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.

Jan 6, 2022

Discover Flatiron: An 1800s Skating Marathon Sparks Reform

January marks the launch of a new year and often the start of health and fitness resolutions. In recognition of this annual fitness ritual, the Flatiron Partnership recalls the popularity of the aerobic sport of roller skating in the late-1800s and how the hobby led to a safety protocol in the aftermath of a historic marathon at Madison Square Garden. 

Original Madison Square Garden c. 1879 - Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In 1885, a pair of roller skates cost $6 and total sales had reportedly reached more than $20 million in America. “There are about 50,000 rinks in the country,” wrote the Saturday Evening Post on April 18, 1885, “and the demand for skates is greater than the supply.” According to americanheritage.com, “warehouses were converted to rinks, and men, women, and children flocked to them to glide ‘round and ‘round on the smooth wooden floors.” So-called ‘rinking,’ notes the website, was “such a popular Sunday pursuit that church attendance dropped off.”

Roller skating had evolved as “the principal pastime of citizens of every age and condition—business men went to work on skates, and skating parties were much in vogue among the fashionable,” wrote Herbert Asbury in All Around the Town. Even “several leading citizens and public officials seriously advocated equipping the police force with roller skates, contending that a patrolman could then easily overtake a criminal.” In addition, The New York Times on May 18, 1885 noted “elopements, betrayals, bigamous marriages, and other social transgressions were traced to the association of the innocent with the vicious upon the skating floor.”

Couple Rolling Skating in 1909 - Photo Credit: The Vintage News 

The roller rage also caught the attention of amateur and elite athletes, as well as sports promoters. On February 22, 1885, it was reported that a six-day race would be held from March 2-8 in Madison Square Garden, then located on 26th Street and Madison Avenue. “Champion skaters signed up to compete, and the field also included some Pedestrians (ultrarunners),” writes ultrarunninghistory.com. “Frank Hart, 27, a celebrated Black champion brought his running endurance talents to the event. The winner would receive $500 and a diamond belt valued at $250.” A total of 36 men enrolled in the race.

During the marathon’s first evening, more than 11,000 spectators were in attendance to watch the skaters race, notes ultrarunninghistory.com. The website also described the crowd as “upscale” and “no smoking was allowed and the bar didn’t receive much business with stacks of kegs of beer untouched. Women stood five deep against the railing applauding the passing racers.” The skaters carried coffee pots, sucked on lemons and oranges, and drank ginger ale. 

With the arrival of the race’s final day, the winner was declared. The titleholder was newsboy William Donovan, 18, from Elmira, New York and the son of Irish immigrants. Donovan had skated his way to victory upon completing 1,092 miles. In addition to the championship belt and monetary award, he also received a pair of gold-mounted skates. Following the race, however, Donovan’s feet “were in such a condition when he left the track that his stockings could not be removed,” notes ultrarunninghistory.com. Then, unexpectedly and just one month after his win, Donovan died of acute pericarditis on April 5th, reportedly caused by exposure after recovering from pneumonia he contracted due to being outdoors so soon after the marathon.

1885 News Clipping - Photo Credit: Ultra Running History  

“Too much skating, as Donovan proved, was dangerous,” writes boweryboyshistory.com. Besides Donovan, another skater also purportedly died from an illness induced by the marathon. Joseph Cohen, 26, a dry goods clerk from Brooklyn, succumbed to acute cerebral meningitis on March 16th. Although a second marathon was booked for May, notes the website, this time “participants were handpicked, only the most experienced and healthy, including a few surviving the last go-round.” According to The New York Times on April 15, 1885, an inquest jury involved with the Cohen case recommended a law to offer a form of safety to skaters by prohibiting “owners and managers of rinks from allowing any match or exhibition which will keep the contestants on the floor of the rink any time exceeding four hours in duration.”

Header Photo Credit: Ultra Running History.
Thumbnail Photo Credit: Science Museum.

