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.

Jun 24, 2019

Discover Flatiron: Pioneer Groups in Pride History

This year’s NYC Pride March, beginning at noon in the Flatiron District on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street on Sunday, June 30th, will also commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn rebellion that led to the modern-day LGBTQIA+ rights movement. In honor of the occasion, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership looks back at two pioneer groups that once occupied offices in the neighborhood while campaigning for gay and lesbian causes before the 1969 Stonewall uprising.

Considered one of America’s first gay rights groups, the Mattachine Society was established in Los Angeles in 1951. The nonprofit organization’s name had been derived from the Italian word mattachino, a court jester who would dare to tell the truth to the king. One of the Society’s major missions was repealing discrimination laws, which included the 1953 executive order issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower that banned homosexuals from Federal employment.

Shortly thereafter, the Mattachine Society began expanding nationwide, which included a New York City chapter created in 1955 by Sam Morford, an industrial psychiatrist, and Tony Segura, a research chemist. In 1959, MSNY opened its headquarters in Flatiron at 1133 Broadway, also known as the St. James Building, between 25th and 26th Streets. At this location, the organization provided on-site and outreach social services to individuals in rooms 304 and 412.

“Advice was given by phone, by mail and in-person without charge and for those who needed professional assistance, referrals were made to physicians, attorneys and psychotherapists who were known for their compassion for and understanding of the problems of gays,” according to records in the New York Public Library’s Archives & Manuscripts division.

In a show of solidarity, MSNY soon offered to share their workspace with the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), one of the first U.S. organizations for lesbians. Its name paid tribute to the erotic poetry collection known as The Songs of Bilitis. Founded in San Francisco in 1955, DOB’s New York City chapter was established in 1958 by Barbara Gittings, the daughter of a U.S. diplomatic corps member, and Marion Glass, who was also Gittings’ friend and her hiking partner.

Gittings was an advocate for gay youth to have library access to books about sexual orientation. As a college undergraduate, she reportedly had been the subject of rumors based on her close association with a female student. This episode led Gittings to a period of exploration, ranging from reading textbooks about homosexuality to novels that featured lesbians. “At last here were lesbians shown as real people,” Gittings said about the latter in Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities by John D’Emilio. “They didn’t exactly have lives of bliss, but at least they were functioning people and had their happiness.”

During this time, members of the LGBTQIA+ community often encountered hostile environments. This included businesses in New York City where gay men and lesbians were “not served alcohol in public due to liquor laws that considered the gathering of homosexuals to be “disorderly,’” according to the History Channel’s website (history.com). “In fear of being shut down by authorities, bartenders would deny drinks to patrons suspected of being gay or kick them out altogether; others would serve them drinks but force them to sit facing away from other customers to prevent them from socializing.”

MSNY members decided to take action. Led by Dick Leitsch, who was the group’s president from 1965 to 1969 and an openly gay journalist and former bartender, MSNY chose to hold a number of ‘sip-in’ demonstrations. Equivalent to the era’s civil rights ‘sit-ins,’ MSNY “visited taverns, declared themselves gay, and waited to be turned away so they could sue,” notes history.com. In 1966, the group was  “denied service at the Greenwich Village tavern Julius’, resulting in much publicity and the quick reversal of the anti-gay liquor laws.”

By 1968, however, MNSY and DOB had moved out of their offices in the St. James Building, and within two decades, both organizations would cease to exist. Internal feuds, lack of funds, and diminishing support from the public, who now saw MSNY as “too timid, passive and ‘square’ after Stonewall,” reportedly brought an end to the New York City chapter in 1987. A decade earlier, DOB’s national organization also reportedly closed its doors due to conflicting views about their future direction, which included whether to align itself with gay men’s groups or lesbian separatist feminists. Some local DOB chapters were able to stay active for several more years.

But, to this day, the actions initiated by MSNY and DOB activists of the Flatiron District still remain memorable milestones for the LGBTQIA+ community and others. Shortly before his death at the age of 83 in 2018, Dick Leitsch received a letter of appreciation from President Barack Obama, reported The New York Times in their obituary about the gay rights advocate. “Thank you for your decades of work to help drive our nation forward on the path toward L.G.B.T. equality,” the President wrote to Leitsch. “Our journey as a nation depends, as it always has, on the collective and persistent efforts of people like you.”

