Jonathan Yardley

Book review of "Flatiron," about a Manhattan landmark

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 27, 2010

THE FLATIRON

The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose With It

By Alice Sparberg Alexiou

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 298 pp. $26.99

The neoclassical Beaux-Arts movement in American architecture reached its peak around the turn of the 19th century, which happened to coincide with a period of explosive growth in New York City. Four of its most familiar buildings were constructed then -- the Flatiron Building, the Plaza Hotel, Macy's, the New York Times Building -- and amazingly all have survived to this day, though the Times Building is wrapped in a modernist sheath and larded with advertisements, the cumulative effect of which is to leave it completely devoid of character. Still, the Beaux-Arts presence in Manhattan remains significant, albeit more treasured by ordinary citizens than by architects.

One aspect of New York's Beaux-Arts tradition that is little-known today is that all four of these famous edifices -- not to mention countless others -- were built by a single firm. The Fuller Company was established in 1882 by George Allon Fuller, a New York architect who had moved to Chicago two years before. He was ambitious and far-sighted, and the right man for the time. Chicago, New York and cities around the world were beginning to build up rather than out -- "skyscraper" had just entered the language, derived from "a nautical term that signified the uppermost flag of a ship's mast" -- and new methods of construction were required. Fuller was convinced that steel "was stronger and more flexible than iron" and thus was more suited to tall buildings, and he coordinated "every aspect of building construction" in what became known as general contracting.

By 1893, when Chicago opened its celebrated Centennial Exposition, Fuller was immensely wealthy. Around then, Alice Sparberg Alexiou writes, he "met a man twelve years his junior named Harry St. Francis Black," who was "impossibly charming, and ruthless." He was a born salesman, and he sold himself to Fuller's daughter, Allon, whom he married in 1894. "He was thirty-two, she seventeen," and the marriage does not seem to have been unduly happy, but Fuller saw Black's strengths and brought him into the company as vice president soon after the honeymoon. After Fuller's premature death in 1900, Black took over the presidency of the company, merged it with another and created "the skyscraper trust," capitalized at $20 million, "making it the largest construction company in the world to date."

In 1901 Black acquired "a tiny triangle of land -- it measured 9,000 square feet -- just south of Madison Square, at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, and bordered on the south by Twenty-second Street." New Yorkers called the lot "the cowcatcher" or "the flatiron, because its triangular shape recalled the common household tool used for pressing clothing and linens." The lovely park in Madison Square was one of the most popular places in Manhattan, so the triangle's location was ideal. Black "wanted the flatiron for a new company headquarters, because, he believed, it was absolutely the perfect spot, the crossroads of Broadway and Fifth, the two greatest thoroughfares of the city that was the center of the world."

Alexiou -- a native New Yorker and the granddaughter of a man who for a time owned the Flatiron Building in partnership with Harry Helmsley -- has written an engaging and informative account of the building's construction and its lasting place in New York's lore. I confess to a deep bias in favor of her subject, because when I lived in New York in the early 1960s I made regular pilgrimages to Madison Square in order to gaze reverently at the Flatiron, after which I walked a few blocks south to Union Square and the used book district that -- O lost! -- then thrived nearby. This was long before New York's renaissance, and the neighborhood was distinctly grubby, but even under a deep coat of soot the Flatiron's beauty and dignity shone through, and it was easy to imagine how much it had startled and thrilled the city six decades earlier.

The building was designed by a skilled but long-forgotten architect named Frederick Dinkelberg, who worked with the famous Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, who had designed the Centennial Exposition and was a member of the special commission appointed by the U.S. Senate to redesign the nation's capital, the Mall in particular. Dinkelberg "believed wholly in the design philosophy of D.H. Burnham & Co., that is, creating modern buildings in the image of ancient architecture." The neoclassical style was reviled by many, most notably the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, but the success of the exposition had convinced Burnham that "images from the past were what the public craved," and he built a singularly lucrative -- and influential -- career on that conviction.

The design he came up with for Black's Madison Square triangle was "a strange, wafer-thin skyscraper in the shape of a right triangle, topped with a heavy ornate cornice." It "had three horizontal divisions, each corresponding, respectively, to a classical column's base, shaft, and capital." Its "two main elevations each soared straight up to the sky, like giant screens, and were punctured continuously with rows of rectangular windows." As presented to the city for a building permit in 1901, it was 20 stories plus an attic, 286 feet tall, and "besides steel, it would consist almost entirely of terra cotta, a material much used by the ancients for their tiles and drainpipes, and now being reinvented as a state-of-the-art product for skyscrapers."

Construction was carried out principally by ironworkers, whose union chief, Sam Parks, "a willing recipient of kickback," Black kept in his pocket with regular payoffs. Corrupt though he may have been, Parks was loved by his men, for whom he won generous wages and whose interests he belligerently protected. They assembled the steel frame of the Flatiron with dispatch, driving in rivet after rivet with pneumatic hammers that worked with astonishing speed. Sidewalk superintendents watched in awe as the building steadily rose. When the project was completed, in 1903, the city had a glorious new adornment, as Black boasted in advertisements for what he, but almost no one else, called the Fuller Building:

"The Fuller Building, the ads said, was the strongest building ever erected. It would have its own steam and electric plants, which would furnish free heat and light to tenants. It would have six hydraulic elevators, manufactured by the world-famous Otis Company. . . . Hydraulic elevators were fast and efficient for the time, and needed no electricity, instead running on water pressure that moved pistons up and down within a vertical pipe, thereby activating a system of ropes and pulleys. As for the woodwork, 'It is of mahogany and quartered oak, and has all undergone a process of fireproofing, in order to eliminate the possibility of fire.' "

The building was a success, not merely commercially but artistically. Famous photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen celebrated its allure, and many artists painted it. But Manhattan was moving inexorably northward, and Madison Square lost its cachet. This surely does not explain Harry Black's decision to take his own life in 1930, and as it turned out the fortunes of the square and the building in time were reversed. For all his faults as a human being, Black was "the man who forged the deals to build some of New York's grandest structures," and: "These monuments are what remain of Harry Black. They embody the very soul of New York, and all who love the city owe him a great debt. With these buildings, he left a far greater legacy than most people could claim."


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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