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.

Oct 19, 2021

Discover Flatiron: Tin Pan Alley

It’s been 45 years since the bronze plaque was embedded into the sidewalk near the corner of West 28th Street and Broadway, commemorating the area as "Tin Pan Alley . . . where the business of the American popular song flourished during the first decades of the 20th century."

Photo Credit: Tin Pan Alley

In the years before World War I, the two-block stretch of 28th Street from Broadway to Sixth Avenue was the cradle of the Great American Songbook. It resounded with pianos playing some of the most memorable melodies ever written, including pop tunes that became standards.

Some of the 19th-century brownstones between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, were where giants like George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin promoted their songs and got their start in the music industry. One such structure is the brownstone at 45 West 28th Street, which once was the premises of Jerome H. Remick & Co., a notable music publisher from a century ago. A faded photograph of George Gershwin remains taped inside the vestibule door with a caption stating he once worked there. It was in Tin Pan Alley in 1919 that the young Gershwin was said to have met another budding legend, the lyricist Irving Caesar, where they collaborated on their first hit tune, "Swanee."

Photo Credit: Digital Commons at The University of Maine

The Tin Pan Alley plaque was dedicated on July 26, 1976, in front of a small crowd gathered around a flatbed truck holding an upright piano as musicians Harold Arlen, Burton Lane, and Sammy Cahn played a hit series of passages from songs they had written. By then, the music publishers were long gone, having followed the theater district uptown. The area eventually became part of a thriving flower district, but that too changed as most florists moved elsewhere.

How Tin Pan Alley got its name is shrouded in myth, but the most popular explanation involves Monroe H. Rosenfeld, a songwriter and newspaper columnist, and music publisher Harry Von Tilzer, the composer of the songs, "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie" and "She's Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage."

Von Tilzer (whose kid brother, Albert, composed the renowned tune "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") had an office at 42 West 28th Street. Rosenfeld came to visit him one afternoon and asked why Harry's piano sounded muted.

Photo Credit: Tin Pan Alley

Von Tilzer replied, "It's because so many pianos are being played around here, we put strips of newspaper in the back of the strings to keep the sound down."

"It sounds like a tin pan," Rosenfeld said.

"Yes," said Von Tilzer. "I guess this is tin pan alley."

Rosenfeld wrote an article about it, and the term was launched. There are other explanations, but this one - like many of the songs that came out of Tin Pan Alley - has, through repeated play, become a standard. 

Preservationists and local tenants rallied around the conservation of these buildings on West 28th Street. On April 23, 2020, following several years and attempts, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated five historic buildings on West 28th Street, which were built in the mid-19th century. The buildings are 47 West 28th Street, 49 West 28th Street, 51 West 28th Street, 53 West 28th Street, and 55 West 28th Street. The LPC says, “Together, these five Italianate-style row houses from the 1850s, which retain much of their historic character, represent Tin Pan Alley's indelible impact on American popular music.”

Photo Credit: Sound American

The birthplace of manufacturing and promoting music will remain for future generations to remember and recognize as an important part of American culture, popular music, and New York City’s history.

Thumbnail Image Credit: Classic FM 
Header Image Credit: Henson Architecture 

Oct 7, 2021

Discover Flatiron: Benjamin J. Falk, Celebrity Portrait Photographer

Open House New York celebrates its return to the city this year on the weekend of October 16-17. In honor of OHNY’s in-person tours, virtual experiences, and self-guided explorations of architecture and design across the five boroughs, the Flatiron Partnership highlights the neighborhood studios of 19th-century pioneer photographer Benjamin J. Falk. The lifelong New Yorker’s subjects included cultural icons such as writer Mark Twain, members of the Barrymore acting dynasty, and Flatiron native and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.  

Benjamin J. Falk - Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Born on October 14, 1853, Manhattanite Benjamin J. Falk was an 1872 graduate of The City College of New York, then located at 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue. As a student, Falk also served as “a technician under photographer George Rockwood,” writes the website broadway.cas.sc.edu. Then in 1877, Falk opened his first photography studio at 347 East 14th Street. However, by 1881, he made the decision to relocate to 949 Broadway at 22nd Street, where Falk’s work purportedly “grew rapidly, developing largely in the line of portraits of celebrities." (The Broadway site would later become part of the future locale for the Flatiron Building, which was completed in 1902.)

