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 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

Jan 7, 2021

Discover Flatiron: Legacy of the Great Blizzard of 1888 in Madison Square

As the neighborhood weathers this year’s winter season, the Flatiron Partnership looks at the legacy of the Great Blizzard of 1888 in the area then known as Madison Square.

With temperatures in the mid-50s, it felt like an early spring day in New York City on March 10, 1888. But soon, an unexpected change in climate would alter the atmosphere. “Cold Arctic air from Canada collided with Gulf air from the south and temperatures plunged,” noted History. “Rain turned to snow and winds reached hurricane-strength levels. By midnight on March 11th, gusts were recorded at 85 miles per hour in New York City. Along with heavy snow, there was a complete whiteout in the city when the residents awoke the next morning.”  


(Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

The Great Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, dropped as much as 55 inches of snow across the northeastern region of the United States from March 11th to 14th. “There were numerous accounts of people stranded and freezing to death,” writes the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The storm became legendary in New York City: as the economy was struggling, most workers went to their jobs regardless of the weather conditions. More than 400 people died from this storm, 200 in New York City alone.” Property damage in the five boroughs was estimated at $25 million. 

For its nearly 2 million occupants, the city’s “many early risers on the 12th were dazed to find their doors and first-story windows covered by packed snow. Four-fifths of its 10,000 telephones were silent, and practically all of its electric lights and the great majority of its more numerous gas lamps were blacked out that night,” wrote Blake McKelvey in Snow in the Cities: A History of America’s Urban Response.  

“When the storm struck, though, the technological conveniences and amenities of urban life were suddenly exposed as vulnerabilities,” reported The Atlantic on January 26, 2015. “Late 19th-century cities were monuments to man's mastery of nature. Elevated railroads whisked passengers about; streetlights banished the darkness of night; telephone and telegraph wires crisscrossed the roads; horses hauled hundreds of millions of riders around the street railroads; and delivery carts ferried coal, dry goods, and all conceivable comestibles about the streets.” 


(Image Credit: Library of Congress)

In Madison Square, elevated railways were delayed due to the storm. “Trains on Sixth Avenue were blocked much earlier on account of the curves, and the greater demand for transportation on that division,” wrote The Sun newspaper on March 13, 1888. “At 10 minutes past 10, a train stopped at 23rd Street, and after a wait of several minutes, the guards announced that there was a solid block of trains extending southward as far as Chambers Street. Most of the ‘standees’ and a few of the others promptly left the train, and proceeded the rest of the way downtown on foot. At that station, the ticket agent had sensibly closed the gate to his office, so that patrons were not induced to buy tickets and endure a hopeless wait upon the chilly platform.”

But not all Madison Square area businesses shuttered their doors. Some local residents and stranded visitors chose to see the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth circus attraction at Madison Square Garden on 26th Street and Madison Avenue. According to venue proprietor P.T. Barnum in The New York Times on March 13, 1888, the “storm might be a great show, but he still had the greatest show on earth and he wants everybody to come to see for themselves.”  

There was a three-hour matinee and also an evening show on March 12th. Each show entertained about 100 spectators and featured animals such as a “wonderful performing goat,” reported The New York Times on March 12, 1988. “If only one customer had come, I would have given the complete show,” said Barnum, according to American Heritage. “My duty is to the public and nothing shall ever keep me from honoring that duty, except Judgement Day itself.” Three years later, Barnum reportedly died of a stroke at the age of 80 on April 7, 1891. The website barnum-museum.org notes that some of the final words from the showman included the question: “What were the receipts at the Garden?”

For another neighborhood notable, the blizzard proved to be a perilous plight. Roscoe Conkling, a former U.S. Senator and House of Representatives member, was a $100,000-a-year lawyer on Wall Street. On March 12th, Conkling recalled that he was “not thinking that the city would be dark at night” when he left his downtown office, reported The Sun on March 14, 1888. 

Conkling soon discovered that “there wasn’t a cab or carriage of any kind to be had. Once during the day, I had declined an offer to ride uptown in a carriage, because the man wanted $50, and I started up Broadway on my pins. It was dark, and it was useless to try to pick out a path, so I went magnificently along shouldering through drifts, and headed for the north.”