Photo Credit: Dick Leitsch, 1965; Louis Liotta, New York Post Archives

May 6, 2019

Discover Flatiron: NYC's First Y.M.C.A Building

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Y.M.C.A.’s opening of its first building in New York City at 52 East 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue. In honor of the sesquicentennial celebration, the Flatiron/23rd Partnership takes a look back at the property that once served as the organization’s main headquarters beginning in 1869.

Founded in July 1852, the mission of the New York City chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) was “to harbor young men who were moving in droves to cities to make their fortunes,” according to the nonprofit’s website. 

During their first decade, the Y.M.C.A.’s initial offices moved to various locations throughout Manhattan, which included Lower Broadway, Waverly Place, and 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue, before the organization decided to build and own a new property on East 23rd Street.

The Y.M.C.A. paid a reported $142,000 for the site, according to the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide on April 13, 1901. James Renwick, Jr. was the architect and also a designer of notable neighborhood real estate such as Booth’s Theater at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue and the Free Academy, later known as The City College of New York at 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue, and now the location of Baruch College.

In December 1869, Renwick’s Y.M.C.A. building was dedicated and viewed as a property that “physically and programmatically combined religion, leisure, and commerce in an unprecedented way,” wrote Paula Lupkin in her book Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of Modern Urban Culture. 

“Behind an elegant Second Empire façade,” noted Lupkin, “complex paths of access and circulation connected public and private spaces on five floors, including ground-level stores, club rooms, a library, a gymnasium, classrooms, a large lecture hall, an art gallery, and artists’ studios.” The facility also featured an organ that cost an estimated $10,000.

“The library is valuable and varied,” wrote King’s Handbook of New York City edited by Moses King. “It has 43 early-printed Bibles which antedate 1700, including the Koburger Bible of 1477, Luther’s Bible of 1541, the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, and one in French of the eighteenth century, bound in marvelous covers of mosaic leather.” And, noted King’s Handbook, “all reputable persons, male or female” could visit the library. 

The Y.M.C.A.’s studios were often used by aspiring artists. Up-and-coming painters who either lived or worked there included Edwin Austin Abbey, Robert Swain Gifford, and William Sartain. And interior designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, best known for the creation of stained glass lamps, was also a regular resident and a son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co., whose corporate headquarters now occupy 200 Fifth Avenue, between 23rd and 24th Street, in Flatiron.

By 1901, however, the Y.M.C.A. sold its East 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue property to the Central Realty Bond and Trust Co. for $800,000. Shortly thereafter, fire destroyed much of the building and the property was demolished in 1903 to make way for the 11-story Mercantile Building.

The Y.M.C.A, which was also known as the McBurney Branch, named after former executive director Robert Ross McBurney, relocated to 213 West 23rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, in 1904. And decades later, the property gained global pop culture status for its reported inspiration and appearance in the 1978 Village People music video, “Y.M.C.A.” 

But after close to a century at West 23rd Street, the building was sold in 2002 and two years later converted into condominiums. Currently, the McBurney Branch is located at 125 West 14th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, and offers, notes its website, family-friendly “community-focused health and wellness programs, classes, and facilities.”

Photo Credit: New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection

Apr 16, 2019

Discover Flatiron: The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) was the first agency of its kind with initial offices in the Flatiron District. In honor of the April 1875 incorporation of the NYSPCC, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look back at the neighborhood origins of this groundbreaking organization.

It was the plight of an orphan that led to the creation of the NYSPCC. “She is a bright little girl, with features indicating unusual mental capacity, but with a care-worn, stunted, and prematurely old look,” wrote The New York Times on April 10, 1874 in its description of the New York State Supreme Court proceedings on behalf of the child. “Her apparent condition of health, as well as her scanty wardrobe, indicated that no change of custody or condition could be much more worse.”

The young girl’s story had captured the attention of Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which had various office locations in the Flatiron District during the latter half of the 19th century. According to The New York Times on December 9, 2009, Bergh “saw the girl–like the horses he routinely saved from violent stable owners–as a vulnerable member of the animal kingdom needing the protection of the state.” 