Notes the Museum of the City of New York’s blog.mcny.org about Falk’s Broadway location, “The center of New York City theatrical life in 1877 was Madison Square. Falk moved to be closer to the action and his clientele. From there he steadily built his reputation as an insightful portraitist of theatrical characters.” And, adds the website, “almost from the beginning, Falk’s Broadway studio featured electric arc lights. In 1883, he took his lights to Madison Square Theatre to capture a scene from A Russian Honeymoon. The resulting images were the first to capture a full theatrical production scene in a New York playhouse.”

5th Ave Hotel & Madison Square N.Y. - Photo Credit: Museum of the City of New York

Falk is also “credited as one of first photographers to embrace dry plates,” according to historiccamera.com. “Always a photographic trailblazer, Mr. Falk was the only portrait photographer in New York City to transition into color photography. He was also acutely aware that a portrait reflected not only the sitter but also the temperament of the photographer himself.” Following the 1896 death of Napoleon Sarony, a Quebec City, Canada native who had become the leading photographer behind the images of New York City’s theatrical scene, Falk soon became its top lensman.

His subjects were notable men and women, including actresses Sara Bernhardt, Lillian Russell, and Georgie Drew Barrymore (Drew Barrymore’s great-grandmother), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer author Mark Twain, and Theodore Roosevelt, who was born and spent his childhood in an East 20th Street brownstone before becoming the first New York City resident to serve as an American President. “Performers had to cart their costumes and props to Falk’s premises for sittings,” writes luminous-lint.com. “His inability to pay for exclusive picture rights with stars periodically got him into lawsuits. Falk was an aggressive businessman, repeatedly bringing debtors to court throughout his career more than any other photographer in the city.”  

President Theodore Roosevelt - Photo Credit: Library of Congress

During the early 1890s, however, the so-called “Master of Light” moved yet again after an 11-year stay at his Broadway property. “The construction of more and taller buildings blocked out much of the light Falk needed,” writes blog.mcny.org. Falk then relocated to 13-15 East 24th Street, near Madison Square Park.

Georgie Drew Barrymore - Photo Credit: Broadway Photographs 

In 1900, however, Falk sought an even brighter workspace. The location would be the Waldorf Astoria Hotel’s rooftop solarium, then on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. “The solarium supplied superb natural light during the day,” writes broadway.cas.sc.edu, “and his 25 x 30 operating room became the envy of the photographic fraternity.” Adds blog.mcny.org, “Making use of natural light during the day, Falk also maintained an interior studio for moodier portraits, completely outfitted with electric lights using his own set-ups complete with flash and umbrellas.” Falk also helped establish the Photographers’ Copyright League to protect the intellectual property rights of photographers. Once asked about what was key in creating effective portraits, Falk, who passed away in Manhattan on March 19, 1925 at the age of 71, reportedly replied, “I name expression, posing, and lighting in the order as they appear to be most important. The technique of the profession being absolutely under the control of the operator since the introduction of the dry plates, there is no excuse now for any but perfect photographic results. I have always made my price high enough, so that I did not have to consider the cost of material while doing my work.” 

 

Thumbnail Photo Credit: Museum of the City of New York 
Header Photo Credit: Museum of the City of New York

Sep 7, 2021

Discover Flatiron: Free Academy Debuts as First No-Cost College

As public school students make their long-awaited return to classrooms in 2021, the Flatiron Partnership honors this historic occasion with a look back at another noteworthy milestone in New York City education. In 1847, the Free Academy was established as the first tuition-free college for young men pursuing careers. The building was located on the southeast corner of 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue and would exist in the community for nearly eight decades. 

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Photo Credit: NYC AGO

The Academy’s launch was based on a growing trend toward “universal education” due to the U.S. population’s expansion, wrote Selma C. Berrol in Getting Down to Business: Baruch College in the City of New York, 1847-1987. Townsend Harris, who was then head of the city’s Board of Education, proposed the idea of a “free education at college level for all young men who had graduated from the ‘common schools’ of the city,” writes cuny.edu. With a voter-approved statewide referendum on June 7, 1847, “the people of New York had set up a democratic institution of higher learning through the free and full use of the democratic process.”

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Photo Credit: Potrait of James Renwich Jr. from Columbi

Commissioned as the Academy’s architect was Manhattanite James Renwick, Jr., who later gained global fame as designer of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Construction of the Academy commenced in November 1847. The four-story structure featured “walls of red brick with sandstone trim and a gabled roof with graceful Gothic towers at each of the four corners,” noted a 1981 Landmarks Preservation Commission report. “The building had a chapel which could seat 1,300 persons, a spacious library with large work tables, and gas illumination. Individual desks and stools of cherry wood were in the classrooms and drinking fountains on each floor.” Construction cost was a reported $68,000, which was $2,000 under its allocated budget.