The athletically fit attorney, who engaged in the sport of boxing as a form of exercise, confessed that he “was pretty well exhausted when I got to Union Square. There was no light, and I plunged right through on as straight a line as I could determine upon. When I reached the New York Club at 25th Street I was covered all over with ice and packed snow, and they would scarcely believe me that I had walked from Wall Street. It took three hours to make the journey.” '


(Photo Credit: NYC Parks

Conkling’s exposure to the elements of the storm reportedly contributed to his death at the age of 58 on April 18, 1888. In his honor, donors financed an eight-foot-tall, 1,200-pound bronze statue of the statesman, which was dedicated in 1893. The figure now stands atop a granite pedestal in the southeast corner of Madison Square Park at 23rd Street and Madison Avenue. 

On nearby 22nd Street during the storm, Mayor Abram Hewitt governed New York City while hunkered down at his residence at 9 Lexington Avenue. Ironically, just weeks before the blizzard, Mayor Hewitt had introduced initial plans for a state-of-the-art underground transportation system. Shortly after the storm, he was “convinced now that the blizzard would have one good effect…as it shows the necessity for an underground rapid transit railroad and for getting the wires underground,” according to American Heritage.

The Mayor’s proposal, however, was originally viewed as a financial liability by operators of the elevated railways. “Owners of the elevateds opposed it, despite the overcrowding of their systems,” wrote Roger R. Roess and Gene Sansone in The Wheels That Drove New York: A History of the New York City Transit System. “The elevateds were making money on their crowded trains, and had no desire to dilute their investment by building additional lines.” 

But after a decade of debate, the mass transit plan became policy when the first completed section of the New York City subway system made its debut at the City Hall station in Manhattan on October 27, 1904. Mayor Hewitt, who died of jaundice a year earlier on January 18, 1903 at the age of 80, later received the posthumous name acknowledgment of ‘Father of the Subway.’ 

The transit idea launched by Mayor Hewitt and the impact of the Great Blizzard of 1888 may have also given rise to the formation of “the modern American mayor,” as well as a citizenry seeking “greater protection,” noted The Atlantic on January 26, 2015. “In 1888, the Great White Hurricane bore down on the metropolises of the eastern seaboard, destroying infrastructure and paralyzing commerce. The devastation it left behind convinced voters that America's burgeoning cities could function only if local governments assumed a larger, more proactive role.” 

Header Credit: The New York Times 
Thumbnail Credit: The Brooklyn Museum

 

 

 

 

Dec 21, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Holiday Feast in Flatiron That Fed Thousands

In this season of giving, the Flatiron Partnership shares notable highlights from the 1899 Christmas Day dinner for New York City’s neediest residents. The event was then known as the largest holiday feast ever held at the former Madison Square Garden on 26th Street and Madison Avenue.

During the final decade of the 19th century, New York grappled with financial challenges created by the nation’s economic downturn in 1893. And although the country’s wealth may have been bolstered by 1898’s Spanish-American War, where Flatiron native Theodore Roosevelt served as lieutenant colonel of the “Rough Riders” regiment, nevertheless, many New Yorkers faced misfortunes including food insecurity.  

A hearty holiday meal proved to be a welcomed gift of hope for thousands when the Salvation Army presented a feast for the City’s neediest on Christmas Day 1899. The Garden dinner hosted by the global charitable organization was arranged to feed nearly 25,000 men, women, and children.

Expenses for the event included public donations deposited in the Salvation Army’s red kettle pots on the corners of city streets. These pots swung “from a tripod bearing a placard setting forth the plans for the Christmas feast,” according to The New York Times on December 26, 1899, “and closing with the adjuration ‘Keep the pot boiling.’” The Garden gathering reportedly required a total of 10 days of preparation and cost an estimated $7,000. 


(Photo: Christmas Dinner Kettle in NYC via Salvation Army)

In addition to soliciting funds for the festivities, the planning committee requested cookware contributions. “Crockery and cutlery of all kinds,” as well as “persons having any cups, saucers, knives, forks or spoons to part with–no matter how old they are or what bad shape–to send them to the 26th Street side of Madison Square Garden, where they will find someone to receive them,” wrote the New York Journal on December 18, 1899. 

Holiday décor was in full display at the Garden. “The interior of the building was decorated with streamers of holly and wreaths of mistletoe,” noted the New-York Daily Tribune on December 26, 1899. “Over the 26th Street door was a huge silken banner, in which was the season’s greeting, ‘Merry Christmas.’ At the 27th Street entrance was a similar banner, bearing the words ‘Happy New Year.’ At the Madison Avenue door was one which bore the word ‘Welcome,’ and over the Fourth Avenue door (now Park Avenue South) hung the largest banner with the sentence ‘Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow.’”

