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.

Jul 26, 2017

Discover Flatiron: A Brief History of Public Transportation in the Flatiron District

There have long been a number of ways to commute to the Flatiron District. Here is a brief look at the ways people have journeyed to, and through, the neighborhood.

In the early 1800s, one of the primary forms of urban transportation was the omnibus. The bus was a long box with 12-15 seats, with wheels made of wood, and pulled by horses. It was turbulent travel due to the prevalence of cobblestone streets. Smoother terrain soon prevailed for commuters with the arrival of the first-ever horse-drawn railway along Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) in 1832.

The railway was the New York and Harlem Railroad, and within six years it amassed a stable of 100 horses, 40 cars, and four locomotives. The railway’s depot was located at 26th Street and Fourth Avenue, which was later the site of the original Madison Square Garden.

“The railroad cars moved on iron tracks fastened to granite sleepers that rose several inches above the street,” wrote Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr in their book The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. “These tracks provided a smooth ride for the vehicle on the rails, especially compared to the omnibus running along the rough street.”

The harnessing of electricity eventually led to the creation of New York City’s subway system, which debuted on October 27, 1904. “At 7 p.m. that evening,” states,  ”the subway opened to the general public, and more than 100,000 people paid a nickel each to take their first ride under Manhattan.”

This initial line was operated by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and included a station at 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue, and 28th Street and Lexington Avenue, where the 6 train now serves local passengers on the Lexington Avenue line.

The Brooklyn—Manhattan Transit Corporation’s Broadway Line opened on January 5, 1918. This line extended from Rector Street to Times Square, including the modern-day 23rd Street and 28th Street R/W stations under Broadway. On September 20, 1918, the line was extended to Whitehall Street—South Ferry.

Since 2002, the 23rd Street R/W station has featured artist Keith Goddard’s prominent display of glass mosaic hats on the station walls. Goddard’s “Memories of Twenty-Third Street” honors the Flatiron District’s history as a major commercial and cultural destination with a focus on fashions from the 1880s through the 1920s.

The Madison Avenue end of the New York and Harlem Railroad depot, Fourth Avenue and 26th Street, in the 1880s. Image via the Office for Metropolitan History

Jun 20, 2017

Discover Flatiron: The Fortune of Fourth Avenue

The New York City office and loft building boom of the early 20th Century was alive and well in the Flatiron District. A prime example is the FOURTH•AVE•BLDG at 381 Park Avenue South (at East 27th Street).

Constructed in 1909, 381 Park Avenue South is located on what was then known as Fourth Avenue. The surrounding neighborhood grew with the 1904 opening of the Fourth Avenue subway as well as the New York and Harlem Railroad’s central depot at East 26th Street and Park Avenue South, which preceded Grand Central Terminal. “It didn’t have a food court or a giant vaulted space or lines of shops,” wrote Christopher Gray in The New York Times on February 28, 2013. “But, it came to house six-day marathons, elephant races, and a tattooed nobleman.”

Once the subway was in place, it didn’t take long for the area to develop. “Fourth Avenue, now the greatest wholesale commercial thoroughfare on Manhattan Island,” wrote real estate and insurance magnate Wright Barclay in the February 3, 1917 edition of the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide, “has attained this distinction in a little more than ten years.”

In 1959, between East 17th and East 32nd Streets, Fourth Avenue was renamed Park Avenue South. Today, a diverse collection of businesses call Park Avenue South home, including Sarabeth’s and the luxury boutique Hotel Giraffe. The 16-story building still features the original name painted just below the roof on the structure’s southern side as a glimpse into its storied past.

May 24, 2017

Discover Flatiron: Making of the Manhattan Cocktail Myth

The opulence of New York’s Gilded Age was on prominent display among many of the Flatiron District’s wealthiest residents during the late 19th and early 20th Century. Whether exhibited through the architecture of their Mansard-roofed mansions or Beaux-Arts brownstones, Flatiron’s fortunate perpetuated tall tales about the region’s rich history, including the story behind the creation of the iconic cocktail known as the Manhattan.

The details about the drink’s origin have become a bit inebriated over the years. According to The New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything, edited by Amy D. Bernstein and Peter W. Bernstein, “The Manhattan was created in 1874, using rye whiskey, at the Manhattan Club at the behest of Jennie Jerome, a socialite better known in later years as the mother of Winston Churchill. The occasion was an elaborate party celebrating the election of Samuel J. Tilden as governor.”

