted piano manufacturer that reportedly claimed Oscar-winning composer and lyricist Irving Berlin of “White Christmas” fame as one of its customers. 

The East 23rd Street relocation had been spearheaded by League president Charles R. Lamb, who would soon become the architect behind the 1899 design of the military triumphal Dewey Arch at 24th Street and Fifth Avenue. “The classes are large and full of enthusiasm,” wrote Appletons’ Dictionary of New York and Vicinity about the League in 1889.  Class costs varied in each category, which included $70 for the season or $12 a month for a half-day portrait class, or $120 for the entire season or $22 a month for a full-day session.


(via Art Students League of New York)

Within a year, the League proved to be a success in the neighborhood. “The 19 classes had been in daily session since October 3, embracing four life, three painting, five antique, two modeling, two costumes, sketch, composition, and artistic anatomy classes,” reported The New York Times on April 18, 1888. “During the season 652 students from all parts of the country and from Canada have been at work. Receipts for the year were $17,000 and expenditures $22,000, including $6,500 spent on improvements to the building.”

Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose 13-foot, nude weathervane copper statue named Diana appeared atop Madison Square Garden on East 26th Street from 1893 to 1925, was one the League’s leading instructors at the East 23rd Street location. And even some individuals from the world of literature considered the League an ideal workspace. Novelist Stephen Crane reportedly wrote The Red Badge of Courage at the East 23rd Street property. In the 20th century, the League’s Midtown Manhattan site would become the go-to destination for a number of prominent artists who were either students or taught at the institute, including Norman Rockwell, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and Helen Frankenthaler. 

In 1892, with a reported 900 students, the League sought an even larger property with considerably more desirous conditions. “Rodents scampered around in search of crumbs from the dried bread that students used as erasers,” reported The New York Times on September 9, 2005, about the East 23rd Street facility. “Pungent aromas from neighborhood stables and sewer gas filled the rooms. Enough was enough, even for artists, hardy souls that they are. In 1889 the League–or rather its governing board, a third of which must consist of enrolled students–decided to secure a permanent home. And it did so the way it did everything else, cooperatively.”

The League’s search for a new home ended with its arrival at 215 West 57th Street, between Seventh Avenue and Broadway. “Three stories of the building are occupied by the League,” wrote The New York Times on October 16, 1892, “and fitted with the finest and most completely appointed, best ventilated and lighted classrooms and studios devoted exclusively to art instruction in the world.” This relocation proved to be an advantageous one for the League, then and now. 

In 1968, the organization’s 57th Street location gained designation status as a New York City landmark and later appeared on the list of National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The League’s former location on East 23rd Street, eventually become an SRO hotel known as Kenmore Hall. It was a reported “hotbed” for crime before its 1999 renovation and conversion into affordable housing for individuals coming out of the city’s shelter system, persons living with HIV/AIDS, and homeless veterans. Also, in 1999 the Kenmore received a Best Practice Award from HUD and was named a Finalist for a Fannie Mae Foundation Maxwell Award for Excellence. 

As the Art Students League of New York commemorates the organization’s 132 years in the City, including the Flatiron District, it remains “a place where you are an artist if you say you are,” noted The New York Times on September 9, 2005. “Nobody–except maybe a fellow painter with outsize ambitions and an unrequited crush–is likely to say: “You're going nowhere. You're not cool.” And if somebody does, fine. Don't leave. Show up on time for class, get down to business and feel a New York art monument, one that we can all be a part of, breathe.”

Sep 16, 2019

Discover Flatiron: Madison Square Post Office

With its eight 1930s-era interior murals depicting various New York neighborhoods and an exterior panel of five bronze sculpture reliefs (a work of art that projects from the wall it belongs to), the Madison Square Post Office gained a coveted spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. To celebrate the property’s 30-year-old designation anniversary and its official opening on September 20, 1937, at 149-153 East 23rd Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look back at the Classical-style structure. 

Created by Lorimer Rich, the American architect best known for the design of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, New York’s Madison Square Post Office would reportedly become the most important post office in the city when it made its debut 82 years ago. The new Madison Square Post Office was actually a replacement branch that shared the same name as its predecessor, which had been located at 122 East 23rd Street. “In response to this growing concern over inadequate facilities, a new federal policy for constructing buildings ‘exclusively for post office purposes’ was established early in the twentieth century,” according to a National Register of Historic Places report issued by the United States Department of the Interior in 1988. 


(via Public Buildings) 

The designated site for the proposed post office had been acquired for a reported $379,693 and the building’s total construction cost would be $495,581, wrote C.W. Short and R. Stanley Brown via Public BuildingsWhen the three-story, 80,000 square feet, state-of-the-art post office opened for business, it was the first branch to resemble a banking institution with its décor. “An interesting feature of the lobby is the ‘bank screen’ treatment of the counters, the lobby, and workroom all being one room and not separated by a partition as is usual,” noted C.W. Short and R. Stanley Brown in their book Public Buildings. The facility was well-received by neighborhood retail owners and its publicity gained press coverage. In attendance at the opening day ceremony were Postmaster Albert Goldman along with “several members of the Twenty-Third Street Association and representatives of large wholesale houses in the district,” reported The New York Times on September 21, 1937.         

          

(via
Smithsoinan American Art Museum, Kindred McLeary's Murals,depicting Scenes of the Lower East Side (right) and Central Park (left).

According to The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, Lisa Keller, and Nancy Flood, “A few post offices in the city were designed in the austere Modern Classical style that became popular for public buildings during the 1930s, including the Madison Square Station. The Treasury [Department] also commissioned works of art for 10 of the new buildings,” which included “eight murals with urban street scenes by Kindred McLeary” that would feature images by the artist ranging from Central Park to Wall Street to the Lower East Side for display in the Madison Square Post Office. The five exterior bronze façade reliefs were designed by sculptors Edmond Amateis and Louis Slobodkin.

The Smithsonian National Postal Museum website says that “post offices built in the 1930s during [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt’s New Deal were decorated with enduring images of the ‘American scene.’ In the 1930s, as America continued to struggle with the effects of the depression, the federal government searched for solutions to provide work for all Americans, including artists. During this time, government-created agencies supported the arts in unprecedented ways. As Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's relief administrator said in response to criticism of federal support for the arts, “[artists] have got to eat just like other people.” 

Adds the Smithsonian website, “Often mistaken for WPA art [the public works sponsored arts project known as Works Progress Administration and later renamed Work Projects Administration], post office murals were actually executed by artists working for the Section of Fine Arts. Commonly known as ‘the Section,’ it was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. By providing decoration in public buildings, the art was made accessible to all people. Artists working for the Section were not chosen on the basis of need, but through anonymous competitions where the national jurors were often other artists.” 

Following its 1937 debut, the new Madison Square Post Office would soon become “the most important postal station in New York City,” according to C.W. Short and R. Stanley Brown in Public Buildings. And it was during this period that this post office location would begin to generate “annual postal receipts of approximately $5,000,000, and a daily handing of 1,000,000 letters and 2,500 sacks of outgoing parcel-post mail.” Today, the Madison Square Post Office remains a travel-pick destination, according to Reuters list of unique post offices around the world, which cites that the “murals by Kindred McLeary make this post office a must-see."