On January 15, 1849, the Academy officially opened its doors to 202 students who were “lads in buckram that flocked to the new Gothic structure,” wrote Mario Emilio Cosenza in The Establishment of the College of the City of New York as the Free Academy in 1847.  “Admission to the Free Academy,” wrote Berrol, “began with recommendations by grammar school principals and an oral examination in spelling, reading, writing, grammar, geography, arithmetic, and the history of the United States.” Berrol’s book also indicated that students admitted during the first few years were “the sons of artisans and factory workers, and they, together with the handful whose fathers were laborers of various kinds, were the least likely to graduate. The sons of professionals and merchants were the most likely to earn a degree.”

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Photo Credit: CUNY

The five-year curriculum ranged from the study of Latin to integral calculus. Most students from the first graduation class in 1853 pursued law as a profession. “When the number of lawyer alumni are combined with those who became clergymen, doctors, architects, and teachers, it is clear that most of the early Free Academy graduates entered the professions,” according to Berrol. “All of the remaining members of the class that finished the course in 1853 entered the city's business life as merchants, bookkeepers, or insurance brokers.”

 

In 1866, however, the Academy would be renamed the City College of New York and relocate its expanding student population, which would become a more diverse one in decades, to a larger campus in Harlem in 1907. “It was beginning to appear that the graduates of the Free Academy were under a handicap because of the name of their school,” writes cuny.edu. “Not that the quality of education was less than that offered by academies and colleges in other parts of the country, but the word ‘academy’ was beginning to be old-fashioned in relation to higher education and the term ‘free’ had connotations of charity.”

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Photo Credit: Baruch College

The Academy building was demolished in January 1928 and replaced with a reported $1.2 million, 16-story structure to be occupied by the City College School of Business and Civic Administration, which had been established in 1919. In 1953, the school’s name became the Baruch School of Business and Public Administration in honor of 1889 City College graduate and financier Bernard Baruch, and in 1968, designated as Baruch College. The business school was renamed in 1998 as the Zicklin School of Business after 1957 graduate and major gift contributor Larry Zicklin. Noted New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1929 about the impact of a business education, “There is no doubt in my mind that business education is not only a growing need but that it has become a definite part of the educational system of the country.”

Thumbnail Photo CreditCUNY
 Header Photo Credit: City College of New York by Sydney C. Van Nort

Aug 9, 2021

Discover Flatiron: A U.S. President and Celebrated Sculptor Create Coins

When Flatiron native Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th U.S. President in 1901, his White House agenda included a redesign of the nation's coins. This month, the Flatiron Partnership returns to that occasion when President Roosevelt and renowned neighborhood sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens became artistic collaborators in rebranding the country's currency.

At age 42, Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest and first-ever native New Yorker to serve as America's Commander-in-Chief. As the second of four children born to a philanthropist and socialite in 1858, Roosevelt grew up with his parents and siblings in a palatial brownstone located at 28 East 20th Street in the area now known as Flatiron. Upon graduating from Harvard, he decided to pursue a number of public service posts, which included Governor of New York State, Police Commissioner for the City of New York, and as Vice President to President William McKinley.

61(Photo Credit: White House of Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt)

In 1848 and more than 3,000 miles away in Dublin, Ireland, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born to a couple who were shoe shop employees. The family relocated to New York City when Saint-Gaudens was just a toddler. The aspiring sculptor's "artistic talent was recognized while he was a child when he was apprenticed to a cameo cutter," writes themagazineantiques.com. "Encouraged to study art, Augustus took evening classes at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, which was conveniently located next door to his father's shoe store." His most notable Flatiron works are the 1881 David Glasgow Farragut statue in Madison Square Park, as well as the 1893 nude statute of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt atop Madison Square Garden then located at 26th Street.

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(Photo Credit: USA Coinbook of Portrait of Augustus Saint Gaudens)

The initial launch of the business partnership between President Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens took place during an architectural improvement project involving the nation's capital. "The sculptor had come into the Roosevelt circle in 1901 as a member of a commission of famous artists and architects created to assist in restoring the city of Washington to the original plan of [architect Pierre Charles] L'Enfant," wrote the publication American Quarterly in 1966. "An intimate friendship soon developed between the shy, retiring sculptor and the effervescent, demonstrative President." According to the John H. Dryfhout book, The Work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, "It was not long before his enthusiasm and that of the President were aroused by the possibility of redesigning the nation's coinage."