The Manhattan Club was housed in the area’s fashionable Jerome Mansion. The property, at the time located at East 26th Street and Madison Avenue, was owned by one of the city’s wealthiest residents, and Jennie Jerome’s father, financier Leonard Jerome.

In contrast, Troy Patterson, in his 2016 article titled ‘The Manhattan Cocktail: A Complete Guide to Its Myth and Mythology’ states, “The fact that Jennie Jerome was, according to her biographer, not in the U.S. that year seems the least of the barriers to her authorship of the drink.” Patterson also cites that “the drink’s name connects it to the Manhattan Club, a social organization for rich Democrats where Tilden indeed celebrated ‘jollifications’ after his 1874 gubernatorial victory. But, there is no evidence that Manhattans were served.” 

Others in the Flatiron District have also sought credit for the cocktail’s invention, including the bar where it was served in the lavish Hoffman House, at 25th Street and Fifth Avenue. But, concluded Patterson, it was Leonard Jerome who earned the noteworthy cheer in Manhattan cocktail folklore as the designated “chief among its spiritual fathers.” 

Over a century has passed and no one has been able to determine the entire truth surrounding the Manhattan‘s origin. Shared stories told over many generations only leave behind a present-day myth that remains inconclusive. But, there is one thing we can all agree – the core ingredients that make a classic Manhattan.

2 ounces of rye whiskey
1/2 ounce of sweet vermouth
2-3 dashes of Angostura Bitters
Maraschino cherry as garnish

Jerome Mansion, image via Library of Congress.

Mar 20, 2017

Discover Flatiron: Bowling Comes to Madison Square Garden

The Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look back at Madison Square Garden and the historic bowling tournament billed as the most "elaborate ever held" in 1909.

For the first time in its history, The National Bowling Association held its International Tournament in New York City from May 24 to June 12, 1909. The tournament was held in Madison Square Garden, then located on 26th Street. The second Madison Square Garden was designed by noted architect Stanford White who was commissioned by a team of wealthy clients, including J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, for a reported final cost of $3 million when it opened in 1890.

Bowling's popularity boomed in the late 19th Century, and the Garden was deemed a perfect fit for the sport. "For the tournament, which will bring together many of the best bowlers of the country and the crack teams that have figured in the championships in former years, Madison Square Garden will be converted into a huge bowling hall, the entire floor space of the building occupied by twenty-four high-grade alleys, laid in the amphitheatre,” reported The New York Times on January 17, 1909.

On opening night of the 1909 tournament, which offered $50,000 in prize money, a total of 4,000 fans were in attendance. The three-week lineup featured 313 five-man teams, 700 two-man teams, and 1,420 individual players.

"I welcome the bowlers of America to the greatest city on the American Continent," said New York City Comptroller Herman A. Metz, reported The New York Times on May 25, 1909. “It is a stupendous enterprise, and well worth the support of every New Yorker who takes a pride in his city."

By the second day, New York teams dominated. The five-man team from "Jamaica, Long Island crowded out the Ravenswood team of Long Island City by rolling the high score of 2,809," reported The New York Times on May 26, 1909. By the tournament’s closing night on June 12, the top individual winner hailed from Brooklyn and two Manhattanites secured second place in the two-man competition.

Bowling continued to thrive at Madison Square Garden even after the venue’s relocation to Midtown (Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets) in 1925, then-considered the new hub of the City's flourishing business and commercial real estate markets.

Feb 13, 2017

Discover Flatiron: Chester Alan Arthur Becomes 21st President of the United States

In honor of President's Day on February 20th, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look back at the life of area resident, and 21st President of the United States, Chester Alan Arthur. President Arthur lived in a rowhouse at 123 Lexington Avenue, near 28th Street. It was here that Arthur was administered the oath of office on the morning of September 20, 1881, following the assassination of President James A. Garfield. It was the first time anyone had taken the oath of office in New York City since George Washington in 1789.

In 1880, Arthur had been elected as candidate Garfield's Vice Presidential running mate. Described as a man who looked presidential and also held elegant dinner parties, Arthur was in contrast to Garfield. The Vice President was viewed as dignified, a tall and handsome individual with a clean-shaven chin and side-whiskers, wrote The Presidents of the United States of America authors Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey. "He became a man of fashion in his garb and associates, and often was seen with the elite of Washington, New York, and Newport."