Attendees at the Garden had been prescreened to receive tickets for either the morning food basket distribution or an invitation to the evening meal. Lines of people formed at the building a couple of hours before the morning basket giveaway at 11 a.m. Noted the New-York Daily Tribune, guests “presented their tickets, received their baskets and passed out through the 26th Street door into the street. Fully two-thirds of those who received baskets were women. Although most of the guests of the [Salvation] Army were of the poorest types, they included a large number of men who were warmly and respectably clothed and who obviously had temporarily fallen on hard times.” 


(Picture: Carrying Christmas Dinner To-Go Baskets via Library of Congress)

Entrants treated each other with care and kindness, including one notable example published by the New York Journal on December 26, 1899. “One in line was a little, old woman, stooped and blind,” wrote the paper. “She was thinly clad. She felt her way with a small wooden cane. There was no pushing or crowding where she was. An old man behind her discovered she was blind and offered his arm. Others made way so that this pair might not have to wait.” It was also reported that 40 police officers from the neighborhood’s West 30th Street station helped direct guests into the Garden.

Behind-the-scenes, a culinary team of 10 to 20 cooks were roasting, baking, stewing, and boiling food on large range stoves temporarily placed in the venue’s gallery. The holiday menu featured a cornucopia of provisions that included 2,000 pounds of turkey, 5,000 pounds of chicken, 250 geese, 250 ducks, 1,000 pounds of pork and mutton, 1,000 pounds of suckling pig, 125 barrels of potatoes, 100 barrels of mixed vegetables, turnips, carrots, onions, and beets, 10 barrels of cranberries, and 4,000 plum puddings.

“Although the dinner was not served until 6 o’clock, the doors were thrown open soon after 2 o’clock in order that the waiting crowd might not be compelled to spend the intervening time standing in the cold,” wrote the New-York Daily Tribune. “As early as noon they began to arrive, and when at length they were admitted to the Garden they filed quickly and without crushing to seats in the galleries, where they were told to sit until the call for dinner was sounded.”  


(Photo: Santa Claus and Musicians entertaining Children via Library of Congress)

There were 40 long tables, each with 50 chairs, and, noted the New York Journal “at the end of many of the tables there were Christmas trees” and “the scene was warm and bright.” More than 5,000 guests were seated, 2,200 at a time, and waited upon by 300 Salvation Army personnel dressed in their traditional red jackets and high-crowned caps. “Guests were men and women, old, young, middle-aged,” reported the New York Journal. “There was no distinction of color.”

Diners, according to The New York Times, “ate their fill without money and without price. It does not take a hungry person long to eat even a Christmas dinner.” Baskets of food, which contained enough edibles to feed at least five people, were also distributed to those who were unable to attend or stay at the Garden holiday dinner that evening.  

Some of the city’s wealthiest, were in attendance. “When the feast was at its height,” wrote The New York Times, “sat many thousands of well-fed and prosperous people, among them many women who had come in carriages and were gorgeously gowned.” The paper also noted the “men in high hats and women in costly wraps, position and fortune forgotten for one brief moment while all sang in unison ‘Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow.’” 

The publication Dissent also cited in their 2014 magazine article that “a few rich New Yorkers,” who had also paid a dollar fee for admission to the holiday dinner, “descended from the gallery to circulate among the guests, dispensing further charity.”

“In an era of expanding inequality,” Commander Booth-Tucker reportedly told guests, “events such as the Christmas dinner were bridging the gulf between the rich and the poor.” Booth-Tucker later revealed to the crowd a telegram that he had received as a holiday message reply from now New York State Governor Theodore Roosevelt. Wrote the future U.S. President to the Salvation Army Commander: “Hearty thanks. Warm Christmas greeting and good wishes to all.”

Oct 22, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Corinne Roosevelt Robinson & The 1920 Presidential Election

This year marks the centennial passage by Congress of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote and marked their first-time participation in a presidential election. In honor of these history-making achievements, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership highlights the life of political activist, published poet, and Flatiron native Corinne Roosevelt Robinson. She was the first woman to address a presidential convention, and was the younger sister of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, a distant cousin of fellow Commander-in-Chief Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an aunt of FDR’s First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Born on September 27, 1861, Corinne was the youngest of four children of businessman and philanthropist Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., and his wife Martha Bulloch. The family’s residence, a three-story brownstone with a backyard, was located at 28 East 20th Street, between Broadway and Park Avenue South. “The first recollections of a child are dim and hazy, and so the nursery at 28 East 20th Street, in New York City, does not stand out as clearly to me as I wish it did—but the personality of my brother overshadowed the room, as his personality all through life dominated his environment,” wrote Corinne in her memoir My Brother Theodore Roosevelt