The case would also inspire the ASPCA founder to start a child protection agency. Bergh, along with philanthropist John D. Wright and ASPCA attorney Elbridge T. Gerry, decided to launch the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in December 1874.  In April 1875, the SPCC became incorporated as The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Their mission was “to respond to the complex needs of abused and neglected children, and those involved in their care, by providing best practice counseling, legal, and educational services,” according to the NYSPCC website.

In April 1880, the NYSPCC purchased a four-story brownstone at 100 East 23rd Street near Fourth Avenue (present-day Park Avenue South) that would serve as office space and temporary housing for abandoned and mistreated children. This location would make New York City history as the first children’s shelter. The agency also acquired an adjoining property in 1888.

By 1892, however, plans were underway for a new NYSPCC eight-story building and shelter at the same location. Noted area architects Renwick, Aspinwall & Renwick were selected as designers of the property, which had a reported construction cost of nearly $500,000. “The whole building will be extremely plain on the outside,” reported The New York Times on February 21, 1892, “with the idea of saving as much as possible of the building fund for securing interior conveniences and the latest modern appliances.” 

When the property made its debut with the address of 297 Fourth Avenue in April 1893, the building’s features included marble-finished walls, dormitories, elevators, a kitchen, and a roof garden with railings that served as a playground. “This Society was the origin of the numerous similar organizations which are now springing up in both America and Europe,” noted The New York Times on February 21, 1892, “[and the NYSPCC] intended to make the new headquarters an example worthy of being followed.”

Due to its expanding role, the NYSPCC sold its eight-story building in 1920 and signed a two-year lease for temporary headquarters at 214th Street and Bolton Road in Upper Manhattan. The property would also be remodeled to accommodate 200 children. 

Then, in 1922, the NYSPCC's shelter moved to Fifth Avenue and 105th Street. According to The New York Times on August 29, 1922, “From the cheerful little reception rooms, decorated with illustrations of fairy stories, to the big open-air playground on the roof, overlooking Central Park, there is everything to appeal to childish fancy.” 

However, to be closer to the courts handling child protection cases, the NYSPCC moved to its current Lower Manhattan location at 161 William Street in 1980.

Photo Credit: ASPCA of Henry Bergh, Co-Founder of NYSPCC and Founder, ASPCA

Mar 11, 2019

Discover Flatiron: Top-Tier Jewelers

In celebration National Jewel Day (March 13th), the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership shares some notable highlights about three prominent jewelers who have operated here in the Flatiron District.

From 1868 to 1885, pearl purveyor Jacob Dreicer & Co. was located at 1128 Broadway, between 25th and 26th Streets. “Dreicer’s appreciation for the subtle hues of the gem and his sense of design–he often uses them in settings with diamonds and platinum–made the firm’s jewels highly sought after,” noted the book Gilded New York: Design, Fashion, and Society edited by Donald Albrecht, Jeannine Falino, Susan Gail Johnson, Phyllis Magidson and Thomas Mellins.

Seeking potential customers, Dreicer often dined at nearby elite eatery Delmonico’s on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street. “Many of the famous strings and ropes of pearls and collections of jewels owned by persons prominent in modern social and business worlds were assembled by Dreicer & Co.,” wrote The New York Times on November 8, 1926. “The collection of these gems entailed a constant search of the world’s markets for stones of the highest quality. One 30-inch string of perfectly matched pearls assembled by the firm was of such rarity and beauty as to sell for $1,500,000 which is said to have established a record price for a string of pearls of this length.”  

A decade after Dreicer's arrival in the area, Theodore B. Starr, an acclaimed silversmith, jeweler, and Dreicer competitor, moved next door to the pearl aficionado. Starr’s store, however, shared two entranceways, 206 Fifth Avenue and 1126 Broadway, during its occupation in the neighborhood from 1877 until 1911.

Exclusive designs were often on display at Starr’s business, according to The New York Times on April 18, 1893. They included "a tiara containing 300 diamonds and 8 large emeralds, a corsage piece of pearls and diamonds arranged around a large sapphire, a necklace of emeralds and diamonds strung on an invisible gold chain, and a diamond studded hair ornament–a sword with a gold blade.”

An array of decorative items were also available for purchase, reported The Times. “The clocks—cathedral clocks with sweet chimes; the bronzes, wonderful in skillful workmanship—showing how hard and unyielding metal can be made to assume the appearance of soft-flowing draperies, and the vases and porcelains, all form a bewildering display.”