Such stylist surroundings were a far cry from Arthur's humble log cabin beginnings in Fairfield, Vermont. Born to Malvina, a homemaker, and William Arthur, a Baptist preacher and Irish émigré, on October 5, 1829, the future President recalled his youth idyllic, with time spent with his siblings, in Ruth Tenzer Feldman's biography Chester A. Arthur, "What a life we did lead...sitting up like owls til two or three in the morning...quite satisfied with our little world."

Arthur graduated from Union College in 1848 in Schenectady and practiced law and later was a principal at a Vermont academy. He then served as New York State's Quartermaster General and Collector of the Port of New York, where he supervised thousands of Custom House employees.

In his personal life, Arthur and Ellen Lewis Herndon married in 1859. They had three children, a daughter, Nell, and two sons, William and Chester II. Following the untimely death of Ellen Lewis at the age of 42 in 1880, Arthur spent many of his days in mourning, and rarely left the house at 123 Lexington.

That changed once Arthur entered the Presidential office the following year. His legislative work included the enactment of the first general Federal immigration law, according to Frank Friedel and Hugh Sidey in The Presidents of the United States of America. The authors noted that Arthur was also a champion of civil service reform and created a classified system that made certain governmental employment obtainable only through competitive exams.

In the end, Arthur's presidency would prove to be one term. Arthur left politics in 1885 and returned to private law practice and his beloved Flatiron area home. Kidney disease claimed Arthur's life in 1886 and he was laid to rest near his wife in Menands, New York, approximately 20 miles from his alma mater.

Arthur is honored with a 15-foot bronze and Barre granite statue in Madison Square Park. According to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website, the $25,000 statue was commissioned by friends of Arthur and today stands at the northeast entrance of the park at East 26th Street.

The sculpture depicts Arthur standing in a frock coat before an armchair, draped with a rug, and embossed on the back with the presidential seal. "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted," wrote then noted newspaper editor and publisher Alexander L. McClure, "and no one ever retired...more generally respected."

Jan 23, 2017

Discover Flatiron: Electric Signage Debuts in the District 125 Years Ago

For many Flatiron District businesses during the late 19th century, print was the primary form of advertising. This was the reality for most retailers on the iconic Ladies' Mile, located between 15th Street and 24th Street, along Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Sixth Avenue. However, in 1892, it would take 1,457 history-making incandescent lightbulbs to showcase an emerging marketing strategy with the first-ever installation of electric signage in the Flatiron District at the intersection of 23rd Street, Broadway, and Fifth Avenue.

The display site would be the Cumberland, a commercial hotel property owned by Amos Eno, a real estate investor and the developer behind 23rd Street's upscale Fifth Avenue Hotel. The first industry to embrace the new technology of "billboards made of light" at this location was the Long Island Railroad, wrote James Traub in The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square

The sign was designed by native New Yorker Oscar Gude, a leading outdoor ad executive. He would later be credited with creating the phrase "Great White Way" in reference to lit signage that appeared along Broadway, including in Times Square. The LIRR's 1892 ad attracted an audience of area residents and visitors with the slogan: Buy Homes on Long Island Swept By Ocean Breezes. "The sign, located at what was then the absolute center of New York, was a sensation--a brilliant, almost three-dimensional ad leaping out from the drab two-dimensional signs around it," described Traub. It stood 80' x 60' with lighting installed by the Edison Electrical Company.

Such advertising caught the eye of condiment king H.J. Heinz, noted William S. Dietrich in Eminent Pittsburghers. While riding a New York City elevated subway line, Heinz recalled how he saw a promo that read "21 styles of shoes" and "jumped off the train at the 28th Street station and began the work of laying out my advertisement plans." Heinz and Gude crafted the idea of a 40-foot green pickle bearing the Heinz name with the message "57 Good Things For the Table." 

With 1,200 lightbulbs, the Heinz sign made its premiere in 1900, wrote Quentin R. Skrabec in The Most Significant Events in American Business. "It flashed on a slow cycle, emphasizing the sign; after a short period of complete darkness, a second advertisement appeared."

The visibility of electric signage in the location, however, would fade within two years due to businesses moving to the newly designated commercial hub of Midtown and the arrival of the Flatiron Building.

Image via Graphic Design and Architecture, A 20th Century History by Richard Poulin (pages 44 and 45).