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.

Mar 29, 2016

Pen and Brush

In celebration of Women's History Month, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look at Pen and Brush, the only global non-profit to offer a broader spotlight on the works of emerging women artists and writers. Pen and Brush recently moved into their new state-of-the-art gallery in Flatiron at 29 East 22nd Street.

 

In 1893--nearly three decades before American women were granted the right to vote—Pen and Brush launched in the New York painting studio of sisters Janet and Mary Lewis. The organization began as small informal meetings for women in the literary and visual arts. By 1894, its growth led to its first official gathering at Flatiron's Fifth Avenue Hotel on 23rd Street.

 

"We believe that art and literature created by women deserves to be recognized and valued on its merit–not judged by the gender of the maker," notes Janice Sands, Pen and Brush's Executive Director. "We aim to debunk the misconceptions that there isn’t enough consistent or compelling work by women artists and writers. We showcase visual art, poetry, and literary fiction that has been selected by industry influencers simply because it’s outstanding work, and not because it was created by a woman." 

 

Pen and Brush's innovative vision has attracted high-profile membership throughout its 123-year history. Two U.S. First Ladies--Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt) and Ellen Axson Wilson (the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson)--joined the group, as did Nobel and Pulitzer Prize literature winner Pearl S. Buck and award-winning photographer Margaret Bourke White. Writer Ida Tarbell, the investigative journalism pioneer, also served as the president of Pen and Brush president for 30 years.  

 

In 1923, the organization secured its first permanent headquarters at 16 East 10th Street in an Italianate-style townhouse. "It was a gracious building and connected us in a concrete way, no pun intended, to the history of the organization," recalls Sands. "It was a beautiful example of one aspect of the social and cultural environment at the time of Pen and Brush’s founding–beautiful parquet floors, elaborate ceiling moldings, and a great library, originally built as a chapel in the Gothic style." Despite these qualities, says Sands, the property "was a residential building that limited the number of works that could be properly displayed," and subsequently compelled Pen and Brush’s move to the Flatiron District during the fall of 2015. 

 

Former home of Pen and Brush on 10th StreetThe former home of Pen and Brush on 10th Street.

 

The 5,500 square-foot space Pen and Brush now occupies is a commercial property constructed in 1907. Area architect and original owner Frederick C. Zobel designed the structure as well as numerous buildings throughout the Ladies' Mile Historic District in the early 1900s, according to a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Designation Report issued in 1989. Zobel's plans for the 12-story store- and loft-building included a "structure to be of steel frame, concrete arches and terra cotta block partitions," wrote Real Estate Record and Builders Guide in 1906.

 

For Sands, the current Flatiron location "offers us fully-accessible street-level visibility with our floor-to-ceiling glass storefront, and more than four times the exhibition space on two levels." And, she adds, "The space is also over 100 years old, and we were able to bring out the wonderful industrial structure by keeping the integrity of the space with exposed riveted-steel columns, original brick walls, and a fabulous 30-foot skylight across the back of the space. What’s more, we enjoy a great volume of the space thanks to the 15-foot ceiling height."

 

Opening night of Pen and Brush's new location at 29 East 22nd StreetPen and Brush's opening night at 29 East 22nd Street. Image via Manny Fernandez.

 

In April 2016, Pen and Brush will unveil a cutting-edge exhibition titled "Broad Strokes," featuring 15 outstanding female artists. "Josephine Barreiro, known for her dynamic paintings and her love for graffiti art, will create a live performance painting right inside our gallery space," explains Sands about the opening reception on April 1st. "The show will celebrate women artists, the richness and diversity of their strokes, and the boldness and feistiness of 'broads' in their creativity and self-expression." 

 

One special VIP at the event may be the ghost who once occupied Pen and Brush's former home in Greenwich Village. "We occasionally heard it walking up the staircase and moving something across the floors of the upper rooms," remembers Sands.  Laughing, she adds, "Now, we hear it going around randomly flushing the toilets. We think it's the energy of thousands of women making sure we know gender equity is not yet achieved and we have work to do!"

Image via Manny Fernandez.

Jan 20, 2016

The Mortimer Building

The mid-1800's brought significant real estate growth and distinctive architecture to the Flatiron District. The Mortimer Building at 935-939 Broadway, at the intersection of East 22nd Street, is one such property born of the era’s construction boom.