But by the beginning of the 20th century, Dreicer, Starr, and other commercial enterprises had followed the economic trend of moving north to Midtown. A century later, however, premier jeweler Tiffany & Co. announced, in 2010, the arrival of its corporate offices to the Flatiron District. Tiffany leased a reported 260,000 square feet for their new headquarters at 200 Fifth Avenue, between 23rd and 24th Streets. 

In 2017, Tiffany expanded its Flatiron footprint by nearly 17,000 square feet at 53 West 23rd Street. But, if you plan to purchase any of their dazzling diamonds on this National Jewel Day, you’ll still need to visit Tiffany’s iconic 57th Street and Fifth Avenue flagship store, which has been located in Midtown Manhattan since 1940.  

Photo Credit: Daytonian in Manhattan

Feb 8, 2019

Discover Flatiron: Henry Maillard, Confectioner

In honor of Valentine’s Day, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look back at the 19th century neighborhood chocolate retail store, restaurant, cooking school, and factory created by celebrated French confectioner Henry Maillard, who also became a leading manufacturer of chocolate in the United States.

When Henry Maillard migrated from France to New York City in 1848, he established a factory and catering business in Lower Manhattan shortly thereafter. He then began to receive raves as “confectioner par excellence in America,” according to King’s Handbook of New York edited by Moses King. Much of Maillard’s success in his new homeland was attributed to his elaborate catering at high-profile events. 

One such occasion was a White House renovation unveiling party hosted by President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, in 1862. “The gala boasted as its centerpiece a Maillard-made confectionery steamship flying the Stars and Stripes, along with sugar models of Fort Sumter and the Goddess of Liberty,” noted The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets edited by Darra Goldstein.

During this period, Maillard also initiated plans to open a store and restaurant. His factory had already relocated to 24th and 25th Streets just west of Sixth Avenue in Chelsea in the 1870s. Later, around the turn of the century, Maillard’s ground floor restaurant and store at 1097 Broadway (at 24th Street inside the Fifth Avenue Hotel) received recognition as a designated go-to destination. The site “quickly became a sparkling jewel in Manhattan’s crown,” noted William Grimes in his book Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York.

“Confectionary and pastry of the oddest and most ingenious shapes and varying in size from tiny candies to monumental decorative pieces several feet high in length, are the skillful products of this establishment,” reported King’s Handbook of New York. “Especially popular on Valentine’s Day for young suitors of means was the $500 box of chocolates containing one special morsel embedded with a diamond ring,” wrote author and Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership walking tour guide Miriam Berman in her book Madison Square: The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks.

In circa 1900 photographs, Maillard’s retail store and restaurant featured “an Edwardian fantasy of mirrored walls, crystal chandeliers, mahogany display cases, and a cherub-painted ceiling,” noted The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. “Surrounding the staff are tables of beautiful baskets and boxes of chocolates, as well as candy novelties like a life-size bust of a woman that could be mistaken for a customer. Chairs and tables along one wall reinforced Maillard’s claim that this was ‘An Ideal Luncheon Restaurant for Ladies.’"

Women, however, weren’t Maillard’s only patrons. New York City Mayor Smith Ely Jr., who held office for just one year (1877-1878) and lived in the community for more than two decades, was a steady customer. Ely told The Medico-Legal Journal in a 1908 article about longevity in life that “it was my regular habit on my way home from clubs and entertainments, to stop at Maillard’s and have a meringue glacé, followed by a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream.”

Chocolate products for Maillard’s restaurant and other retailers were manufactured at the confectioner’s five-story factory at 114-118 West 25th Street. Reportedly the largest of its kind in New York City, the property extended an entire block and had a second entranceway at 113-117 West 24th Street. 

“Four hundred people are employed at all times, and in the busy season this number is increased,” wrote King’s Handbook of New York. “Six traveling salesmen are engaged in making the products of the factory known to people in other cities; and in this work they have valuable assistance at the hands of the women of New York and their provincial friends.” 

The 25th Street building also served as the headquarters for Maillard’s New-York Chocolate School. According to King’s Handbook of New York, “Here free lessons are given on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, from October to June, in the art of making a cup of chocolate or cocoa, so that these delicious and nutritive beverages may be served in their perfection.” 

