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.

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).


Dec 21, 2016

Porcelanosa Carolers

Dressed in classic holiday garb, a quintet of ceramic Christmas carolers have welcomed watchers of their decorative display for nearly three decades atop the southern entranceway of the former Commodore Criterion building, now named Porcelanosa. At the 25th Street, six-story structure, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, the collective carolers, ranging from two to three feet tall, have "alternately charmed," according to Metropolis Magazine in 2015, "and perplexed pedestrians" during their previous year-round showcase at the property in the heart of the Flatiron District.

The building once was the headquarters for holiday ornament makers Commodore Manufacturing Corp. and Criterion Bell & Speciality Co. Years after the businesses exited to Brooklyn while leaving their holiday window décor in place, Spain-based Porcelanosa, a leading global designer of tile, bath, and kitchen products, purchased the 15,000 square foot property for a reported $40 million in 2012 as retail space for their U.S. flagship store.

"When the Commodore Criterion building closed, the carolers remained in the building where they aged and sustained many damages from the weather," recalls Manuel Prior, Director of Sales at Porcelanosa.

"When we purchased the building and began renovations, the carolers were shipped to Valencia, Spain, and underwent restorative repairs to the damages that they received throughout the years. They were also given a fresh coat of paint, which revived each of the characters. They are showcased in the Porcelanosa building during the holidays and then kept in safe storage during the other months of the year."

During their absence, however, the figurines and their significance have not been forgotten. "The legacy of the carolers is a symbol of the history of the building, and history is something that is highly valued by Porcelanosa," explains Prior. "The legacy and history of the carolers shows us to always remember where we came from."

Moving to a new location, however, such as the historic and vibrant community of the Flatiron District appears to be the perfect place for Porcelanosa. "Not only has Flatiron become a home for many companies in design, it is also the heart of the world’s leading shopping district and a major hub in NYC," notes Prior. "Porcelanosa values history, with the company itself started in 1973 in a small town in Spain, and now situated right on Fifth Avenue, we feel that it fits right in with the people, culture, and history of the Flatiron District."

Image via Porcelanosa.

Nov 9, 2016

Who Was William Jenkins Worth?

In observance of the anniversary burial of U.S. Army hero William Jenkins Worth in what is now known as the Flatiron District on November 25, 1857, the BID takes a brief look back at the officer's life. Worth's successful commands during a more than three decades-long career included the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Second Seminole War. A native of Hudson, in upstate New York, Worth was buried at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 25th Street, following his 1849 death from cholera in Texas, and temporary interment at Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery.

Born in 1794 to Quaker parents, Worth's father, Thomas, was “one of the original proprietors” of the family's hometown region, according to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website. Upon the completion of a basic education, Worth had brief stint as a clerk, before pursuing the military as a lifelong profession.

He was initially commissioned as an Army private in 1813, but Worth eventually rose through the ranks to earn a series of decorated titles such as Major General and Colonel. Throughout most of the 1820s, Worth was also a Commandant for Cadets at West Point's U.S. Military Academy, where he was characterized as being "something of a martinet," wrote Spencer Tucker in Almanac of American Military History: Volume 1

Worth's distinguished battlefield service included commanding New York City's Eighth Infantry Regiment during the Seminole Wars. "For his gallantry in these military engagements he was appointed Brigadier-General by President James Knox Polk," writes the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website. "Worth urged that the Seminoles be allowed to live in peace, and maintain certain territorial rights." And for his efforts during the Mexican-American War, Worth later became Puebla's Governor, and also headed the Army's Department of Texas before succumbing to cholera at the age of 55.

Upon his death, Worth's remains were relocated to Green-Wood Cemetery while awaiting the completion of a 51-foot high, Quincy granite obelisk structure, inscribed with the officer's famous battles, to be erected over the gravesite. Although Worth did not have a "special connection with New York City, a group of admirers arranged for his remains to be shipped back to New York, where he became one of the few public figures to lie in state at City Hall," wrote The New York Times on February 2, 2003.

Green-Wood Cemetery was also the site where a number of high-profile people during the 19th Century were laid to rest, notes New York City history website, The Bowery Boys. "Worth served under then-general Zachary Taylor at the start of the Mexican-American War," reports the website. "By the time Worth died, Taylor was the President of the United States. Certainly some political favoritism was at play."

Worth's burial procession took place in what is now known as the the Flatiron District on Evacuation Day, the Revolutionary War date when British troops left Manhattan in 1783.  The dedication ceremony featured 6,500 soldiers, and "a relic box was placed in the cornerstone, and Mayor Fernando Wood delivered the principal oration," according to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website. The gravesite's location near Madison Square Park, in the quiet, primarily upscale residential section during the mid-19th Century was "considered peaceful," comments The Bowery Boys website. "It would have truly been a sincere honor to be placed here."


Oct 26, 2016

Armory Murals Mark 80th Anniversary

When artist Earl Lonsbury painted nearly 1,000 square feet of oil on canvas murals in 1936, the yearlong project was a labor of heroic love. The Bayonne, New Jersey native was commissioned to create a series of reenactments from the 69th Regiment's most notable missions for their Lexington Avenue Armory headquarters, between 25th and 26th Streets, in the Flatiron District.