Dec 16, 2021

Discover Flatiron: Short-Lived History of Madison Square Presbyterian Church

As many New Yorkers prepare to observe Christmas across New York City, the Flatiron Partnership recalls one of the neighborhood’s grand religious structures, Madison Square Presbyterian Church. Located at 24th Street and Madison Avenue, the second incarnation of the church was designed by Madison Square Garden architect Stanford White, but would later become known as the city’s shortest-lived sacred site of the early 20th century.

Madison Square Presbyterian Church - Photo Credit: Wikipedia 

Madison Square Presbyterian Church was formed on March 3, 1853 when the Central Presbyterian Church on Broome Street and the Pearl Street Presbyterian Church merged due to declining membership, notes Common Bond, a publication issued by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. On July 12th of that year, a ceremony was held to lay the cornerstone for the new church’s site on the southeast corner of 24th Street and Madison Avenue. According to Common Bond, “By placing the church in a visually prominent location away from the distractions of major thoroughfares, namely 23rd Street, Fifth Avenue, and Broadway, the church could attract the attention of the general public without having noisy neighbors interrupt Sunday services.”

Designed by Richard M. Upjohn, the Gothic Revival style structure featured a 208-foot-tall spire and seating for 1,200. Upon its yearlong completion, the church was now considered the tallest building in Madison Square, with a reported construction and furnishing cost of $175,000. Its official dedication was held on Christmas Eve 1854. “It was one of the wealthiest congregations in the country, made up of bankers, politicians, merchants, and professional men,” wrote Miriam Berman in Madison Square: The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks. “It was here that Theodore Roosevelt was baptized on April 21, 1860, and later attended Sunday school.”

Theodore Roosevelt as a Young Boy - Photo Credit: Harvard University Library

Other notable events at the church included the annual Christmas worship service. On that day in 1890, the choir was comprised of “a double quartet and chorus,” reported the weekly journal Musical Courier on January 7, 1891. The church’s pastor was Charles H. Parkhurst, who during this period, “successfully challenged Tammany Hall and the corrupt city government in the 1890s,” notes the website of The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York.

But shortly after the beginning of the 20th century, the church had evolved into a real estate asset for a nearby business neighbor. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was expanding its headquarters and reportedly offered $325,000 to Madison Square Presbyterian Church to give up its site and relocate to a lot on the northeast corner of 24th Street and Madison Avenue. The architect for the new church would be Stanford White from the firm McKim, Mead & White, designers of the 1890 reimagined Madison Square Garden on 26th Street and Madison Avenue.

White “possessed a discerning eye for beauty and historical interest,” notes the website of the National Park Service. “He designed and decorated Fifth Avenue mansions and country homes for the most socially prominent families of American wealth, among them Astors and Vanderbilts.” White, however, would not live to see the church’s October 14, 1906 dedication. He was killed on June 25 by millionaire Henry Thaw, in a case dubbed “The Trial of the Century.”

Stanford White - Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This era also marked the move by many of the city’s wealthiest citizens to residential locations further north in Manhattan. Thus, with its dwindling membership, Madison Square Presbyterian Church closed its 24th Street and Madison Avenue location and merged with First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street in 1918. The building that Madison Square Presbyterian Church occupied underwent demolition on May 5, 1919.

“Its destruction will remove one of the most interesting as well as one of the most costly religious edifices in the city,” noted The New York Times on May 6, 1919. “Built on decidedly unique lines for a church, in the Romanesque style, surmounted by a gilt dome and richly ornamented with mosaics and glazed with terra cotta tiles…its demolition is a distinct architecture loss to the city.” Decades later on December 1, 2011, the paper followed up on the whereabouts of the church’s artifacts, which included a doorway “depicting vines and saints, has turned up in storage at the Brooklyn Museum…the church’s Tiffany windows with biblical scenes now illuminate a wedding chapel at a hotel in Riverside, California,” and a Stanford White family estate on Long Island had in possession “a few loose pieces here and there.”

Header Photo Credit: Library of Congress.
Thumbnail Photo Credit: NYPL Digital Collections.

