The Flatiron – what’s in the name?

The Flatiron Building
The Flatiron Building

Architect Daniel H. Burnham

Date 1902

What better way to advertise a successful company than to have a striking building bear its name! The Fuller Company, one of the largest construction companies in the United States (aka the world), erected a highly unusual building to house its headquarters that was to be called the Fuller Building.

flatironbuilding1884 New-York Historical Society
The site of the Flatiron, 1884, New-York Historical Society

However, due to its similarity in shape to a common household appliance, the triangular plot chosen for the building already bore the moniker of “flatiron.” The name got transferred to the new skyscraper despite the builder’s attempts to convince the general public otherwise. Romantic comparisons to a ship sailing up Broadway never caught on in the collective imagination, and the Flatiron metaphor stuck for good.

Construction of Flatiron Building Date: ca. 1905
Construction of Flatiron Building Date: ca. 1905, George Eastman House Collection

Designed by the Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, the Flatiron is one of the first New York City skyscrapers and has “a heart of steel.” Its deceivingly traditional terra-cotta and stone-covered walls hide the loadbearing steel skeleton, the feature which officially defines the Flatiron as a skyscraper. The limestone and terra-cotta facade is decorative, featuring elements of the French and Italian Renaissance.

The Flatiron Building
The Flatiron Building

The Flatiron Building attracted much attention from the get-go. One of the few completely free-standing structures in New York, it looks different from every angle. Its flat sides make it seem perfectly traditional, but the view from the north creates a most spectacular vista. Like most innovative structures, the Flatiron was hated by critics who weren’t kind to its aesthetic qualities. On top of it, there was a lot of anxiety associated with the building’s ability to withstand gusts of wind and worries about fire safety. The Flatiron proved to be very sturdy, but its aerodynamic shape created such strong wind patterns that at times people had difficulties walking past the building. On one occasion, a kid was thrown by a strong gust into the street and killed in traffic.

1905 postcard
“Well I’ll be blowed” – a 1905 postcard

A less tragic but more common issue was ladies’ skirts, which were disturbed on a regular basis. The fashion of the time dictated that the skirt should cover ladies’ feet completely. Much to the embarrassment of the proper ladies and the delight of local youth, skirts did go up and New York City policemen were on duty to shoo the spectators (who specifically came to the Flatiron in hopes of catching a glimpse of a delicate female ankle) away.

Fire safety was a great and real concern for the city. If an early skyscraper were to catch fire, there would be no way to put it out from the traditional fire-tracks since the would not be enough water pressure to reach the top floors. The Flatiron pioneered a system of water pipes installed inside the building which provided necessary fire safety. It was demonstrated in quite a spectacular fashion when the water was released from all the pipes, turning the Flatiron into a gigantic fountain.

I am seeing great things, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York
I am seeing great things, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York.

Designed as an office building, the Flatiron housed a wide variety of small businesses but first and foremost it was the home of the Fuller Construction company. Arguably some of the most desirable office spaces in the city with the best views are the “point” offices located in its narrowest curved corner of the building. The curvature was the idea of its architect Daniel Burnham, who also envisioned a classic entrance to the building framed by columns. However, these aesthetic considerations caused quite a disagreement between the architect and the developer, Harry Black, who was interested in maximizing the rentable space by using as much of a triangular-shaped lot as possible. As a result, the curvature remained but instead of a classical entrance, Harry Black forced the idea of the added advertising space attached to the front of the building. That detail became known as the cowcatcher as its shape resembled apparatuses attached to the train fronts used to catch unfortunate cows crossing train tracks at the wrong time.

The headquarters of the Daily Bugle In the Spider-Man movies
The headquarters of the Daily Bugle In the Spider-Man movies

The Flatiron appeared in photographs by Alfred Stieglitz as well as in Hollywood movies. In the 1998 film Godzilla, the Flatiron Building is accidentally destroyed by the US Army while in pursuit of Godzilla; in the Spider-Man movies, it is depicted as the headquarters of the Daily Bugle, where Peter Parker works as a freelance photographer. In its heyday, a fancy restaurant located in its basement served ice cream shaped like the Flatiron. Certain ladies’ hats were also designed in the same shape.

The Flatiron and 5th Ave Clock
The Flatiron and 5th Ave Clock

The Flatiron has seen some rough times when its neighborhood turned from posh to seedy and its design seemed too old fashioned. But it survived the ups and downs, and having been landmarked, the Flatiron is here to stay and to be admired.

Video links:

FlatIron Building NYC on a Windy Day 1903


What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City (1901)

This film was restored by the Library of Congress and was copied at 16fps from 35mm. Director: Edwin S. Porter Production Company: Edwin S. Porter


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