Left to right: Theodore Roosevelt, age 14; Elliott Roosevelt, age 13; Maud Elliott, age 12; and Corinne Roosevelt, age 11. (Photo via My Brother Theodore Roosevelt by Corinne Roosevelt Robinson)

Educated by private tutors and at the exclusive Miss Comstock’s School, Corinne was an aspiring poet and writer. One of her playmates included Edith Kermit Carow, who would become the First Lady and second wife of Corinne’s brother Theodore. Corinne, too, married at the age of 20 to Scottish-born financier and real estate broker Douglas Robinson on April 29, 1882. The couple had four children, Theodore, Corinne, Monroe, and Douglas, and the Robinsons maintained homes in Orange, New Jersey and in the Adirondacks. 

In addition to life as a wife and mother, Corinne’s passion for the written word, as well as encouragement from Flatiron friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton, led to a writing career. Corinne’s first published poem was "The Call of Brotherhood" in 1911. Other published works included One Woman to Another and Other Poems (1914), Service and Sacrifice (1919), and My Brother Theodore Roosevelt (1921).

26th U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt. (Photo via My Brother Theodore Roosevelt by Corinne Roosevelt Robinson)

Corinne greatly admired her brother Theodore’s politics. During Theodore’s tenure as a statesman, she “supported TR’s political aspirations, frequently hosting dinner parties and roundtable discussions in her home,” writes The Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. “Corinne, who made regular visits to the Executive Mansion during TR’s presidency, later commented that she and her brother would frequently engage in all-night discussions.” Corinne was politcally active herself, and reportedly “in great demand as a speaker” for the Republican National Executive Committee.

Corinne was a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, which led to the June 4, 1920 passage and the August 18th ratification of the 19th Amendment. However, during the suffrage movement, many Black women continued to experience discrimination from white suffragists. In Catherine Rymph's book Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism From Suffrage Through the Rise of the New Right, she wrote that the Executive Committee, where Corinne was a member, was all white and that “a black woman, Lethia Fleming of Cleveland, was selected to head a separate black women’s advisory committee that was assembled for the 1920 presidential campaign.”

A group from the Cincinnati chapter of the League of Women Voters stands in front of a board showing voter registration by city ward. (Photo by Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images)

With the 1920 presidential campaign underway and just four days following the passage of the 19th Amendment, the Republican party commenced their nearly week-long presidential nomination convention in Chicago. Here, Corinne became the first woman called upon to second the nomination of a national party convention candidate. She nominated U.S. Army Major General Leonard Wood, who served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army during Theodore’s administration, to head the top of the Republican team’s ticket. The delegates, however, decided to go with Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding, who later won the presidential election along with vice presidential choice Calvin Coolidge on November 2, 1920, defeating Democratic opponent James M. Cox and his running mate and Corinne’s cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

“Suffragettes, such as Corinne Roosevelt Robinson...adamantly promoted support for the Republican candidates,” notes the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. And many “Republicans saw a chance for millions of new voters to turn out at the polls supporting the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.” That election year, “more than 8 million women across the U.S. voted in elections for the first time”.

Corinne Roosevelt (top left) at the 1920 Republican Convention. (Photo by Underwood & Underwood: Library of Congress)

After the 1920 election, Corinne retained an active role in Republican politics, which included an advisory committee post during presidential candidate Calvin Coolidge’s campaign. She also later worked with nonprofit organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. According to the New York Times, Corinne had formed the New York City Committee for Fatherless Children of France and served as the group’s temporary chairman and also its secretary.

However, with failing health, which included 16 eye surgeries, Corinne withdrew from her work as a political and nonprofit advocate. She died of pleural pneumonia at her Upper East Side home at the age of 71 on February 17, 1933. In her poem Life, A Question, Corinne shared these words on the subject: "Life? and worth living? Yes, with each part of us–Hurt of us, help of us, hope of us, heart of us. Life is worth living.”

Header Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images
Thumbnail Photo Credit:  Underwood & Underwood: Library of Congress 

Oct 9, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Hershey’s Chocolate and Chewing Gum Factory

As Halloween lovers young and old prepare for All Hallows' Eve with safety protocols in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership offers this historic look at the launch of Hershey’s Chocolate and Chewing Gum Factory in the area. A century ago, the candy manufacturer was an integral business on Sixth Avenue, between 21st and 22nd Streets, and is now a site occupied by signature grocery chain Trader Joe’s.

