175 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
D. H. Burnham & Co. (1902)
A fantastic crowd of Archtober enthusiasts joined us for the outdoor history lesson from Alice Sparberg Alexiou—not only the author of The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City that Arose With It—but also a descendant of a post-war Transylvanian real estate developer who owned, along with Harry Helmsley and another investor, the Flatiron Building for fifty years.
Alexiou told us the story of the site and how it was never able to shake its shape-based moniker—even after Harry Black hired turn of the century starchitect Daniel H. Burnham of Chicago to design a Beaux Arts skyscraper to replace its more humble predecessor structures built in 1855. The “skinny little piece of pie” was the site of one of the first skyscrapers built above 14th Street—never, however either the first, nor the tallest, according to our guide, and never the Fuller Building that Black so earnestly wanted. The building has changed hands a number of times, and it’s still the Flatiron.
We see the Chicago influences in the articulation and patterning of the terra-cotta and limestone facade. Medallions, buttons, wheat sheaves, rosettes, sunbursts, egg and dart, along with Medusa heads warding off evil spirits adorn the densely textured surfaces. Hard to capture that richness in LEGO, but they sure got the basic idea correct in the LEGO Architecture version. Two guests won kits!
Massing tricks from the Windy City include oriel windows that were used to break up the blustery microclimate created by standing in the free space of the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue. “Well I’ll be Blowed,” chortled a postcard from the time. And it was windy, as we stood at attention while Alexiou lectured in front and vigorous dancers interpreted the moment behind.
My recently repaired knee couldn’t keep me away from this very special event!
Tomorrow we are off on another cruise in the islands: The Staten Island Museum at Snug Harbor will be our Archtober 15 midpoint port of call.
Cynthia Phifer Kracauer is the Managing Director of the Center for Architecture and the festival director for Archtober: Architecture and Design Month NYC. She was previously a partner at Butler Rogers Baskett, and from 1989-2005 at Swanke Hayden Connell. After graduating from Princeton (AB 1975, M.Arch 1979) she worked for Philip Johnson.