However, President Roosevelt's first order of design for Saint-Gaudens would be the creation of a commemorative inaugural medal in honor of the President's 1904 election win. "Saint-Gaudens accepted the commission and approached his friend Adolph Weinman to execute his design," notes americanart.si.edu. "President Roosevelt, whose personal interests ranged from literature to natural history, held very specific ideas about art. To appeal to the President's unpretentious taste, Saint-Gaudens designed a simple obverse featuring Roosevelt's profile and the Latin phrase Aequum cuique, a translation of his campaign slogan, ‚Äč'a square deal for every man,'" which the Commander-in-Chief was reportedly "especially fond of."

Then, in that same year, President Roosevelt wrote to Treasury Secretary Leslie Mortier Shaw with a request to consider redesigning the country's coins. "I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness," Roosevelt reportedly commented about his so-called "pet crime" project in a letter to Secretary Shaw. "Would it be possible, without asking the permission of the Congress, to employ a man like [Augustus] Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage that would have some beauty?" Soon, Saint-Gaudens was assigned with the task of designing 10- and 20-dollar gold coins, as well as a one-cent coin, the latter of which was never issued for circulation by the U.S. Mint. He would also gain historic status as the first sculptor to create an American coin.

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(Photo Credit: USA Coinbook of Design of the $20 Gold Saint
Gaudens Double Eagle coin by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
)

"Saint-Gaudens first began with simple quick drawings on whatever paper he had at hand," notes nps.gov. "These small drawings were meant as visualizations of ideas only. The first real designs came in clay, in circular reliefs done about twelve- to thirteen-inch diameter. The sculptor works in clay because it is easily shaped. Once a design is fully adapted, it is cast in plaster. The final plaster designs were sent to the U.S. Mint, where they were used with the Janvier Lathe, a machine that can mechanically reduce the large sketch to the size of a coin."

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(Photo Credit: USA Coinbook of Proposed Design of the US One
Cent piece by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
)

Issued in 1907, the 10-dollar coin "featured the head of Liberty wearing neither the traditional Phrygian cap representing freedom, nor the laurel wreath from Saint-Gaudens's original design, but rather a Native American ceremonial headdress which TR suggested because he considered it to be more suitably American," writes theodoreroosevelt.org. "On the back was the side view of a standing eagle closely resembling the eagle from the inaugural medal. The 20-dollar gold coin displayed a full, standing Liberty striding forward in a blaze of sunlight holding an olive branch and a lit torch. The obverse showed an eagle in flight." Both men reportedly felt "simplicity lent dignity" and initially there was no inclusion of the slogan "In God We Trust," but criticism from Congress and the general public led the U.S. Mint to reinstate the popular phrase.

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(Photo Credit: USA Coinbook of Design of the $10 Gold
Indian Head Eagle coin by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
)

From the time Saint-Gaudens accepted the commission, however, he had been diagnosed with cancer, but made the decision to proceed with the project. Following Saint-Gaudens' death on August 3, 1907, at the age of 59, Henry Hering, the sculptor's studio assistant and fellow sculptor, stepped in to finish the rest of the assignment. The coins were placed in circulation to the public later that year, with President Roosevelt proclaiming they were "more beautiful than any coins since the days of the Greeks, and they achieve their striking beauty because Saint-Gaudens not only possessed a perfect mastery in the physical address of his craft, but also a daring and original imagination."

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(Photo Credit: Money Metals of President Franklin D. Roosevelt Executive Order 6102)

But on April 5, 1933, President Roosevelt's fifth cousin and the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, would sign Executive Order 6102, which prohibited the ownership of gold coins and bullion due to the era's economic crisis. It read, in part, "I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America…do hereby prohibit the hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates within the continental United States by individuals, partnerships, associations, and corporations." According to Forbes.com, "FDR's gold confiscation meant private owners were obliged to take their coins, bars, or gold certificates to a bank, and exchange them for dollars at the prevailing rate of $20.67 per ounce. Over the next year, the President then raised his official gold price to $35 per ounce, effectively cutting 40% off the dollar in a bid to stoke inflation and spur the economy." Reportedly, millions of coins were returned, but some individuals refused to comply with the presidential ruling, with a number of Augustus Saint-Gaudens gold coins that still can be found in "limited quantities" today.

Thumbnail: National Park Service
Photo Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

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.”

6discover flatiron - june 23
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