With his declared dedication to the making of chocolate, Milton S. Hershey established the Hershey Chocolate Company in central Pennsylvania in 1894. “Using equipment purchased at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition,” writes The Hershey Story, “Milton Hershey began experimenting with boiled milk, sugar, and cacao beans in an effort to create affordable milk chocolate that could be mass-produced. In a few years, he perfected his recipe and by 1903 was breaking ground for a new factory in the town that bears his name,” Hershey, Pennsylvania.

A casual meeting with a cousin in 1915, however, led Hershey to consider a new product for his company. According to the Hershey Community Archives, Milton Hershey and Clayton Snavely were strolling on Atlantic City’s boardwalk when they noticed a billboard advertisement for Wrigley Gum. Milton told Clayton, “Beech Nut-Gum has been a phenomenal success. It has gone to their heads, and they think they’re going to put the name Beech-Nut on chocolate and put Hershey out of business. Well, there’s only one way to meet fire. It’s to fight it with fire. I’m thinking about doing something in the chewing gum line.” Soon the Hershey brand "Easy Chew" was born.

Hershey's Mint Flavor Chewing Gum via The Hershey Community Archives.

By 1919, the Pennsylvania company’s booming chewing gum and chocolate production expanded to a New York City property that then bore the address of 675-691 Sixth Avenue, between 21st and 22nd Street. At the time, Hershey's made “chocolate coating and some bar goods [and] chewing gum”.

Hershey’s move to Manhattan got plenty of press. “One of the largest chocolate making concerns, owners of an entire town, have selected for their local headquarters one of the abandoned Sixth Avenue department stores for which they will pay more than $62,000 a year in rental,” wrote The Sun in 1917 about the company’s partial relocation to the City. And according to the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, “The lease was made necessary by the growth of the business and the many advantages to the company of having a portion of its plant in the metropolitan district of New York.”

Sixth Avenue between 21st and 22nd Streets in 1978 by Edward V. Gillon via Museum of the City of New York.

Prior to Hershey’s 1919 occupancy in the building, the Sixth Avenue property was initially created for retailer Samuel A. Adams and his dry goods firm. Designed by Theodore De Lemos and August Cordes, and the team later behind Macy’s at Herald Square, the stunning six-story Beaux-Arts structure was erected between 1900 and 1902. “Three handsome entrances on Sixth Avenue will give access to the store, each flanked by pilasters of polished granite, with artistic bronze scroll work,” reported The New York Times on December 23, 1899. The approximately 200,000 square feet of floor space also featured a colossal colonnade above the second story to be seen by riders on the El, the elevated railway used by shoppers to the area.

Inside the Hershey factory on Sixth Avenue via Bowery Boys History.

Soon after Hershey moved into the building, the company’s Sixth Avenue location was "whirring with the sound of boilers, mixers, candy presses, and wrapping machines, sending out five thousand boxes of chewing gum a day, and a lesser amount of other candy items,” notes Bowery Boys History. “Orders increased and production leapt to keep up with them,” writes the Hershey Community Archives. “More equipment was added and before long there were 24 wrapping machines. About a hundred people were working full time, ten-hour days and a half day on Saturday, a 54-hour week."

“Unfortunately, orders did not match production,” notes the Hershey Community Archives. Also, at this time, the federal government restricted raw material imports that were for the manufacturing of non-essential products. Because chewing gum was not regarded as essential, Hershey could not get sugar or chicle for his chewing gum. Thus, all production at the Sixth Avenue facility came to a halt in 1924.

Mr. and Mrs. Hershey via The Hershey Story.

By the 1930s and beyond, the property’s primary use included office and warehouse space. Hershey’s factory operation returned to central Pennsylvania, where it all began for founder and entrepreneur Milton Hershey, also dubbed the ‘Chocolate King’. Later, Hershey also became known for his philanthropic efforts through a non-profit foundation that helped provide aid to others. “We should deal with one another not as classes but as persons, as brothers,” Hershey once said. “The more closely we work together, the more effectively can we contribute to the better health of all mankind; this should be our common objective and its achievement would make the world a happier place in which to live.”