Manhattan real-estate mogul Richard Mortimer commissioned Griffith Thomas, one of the most fashionable architects of the era, to design the original five-story structure. A sixth floor was added in 1912 by the architectural firm Rouse & Goldstone. Thomas constructed the block-long commercial property with Italianate details, including pediments over the structure’s windows and fluted cast-iron columns. Upon its completion, it was christened “The Mortimer Building,” and it featured ground-floor space for retailers topped by upper-floor offices.

The Mortimer Building’s tenants were a microcosm of the district’s thriving economy; they included jewelers, dry-goods businesses, the Pach Brothers’ celebrated photography studio, and Bryant, Stratton and Packard’s New York City Business College. The address also served as the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects, a still-extant organization formed to produce a more widespread professional union of American architects. In reflection on the era, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission noted in their 1989 Designation Report Vol.1., "Architecture had become a recognized profession in the United States," with many people seeking formal training and establishing "firms and offices to handle the more complex demands of larger, more specialized buildings."

The Mortimer is distinguished by its status as "one of the earliest buildings in the district constructed solely for commercial use," according to the Designation Report. "Because of its three full facades, handsomely preserved details, its design by a famous architect, and its associations with the early commercial changes on this section of Broadway, this is one of the buildings which adds significantly to the architectural and historical character of the historic district."

More than 150 years later, The Mortimer Building maintains a diverse and upscale tenant roster that includes watch wholesalers, an advertising firm, and the 18,900 square-foot flagship of Restoration Hardware, the global luxury home décor leader that relaunched as RH Modern last fall. "The brand has more or less thrown out their signature steampunk, kind-of-clunky aesthetic for an equally grand but beautifully realized modern re-do," wrote The Observer in October 2015 about the retailer’s makeover. "Instead of reworked classics or antique imitations, the new pieces—from lighting to low-level seating—are, well, modern and comfortably luxurious." And a much-welcomed trend in the ever-evolving environment of the Flatiron District!

Image via Daytonian in Manhattan.

Oct 14, 2015

Manhattan Village Academy, 43 West 22nd Street

With more than one million NYC's students settled into the routine of another public school year, we take a look back at the site of today's Manhattan Village Academy, at 43 West 22nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Flatiron. The Academy features a progressive college preparatory program for grades 9 through 12, as well as a two-decade tradition as "a liberal arts school committed to academic excellence."

According to the 1989 Ladies' Mile Historic District Designation Report Vol. 2, built between 1925 and 1926, the property was initially constructed as a 13-story Art Deco industrial building designed by Russel Cory of Cory & Cory, a firm owned with his younger brother Walter. The building was commissioned as a bakery and factory for the Frank G. Shattuck Company. Prior to this and dating back to the mid-1850s, this block of West 22nd Street and the surrounding area had been the site of residential brownstones.

Russel Cory was known for emphasizing vertical articulation with colorful tiles; the "vertical street" type industrial structure is credited to him.  Cory & Cory was also the architect for the block-long Starrett-Leigh Building, a designated New York City landmark completed in 1931 and located in the nearby Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea.

Between 1954 and 1956, a 10-story addition, designed by Walter Cory, further expanded the building which allowed for the inclusion of business offices and a food processing plant, as well as an air conditioning system. As recorded in the Designation Report, Walter Cory noted that the design of the system within the interior columns "constitute[d] a definite step forward in air conditioned structures."

The next innovative turn for the commercial property happened four decades later when architect Beverly Willis took a mere nine months to redesign and renovate designated loft space in the building for an educational facility to be known as Manhattan Village Academy. "Located on the second and third floors, the classrooms ring enormous open-plan spaces, each furnished with lightweight tables and chairs," reports the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation website about the makeover prototype. "Willis designed a contemporary entrance that enhanced the existing concrete structure. The existing cream-colored façade glows warmly against the Willis-designed dark-green door and window frames. Muted gold letters quietly glimmer atop the glass entry. Original red, orange, yellow, and blue tiles, shiny and rectilinear, furnish the exterior with an Art Deco trim."

Willis' open space creation became a popular concept among many and went on to be a prototype for New York’s small school design.  When the Academy opened for classes the first time in 1994, then principal Mary Butz proudly shared with Metropolis Magazine her words of a mission accomplished: "You can see what your kids are doing at all times."

Aug 11, 2015

St. James Building

In July, Rizzoli Bookstore opened after much anticipation on the ground floor of the St. James Building between 25th and 26th Streets. Rizzoli’s opening was followed by La Pecora Bianca’s inaugural dinner service on August 3rd, and soon INDAY, an Indian fast-casual concept, will complete the transformation of the ground floor retail at 1133 Broadway. With these new beginnings at the St. James Building, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look back at the history of 1133 Broadway, and its surrounding area.