Following Maillaird's death in 1900, and the 1908 demolition of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, the retailer moved to 35th Street and Fifth Avenue. “There is but little question that Maillard is responsible for Americans being candy loving people,” reported Confectioners’ and Bakers’ Gazette in their obituary about the chocolatier. “Maillard’s chocolate, both to drink and to eat, gave us our first taste for a confection, which has since become one of the rivals of the staff of life.” 

Photo Credit: Boston Public Library

Jan 4, 2019

Discover Flatiron: Staying Fit Then & Now

With the New Year upon us, now is the time to get your fitness routine back on track. One way to kick-start 2019 resolutions is a visit to any of the nearly 50 fitness facilities in and around Flatiron (some are offering January Joiner deals and discounts!). This month, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership explores the workouts of neighborhood residents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the period of the Gilded Age, the Flatiron District was in the midst of an economic renaissance. This New York City neighborhood was often seen by the public as a pillar for society’s nouveau rich and famous. Real Estate and Record Guide on May 16, 1914, viewed the vicinity as “an exceedingly high-class residential district. It was composed of splendidly built private houses. The sidewalks of both 22nd and 23rd Streets were shaded with trees from river to river.”

Palatial properties included the 70-seat dining room Jerome Mansion at 32 East 26th Street, which was owned by Leonard Jerome, a Wall Street stockbroker and also later the grandfather of British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill; the Fifth Avenue Hotel, a social gathering place for politicians, at 200 Fifth Avenue; and Delmonico’s, located at 212 Fifth Avenue, where notables noshed on the elegant eatery’s mainstay meals of Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedict, and Lobster Newburg.

This era of extravagance also gave rise to America’s physical fitness movement. According to the book Pop Culture Places by Gladys L. Knight, “Lifestyles of Americans changed drastically at the turn of the century. Inventions and technologies significantly lessened the daily burden of living; leisure time increased and life became more sedentary.” The author also notes the first U.S. gyms appeared in the late 19th century and “concurrent with the appearance of individuals who advocated the need for exercise and promoted an array of special custom-made exercise programs.” 

One notable format of exercise equipment for the upper class was a portable gym, which could conceivably fit inside any grand-scale residence. “With home manuals the exercise enthusiast of the 19th century needn’t leave his or her home to get some activity, especially if they were the owner of a portable gymnasium,” reported the website Digital Public Library of America in 2015. “The portable gymnasium and system of exercises was remarkably egalitarian in its aim to help both men and women improve their health.”

In his 1861 manual The Portable Gymnasium, Gustav Ernst detailed more than 20 different forms of exercise to improve one’s physique. The BBC’s website described the gym in 2014 as “the apparatus, consisting of wooden boards of the finest mahogany with various pulleys, weights and cords attached, was designed for families wishing to reap the benefits of exercise and people with spinal problems.”

The website also gave an account of the workout attire most likely worn by women and men. “The manual shows women in full, puffy petticoats and tight-fitting bodices attempting activities such as leg extensions, downward traction, jumping exercises and chest expansions,” noted the BBC. “And the men are resplendent in long coats, shirts and accompanying neckties, looking remarkably dapper as they work up a sweat.” 

Other popular forms of physical fitness during this era included boxing, stretching, lifting dumbbells, and tossing bean bags. “Throwing and catching objects in certain ways, requiring skill and presence of mind, not only affords good exercise of the muscles of the arms and upper half of the body, but cultivates a quickness of eye and coolness of nerve very desirable,” reported The Atlantic in 1862. 

It was cycling, however, that truly captured the hearts of exercise enthusiasts. “People began riding bicycles for fun and as part of a more active lifestyle,” wrote the website My House Fitness in 2017. “In fact, there was an outright ‘bicycle craze’ in the 1890s when an increasing number of people began taking advantage of the improved technology of the machines. Even women were increasingly permitted to cycle, with feminist Susan B. Anthony referring to the bicycle as the “freedom machine.”

Today, Flatiron “maintains its status as a hub of fitness gyms and studios in New York City,” according to the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership’s Where Then Meets Now report issued in the Fall 2018. “The Flatiron BID began tracking new fitness openings in the neighborhood in 2014, and since then there has been a 30.6% increase in the number of gyms and studios in and around the district.” These are numbers Flatiron is proud to have gained as well as the distinction as New York City’s “Fitness District.”

Photo Credit: Liven Up Health & Fitness