Lonsbury was employed by the Federal Art Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration, a relief agency established for Depression-era artists by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program. During this period, more than 118,000 paintings, sculptures, and murals were produced for public facilities such as libraries, post offices, and armories.

"A series of timeless, priceless murals," notes Bert Cunningham, the Lexington Avenue Amory's Regimental Historian and a former 69th Regiment officer, about the featured images in the 1906 Beaux Arts building. "Generations of Regiment members, veterans, families, and the public have viewed the early saga of America’s most famous military unit of Irish heritage." 

Initially formed in 1849, the 1st Battalion 69th Infantry was comprised of Irish immigrants. By 1851, the unit had become part of the New York State Militia and officially named the 69th Regiment. The soldiers soon gained recognition as "the heart of the historic Irish Brigade of the Union Army" during major Civil War battles, including Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1862, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863. Confederate General Robert E. Lee reportedly dubbed the Regiment "The Fighting 69th," and Hollywood subsequently used the name as the title for a 1940 James Cagney film based on the troop's service during World War I.

Lonsbury's role as Regiment storyteller appears on four basement walls in the Armory's designated Mural Room. His portrait of Marye's Heights on the East wall "depicts the Irish Brigade, including the 69th, led by General Thomas F. Meagher, making one of its six frantic dashes against withering Confederate musket and cannon fire from the sunken road and heights above the line at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862," describes Cunningham. "The Irish fought valiantly and lost many, but did not breech the defense. The Confederates hailed their fearlessness."

The West wall features Battle of the Ourcq. "It was at this battle in France, in July 1918, in which [Trees poet and 69th Regiment enlistee] Joyce Kilmer was killed by a sniper while out scouting the battle area," says Cunningham. "This was also the battle where Father Francis P. Duffy was actively out on the battlefield pulling in wounded soldiers to safety and for medical attention, which was in violation of Army regulations prohibiting chaplains from being at the battlefront. Father Duffy was always at the battlefront with the troops, which is one of the reasons he was so admired." 

The mural scenes on the South wall are The Wheatfield at Gettysburg in 1863, a New York welcome home parade in 1865, Camp Life in Tampa, Florida, during the 1898 Spanish-American War activation, and Over There, which is the largest of those panels, explains Cunningham. "It shows the infantry being transported in November 1917 to France on the S.S. America, once the luxury German passenger liner Amerika, which was impounded in a U.S. port at the outbreak of  World War I in 1914."

The three panels on the North wall, Lexington, Valley Forge, and Yorktown, "capture the Militia's role, later in history to become what is now the citizen soldiers of the National Guard, in the American Revolution," reveals Cunningham, who also conducts the Armory's appointment only tours. "All the murals are unique treasures and we need to have them preserved, restored, and kept in the best shape possible for future generations. I have a true love for the Regiment and its history and I enjoy sharing it with others."

Image: Battle of the Ourcq mural
Image Credit: Photograph by Steve Shilling,
Steve Shilling Media.
Sep 21, 2016

September 20, 2016 - 50th Anniversary of Flatiron Building Landmarking

Built in 1902 and initially called the Fuller Building, because of financial support by construction company owner and architect George A. Fuller, it was the building’s similar appearance to a traditional laundry flat iron that launched its name change to what we know it by today – the Flatiron Building. At the time, initial reviews of its architecture and design were mixed. "None more remarkable," declared The New-York Tribune; a "monstrosity" said The New York Times. However, it would be ongoing public sentiment for the Beaux Arts building throughout decades that led the then newly created Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to convene a public hearing in 1966 to determine the property's architectural relevance.


"As seen from the north, it has been compared, by many writers, to a great ship sailing up the Avenue," wrote LPC in the March 8, 1966 hearing report. "Whether seen at night, reflected in the glistening pavement during a thundershower, or fighting for its life in a blizzard, it has a quality of directional motion with its prow-like mass towering above the beholder. It is a building whose walls are covered with ornament, not one square inch remaining flush and plain."


During the Commission's hearing, just three witnesses spoke in favor of landmarking, with no testimony in opposition. In addition, a letter presented by the building's then owner, Flatiron Associates, headed by real estate developer Harry Helmsley, also expressed agreement for the designation.


On September 20, 1966, the Commission officially granted the Flatiron Building with New York City landmark status by stating, "On the basis of a careful consideration of the history, the architecture, and other features of this building, the Flatiron Building has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City." The Commission also noted, "At some time in the future this building may be in jeopardy. Our designation will be especially helpful in alerting New York City's elected representatives in Washington the importance of saving this building."


LPC is nation's largest municipal preservation agency and was created in 1965 due to the increasing demise of distinctive New York City properties. Today, the Flatiron Building is one of 1,364 individual landmarks in New York City. As an example of LPC’s forward thinking for the preservation of the building, it was not until 1979 that it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1989, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.