The Broadway corridor once encompassed sites such as the world's first kinetoscope (an early motion picture device) parlor, at Broadway and 27th Street in 1874; the construction boom of high-profile hotels and theaters during the mid-1800's; and the rise of New York's earliest office skyscrapers at the beginning of the 20th century. The St. James Building figures among these pioneer/initial skyscrapers and is today owned and operated by Kew Management.

Constructed for the St. James Building Company of Philadelphia between 1896 and 1897, the 16-story plus penthouse property was designed by architect Bruce Price. A native of Maryland, the Princeton-educated Price was best known for creating "hotels, office buildings, churches, educational buildings, and residences," wrote the Madison Square North Historic Designation Report: New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in June 2001. 

"Price relocated his large and flourishing practice to the building, where the firm stayed through 1907," noted the Report about the location that would become a hub for noted architects such as "Daniel H. Burnham (1908), Aymar Embury (1907-11), J. August Lienau and the firm Lienau & Nash (1902-06), Henry C. Pelton (1898-1907), and John Russell Pope (1901-07)." According to the Report, the building was home to the "famous cigar store, the Havana Tobacco Company, [which] occupied the first floor in the early 20th century. Other tenants included merchants of woolen goods, hosiery, glass and china, as well as dolls and masonic articles."

Prior to the construction of the St. James Building, the fashionable St. James Hotel occupied the 1133 Broadway since the mid-19th century. The hotel was the "resort of the better class of sporting men, especially those interested in the turf," reported the King's Handbook of New York in 1893. However with a new century on the horizon, and the increasing shift of hotels and residential homes to Midtown and beyond, the area grew into a predominantly commercial business locale.

More than a century later, a vibrant real estate tradition on Broadway continues with a cross section of businesses that include The NoMad Hotel at 1170 Broadway and 28th Street; 10 Madison Square West condominiums; and now new neighbors, Rizzoli Bookstore, La Pecora Bianca and INDAY in street level retail spaces at the St. James Building. 

Image from "The Tall Buildings of New York." Munsey's Magazine. March 1898: 833-848. via Collecting Old Magazines.

Mar 31, 2015

212 Fifth Avenue

As 212 Fifth Avenue makes its move from commercial structure to luxury residential building, the BID takes a look back at the history of the 26th Street site whose diverse past occupants included a high-profile restaurant, a dance school, and a café.

The current building at 212 Fifth Avenue was built between 1912-1913 by the architectural firm Schwartz & Gross and is a 20-story, neo-Medieval style property with a steel frame and brick, limestone, and terra-cotta facing. It was constructed during one of Flatiron's major economic transition periods, with office space replacing a vast number of homes and hotels and redefining the area as primarily a business district. During this time Simon I. Schwartz and Arthur Gross, who met as students at the Hebrew Technical Institute in Lower Manhattan, designed not only lofts and offices in Flatiron but many of New York City's most recognizable apartment buildings during their nearly 40-year business partnership.

The reported cost construction for 212 Fifth Avenue was $1 million dollars and was promoted as a project that "will present an advance in many ways in the best store and office planning," according to the feature "A Newcomer on Madison Square" in the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide on March 22, 1913. The article also unveiled some of the site's details such as six high-speed passenger elevators, unobstructed floor plans on all stories that would be clear of columns, and each floor furnished with ice water. One of the building's earliest tenants was Exchange Buffet Lunch, which paid $300,000 to rent the entire basement for 10 years. Upper floor occupants included woolens firm S. Steen & Co. and clothier B. Kuppenheimer & Co.

Prior to the construction of the Schwartz & Gross design, other notable businesses of the time had called the site at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street home. One such business was the Dodworth Dancing Academy, which in the mid-19th century prepared many of the city's upper class and their children, reportedly including one young Flatiron resident and future US President -Theodore Roosevelt, for society balls. Participants were instructed in "series of measured steps that emphasized discipline for stately dances such as the court quadrille, the minuet, and the polonaise," according to City Folk book author Daniel J. Walkowitz. The facility had "reached the height of popularity as the nouveau riche wanted their children to acquire the proper cultural capital," wrote Hilary Levey Friedman in Playing to Win, however, "economic difficulties" forced the Academy to close.

In 1876, legendary New York City restaurant Delmonico’s opened in the then five-story brick property which featured "a café and table d'hote room sitting five hundred persons and eight private dining rooms decorated in various styles, from Japanese to Art Nouveau," according to the June 26, 2001 edition of the Madison Square North Historic Designation Report issued by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The invention of legendary dishes such as Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, and Lobster Newburg are attributed to Delmonico’s.

