Wedge-Shaped Jewel

The Flatiron Building is one of those architectural curiosities that has always attracted both admiration and disapproval. Unlike NYC’s newer, loftier skyscrapers (such as the Woolworth, Chrysler and, of course, Empire State buildings), the Flatiron appears somewhat quaint and rather droll. Even though an odd structure here and there  can be found in such cities as London or Paris, the Flatiron ranks among the most famous of structural oddities and, as a result, a popular target for controversy.

Completed in 1902, the Flatiron Building (originally called the Fuller Building, after George A. Fuller, who financed its construction) is situated on a triangularly shaped city block at 175 Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street in Manhattan. The building derives its name from the shape of this block and for its business: flatirons; the neighborhood itself is known as the Flatiron District.

Designed by Daniel Burnham, it was one of the first buildings to utilize a steel skeleton, crucial to support its height of 287 feet. Many people erroneously consider it the city’s oldest surviving skyscraper, whereas the Park Row Building is three years older and taller. During the building’s construction, many thought that it would topple over and critics soon  began calling it “Burnham’s Folly” due to its peculiar and precarious  shape. Others felt that it was a ludicrous sacrifice to form over function, artistry over safety, and would prove to be an utterly useless if novel conversation piece: the eccentric whims of its architect.

Reports, both real and fanciful, of strong and sudden currents of wind that would buffet the building and adjacent streets, lent credence to the widespread belief that the building would simply fall over or just as simply fall apart. The adjoining area, particularly 23rd Street, already possessing a somewhat shady reputation, began drawing hordes of “lusty young men” eager to view the bare legs of women when their skirts were blown upwards by the eddying wind (you know…I’m sorry I missed that one). Police would shout to these roues to disperse by shouting “23 Skidoo.” While this phrase is now obsolete, an offshoot expression was widely used throughout the last century in America: “scram!”

However, as the years passed, most New Yorkers came to accept, admire and (in various ways) love the wedged-shaped jewel erected in their midst.  As with the World Trade Center seventy years later, it merely assimilated itself into a city conducive to assimilation. While progressively larger and ambitiously taller buildings emerged around it, the Flatiron retained its quiet yet tough dignity…often out of sight but never out of mind in our modern age.

“Perhaps because it symbolizes so much of how New Yorkers see themselves — Defiant, bold, sophisticated, and interesting. With just enough embedded grime and soot to highlight its details. ” (Glass, Steel and Stone)

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