Header and Thumbnail Image Credit: Museum of the City of New York

Sep 8, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Role of 1930s New Deal Programs in Flatiron

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke the memorable words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” during his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, he set out to inspire Americans to engage in work-related programs to ignite the economy out of Great Depression. This month, the Flatiron Partnership highlights some of the notable policies known as New Deal programs that were instituted by Roosevelt and Congress to offer relief, recovery, and reform to the Flatiron District and other communities across the nation.

With the Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, “the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established with approximately $5 billion in funding, providing public jobs for the unemployed–the largest jobs initiative in American history,” notes The Encyclopedia of New York City. This Executive Order-created agency was later renamed as the Works Projects Administration in 1939.

Other relief programs included the Public Works Administration (PWA), initiated in 1933, which “paid private contractors to build large-scale projects proposed by states,” the National Youth Administration (NYA) that began in 1935 as an agency that hired young men and women who were either in or out of school, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration of 1933 (FERA), which awarded “grants to states for works programs to hire the unemployed and provide direct relief payments to the indigent."

Subway excavation workers by Andrew via NYC Department of Records and Information Services.

The railways were a major form of mass transit for New Yorkers and the system was a work in progress. To help subsidize and set in motion the public system’s future for generations to come, PWA funds were issued for the line’s construction. The proposed Independent Sixth Avenue subway line (IND) was viewed as the modern-day answer to the former elevated railway system. This new underground corridor, which featured six IND stations, including the 23rd Street subway stop in Flatiron, could transport a rider for a nickel under Sixth Avenue.

For a reported cost of nearly $60 million, the two-mile portion of the IND line made its debut on December 15, 1940. “Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had dedicated it to public use by cutting a red, white and blue ribbon stretched across a battery of turnstiles at the south end of the huge station at Thirty-Fourth Street,” noted The New York Times that day. Most importantly, the subway structure generated jobs for "657 additional operating employees, trainmen and station agents ...131 maintainers, trackmen, and special policemen," wrote The Times.

Admiral Farragut Monument at the north end of Madison Square Park via NYC Parks.

The mid-1930s also introduced the WPA-sponsored restoration efforts of national monuments. One Flatiron statue in need of repair was Madison Square Park’s Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. Located at the north end of the Park at 25th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, the 9-foot tall Farragut statue was granted a Park dedication in 1881 to honor the Rear Admiral’s defeat of Confederate forces at Alabama’s Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, where he reportedly proclaimed his immortal phrase: “Damn the torpedoes…full speed…ahead!” Several decades later, New Yorkers would pull together to restore the Farragut statue. With the readiness of the team underway, according to The New York Times on August 23, 1936, “expert carvers... will soon be at work on a pedestal for the famous Farragut statue".

Robust funding of the arts was also a signature of the New Deal. Harry Hopkins, who led New York City's WPA, declared in response to criticism of federal support for the arts, “[artists] have got to eat just like other people.” The Treasury Department chose to commission eight murals by architect Kindred McLeary to appear inside the Madison Square Post Office, located at 149-153 East 23rd Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. This facility was reportedly the “most important postal station in New York City.” McLeary’s creative artistry featured City scenes ranging from Central Park to Wall Street to Greenwich Village.

Scenes of New York-Central Park by Kindred McLeary via Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Another local art commission included nearly 1,000 square feet of oil on canvas murals by artist and painter Erle (Earl) Lonsbury displayed at the 69th Regiment’s Lexington Avenue Armory headquarters, located between 25th and 26th Streets. Lonsbury’s Armory wall murals featured the Regiment's most noteworthy missions he Wheatfield at Gettysburg in 1863, the 1918 Battle of the Ourcq, and a New York welcome home parade from 1865. 

WPA and municipal funds were also used to pave the way for a street redesign that included the Fourth Avenue expansion, now known as Park Avenue South, between 14th and 23rd Streets. Reportedly, 2,500 WPA men removed 33 miles of trolley tracks throughout New York City.

The end result of New Deal programs and related infrastructure proved to be a success. By the mid-1940s, many programs ended operations due to various factors, including worker shortages created by World War II. President Roosevelt, a cousin of Flatiron native and former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, expressed great satisfaction with the achievements and accomplishments the policies provided to the populace and the architectural upgrades that reshaped structural designs.

During his third inaugural address on January 20, 1941, President Roosevelt declared that “most vital to our present and to our future is this experience of a democracy which successfully survived crisis at home; put away many evil things; built new structures on enduring lines; and, through it all, maintained the fact of its democracy.” 

Photo Credit: NYC Department of Records and Information Services