By 1899, Delmonico's decided to move farther north on Fifth Avenue to 44th Street, and their former site became a café when it was sold two years later to Martin Hotel owner John B. Martin. Café Martin was known as "the Frenchest French restaurant," wrote author William Grimes in his book Appetite City. The menu included "Marenne oysters, French sole, pre-sale lamb, and Bigareau cherries, as well as exotic international dishes like pilaf and moussaka. Best of all New Yorkers beginning to find Delmonico's just a little stuffy, was its 'polished suggestion of naughtiness.' The construction of Schwartz & Gross’ 212 Fifth Avenue replaced Café Martin and operated as a commercial office building for approximately a century.

In early 2015, it was announced that the building will be converted into a 48-unit residential condominium, including a tri-plex penthouse. The conversion is joint venture between Robert Gladstone’s Madison Equities, Joseph Sitt’s Thor Equities, and development and property manager Building and Land Technology (BLT).

Image via Thor Equities.

 

Jan 14, 2015

William Van Alen

While William Van Alen is best known as the architect behind Midtown Manhattan's iconic Chrysler Building, it was the Flatiron District where the innovative designer launched the blueprint for one of his earliest creations - the Albemarle office building at Broadway and 24th Street.

Van Alen was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1882. The aspiring architect attended public school and studied at Pratt Institute. At the age of 16, Van Alen landed his first job as an office boy with row house developer Clarence True, and later worked as a draftsman at the Hotel Astor in Times Square. 

For the next few years, Van Alen would design Classical Revival style tenements in Brooklyn while also studying his craft. He was awarded the Paris Prize in Architecture in 1908 by the Society of Beaux Arts Architects and decided to attend the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. In a 1930 edition of The American Architect, critic Kenneth Murchison characterized the upcoming Van Alen's thoughts as "No old stuff for me! Me, I'm new! Avanti!" 

Upon his return to New York City, Van Alen opened his Flatiron practice in the Metropolitan Life Tower in 1911. Three years later, he formed a partnership with another young designer, H. Craig Severance; however, the independent-minded Van Alen reportedly kept his distance with most colleagues. "I am not particularly interested in what my fellow men are doing," he once said. "I wish to do things original and not be misled by a lot of things that are being done by somebody else." 

Van Alen’s design for the Albemarle office building was built in 1915, where the 16-story property occupied the former site of two prominent hotels, the Hoffman House, and its neighboring annex, the Albemarle. In the mid-19th century, Flatiron had been known as a high-profile hotel hub that welcomed a diverse clientele who included actress Sarah Bernhardt, showman William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. But as the city entered the 20th century, most hotels were exiting the area to move uptown, and the area increasingly became a gateway for offices and showrooms, especially for toy marketers. Then dubbed "Toy Building North," the Albemarle is now known as 10 Madison Square West and is undergoing a transformation into luxury residential condominiums.

By 1924, Van Alen ended his 10-year partnership with Severance due to conflicts and found work as a designer of storefronts, restaurants, and prefabricated housing. But it would be a commission from auto icon Walter Chrysler in 1928 to construct a tall building that led to the architect's greatest achievement during the commercial real estate boom of the Roaring Twenties.

Described by a colleague as "the Ziegfeld of his profession," Van Alen's Art Deco Chrysler Building made its public debut in 1930. The property was then known as the world's tallest building before the arrival of the Empire State Building on New York City's skyline one year later. Initially, the Chrysler site made Van Alen's name a sought-after brand, but the lucrative demand was short-lived because of the decline in skyscraper development and the economic toll of the Great Depression. 

Van Alen died in 1954, and following the 1970 death of his wife Elizabeth, whom he married in 1916, half of the architect’s estate was bequeathed to the National Institute of Architectural Education (NIAE), formerly known as the Society of Beaux Arts Architects.  In 1995, the NIAE was renamed the Van Alen Institute to honor its benefactor.

These days, the Van Alen Institute is a nonprofit design collaborator of public programs and competitions and is located at 30 West 22nd Street in the Flatiron District. In December of 2014, a new street-level floor space was unveiled. The Institute’s mission is "to explore projects that improve people's lives," says Executive Director David van der Leer. "Today, we work in three clear strands to initiate, promote, and evaluate design ranging from cities to landscapes and regions. It's important to show all of the cool things design can do!"

Image via archhitectuul.com