Nov 19, 2021

Discover Flatiron: Mohawk Ironworkers Give Rise to NYC Skyscrapers

November is Native American Heritage Month. In honor of contributions made by Mohawk, or Kanien ľkehá:ka, ironworkers who helped construct New York City’s iconic skyline, the Flatiron Partnership highlights the role of the group in the area’s building boom era of the 20th century.  

Photo Credit: David Grant Noble

Mohawks are members of the Haudenosaunee, commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy, which also includes the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. During the turn of the 20th century, construction job opportunities began to flourish in North America, and soon Mohawks from Canada and upstate New York would seek employment as ironworkers. “New York was by far the largest city in the United States in 1900, and the richest,” wrote Jim Rasenberger in High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline. In a number of U.S. cities, explained Rasenberger, “skyscrapers had moved out of their infancy and into their rowdy adolescence, and New York was where they came to spend it.” 

According to the website for the National Museum of the American Indian, “Haudenosaunee men began ‘walking iron’ in 1886, when they were hired to work on a bridge being built over the St. Lawrence River. Upon completion of the bridge, Haudenosaunee men began their tradition of ‘booming out.’” The term characterizes the urban migration by ironworkers who left their Native communities to find employment elsewhere. Reportedly, Mohawk ironworkers began working in regions as far south as New York City in 1901. “The men were thrilled to be working away from home and seeing new sights,” said Lynn Beauvais, a Kahnawake resident and grandmother from a fourth-generation ironworker family (via history.com). “They were a band of brothers.”

 Walter Jay Goodleaf - Photo Credit: David Grant Noble

Mohawk ironworkers may have been members of construction crews who built the popular steel-framed properties during this period, including the Flatiron Building and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company’s Clock Tower. Located at the crossroad of 23rd Street, Broadway, and Fifth Avenue, the Flatiron Building was completed in 1902. The Clock Tower at Madison Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets was finished in 1909. “Performing dangerous work several hundred, if not several thousand, feet up in the air requires amazing concentration, courage, and grit—the very qualities the Mohawks would ascribe to their ancestors throughout their long history,” wrote David Weitzman in Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City.

Flatiron Building - Photo Credit: Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City by David Weitzman 

By the early 1920s, according to High Steel author Rasenberger, “Mohawks were regularly crossing the border to work on bridges and buildings up and down the Eastern Seaboard, traveling together in tight four-man gangs, communicating on the steel in Mohawk, boarding together wherever they could find inexpensive housing.” In 1925, however, a Mohawk ironworker was arrested for illegal immigration in Philadelphia. The case resulted in a landmark federal court decision in 1927. Citing the Jay Treaty, noted Rasenberger in High Steel, “the judge ruled that Mohawks, whose land had once overlapped parts of both countries, were entitled to pass freely over the border from Canada into the United States.” When they arrived in New York City, many Mohawk ironworkers and their families reportedly resided in Brooklyn’s North Gowanus section, now known as Boerum Hill, around Atlantic and Fourth Avenues.

 Photo Credit: Mohawk Ironworkers from Kahnawake Locals 40 & 361

Some of the notable skyscrapers Mohawk ironworkers would help produce include the Empire State Building, completed between 1930 and 1931, the Chrysler Building in 1930, and the launched construction of the World Trade Center towers during the late 1960s. When the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, Mohawk ironworkers helped with the recovery, as well as the construction of the new One World Trade Center, or Freedom Tower, which opened in 2014. “For many Haudenosaunee communities, ironworking has become a tradition,” notes the National Museum of the American Indian’s website about the ironworkers who are also union members of the Kahnawake locals 40 and 361. “They learn from and with people they trust. Today they continue to work on high steel, carrying the Haudenosaunee reputation for skill, bravery, and pride into the twenty-first century.”

Header Photo Credit: David Grant Noble via National Museum of the American Indian.
Thumbnail Photo Credit: David Grant Noble via National Museum of the American Indian.

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