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Postcard. source unknown

The Flatiron Building’s status as the pre-eminent architectural celebrity in early 1900s New York is evident in numerous written accounts, from newspaper articles to poems, but more persuasively in the sheer array of extant media employed to picture the new skyscraper. In early actuality films, stereographs, photographs, sketches, paintings and postcards the fascination the Flatiron held seems apparent. Yet, despite this range of picture resources, the reasons for the Flatiron’s attraction are less obvious, particularly when considered alongside common misconceptions about the building’s status.

Built in 1902 as the Fuller Building, quickly dubbed the Flat-Iron, in what has subsequently become the Flatiron District, Daniel Burnham’s twenty-one storey, 285 feet tall building is often referred to as New York’s first load-bearing steel frame tower, New York’s first skyscraper and, at the time, the world’s tallest building.


Yet, as Municipal records show, Bradford Gilbert’s Tower Building at 50 Broadway pre-dates the Flatiron as New York’s first steel-frame tower by some fourteen years. As for being New York’s first skyscraper and the world’s tallest building? Hardly, during 1902 sixty-six steel frame towers were under construction in Manhattan of which no less than forty-three out-topped Trinity Church’s symbolic 260 feet spire (Landau and Condit, 1996, 280). Burnham’s Flatiron is but one of these forty-three towers, yet it did stand out from, if not above, the crowd; the building’s shape, although hardly unique, provides the first clues to its status.


Daniel Burnham and John Root’s Monadnock building (Chicago, 1889-91) famously pushed at the limits of load-bearing masonry construction techniques; given the sheer weight of the structure’s sixteen storey brickwork the ground floor walls had to be fifteen feet thick. Narrow ended, wedge-shaped towers were simply not possible before the advent of steel frame construction techniques. Once available, wedge-shaped towers became a common solution for triangular infill plots; again, New Yorker Bradford Gilbert provides an example.

Frame still from Panorama of Flatiron Building, (AM&B, 1903)


Image of flat iron courtesy Moray Council Museums Service.
Fort Worth Flatiron Building, John Roberts, Texas Registered Architect.
Photo of Atlanta Flatiron Building by permission of the Atlanta Urban Design Commission,
City of Atlanta, Georgia.


Gilbert specialised in designing buildings for narrow and odd-shaped sites and in 1897 his triangular shaped English-America Building was built in Atlanta and quickly dubbed the Flatiron. In close up both the Atlanta and New York Flatirons display a decorative, neo-classical façade. Formally, both buildings followed the distinct base-shaft-capital Commercial Style yet viewed from distance these wedge-shaped towers were insistently modern. The shape was new and could speak to the modern desire and fascination for what new technology could achieve. In addition to being a modern shape the New York Flatiron also commanded a spectacular location.


Prior to the Flatiron’s construction, at the narrow end of the building’s triangular plot a three storey, flat roofed building provided a stage for illuminated messages, displayed to crowds in Madison Square. A November 1888 edition of Harper’s Weekly carried a wood-cut illustration of election night crowds watching results projected onto a cloth screen (Grafton, 1977, 158). At the wider end of the plot stood a building dubbed the Cowcatcher, in 1892 the site of New York’s first electric sign consisting of 1,200 lamps advertising a residential development in Long Island. After the demolition of the narrow three storey building, the blank end of the Cowcatcher which overlooked Madison Square became the site for H.J. Heinz’s first ‘57 Varieties’ advert in 1900, six stories of electric signage topped by a thirty-foot bright green pickle on an orange coloured background (Singer, 1995, 75). As an established place for the spectacular and the modern the triangular plot at Broadway and 23rd Street provided an ideal site for that most modern of building shapes, a wedge-shaped ‘flatiron’. Steel framed techniques enabled the development of the site and once building works commenced the construction process itself could take centre stage. Modernist photographer Alfred Stieglitz recalled how he stood day after day watching the building works (Norman, 1973, 45); he was not alone gawking, seeking new vantage points, as the numerous extant photographs of the Flatiron being built verify. Curiously, of the remaining photographs of the Flatiron in its early years there seem to be more of the construction works themselves than of the completed structure.


Views of the Flatiron during construction.
(Library of Congress).

The design of the Flatiron Building’s façade served to foreground new building techniques. Not only was the building’s shape new; load-bearing steel frame building techniques also provided the spectacle of new, almost counter intuitive, construction processes. Rather than being built from-the-ground-up, brick upon brick and up to fifteen feet thick in the case of the Monadnock, load-bearing steel frames enable exterior façades to be just that, a thin curtain bearing on each steel frame supported floor.


Standard practice with buildings up to ten to fifteen storeys tall was to erect the building’s skeleton framework of steel beams and then to clad the structure with its external façade. With buildings over this height, the steel framework could be erected up to ten or more storeys high, then cladding work commenced on lower floors. In effect the building would grow at two levels, with the steel framework and the cladding work being done simultaneously. What was different about the Flatiron was the extent and detail of conventionally built stone walled façade at the building’s lower four storeys. Burnham had provided an intricate decorative design for the building’s façade in line with the neo-classical style; however, during construction the effect was to produce a thoroughly modern spectacle. The photographs opposite of the Flatiron under construction show four, then six, then eight intermediate storey exterior curtain-walls completed prior to the lower storeys. These intermediate storeys consisted of large terracotta slabs which could be quickly slotted into place whereas the stonework on the first four storeys was built using the much slower, conventional brick upon brick technique which was further slowed given the façade’s intricate detail. One reason the method used in building the Flatiron’s façade was unusual was the dangers it posed, both for the stone masons working on lower storeys, given the potential for falling debris from the cladding crews above, and for the building’s stability given its susceptibility to strong winds when half-built. The overall effect of Burnham’s design was that under construction, the Flatiron provided a new and modern spectacle, construction processes which defied logic, processes driven by their own modern, internal logic.


The attraction of the Flatiron seems more evident when considered alongside the site’s spectacular visual history, from election result screenings to giant size electric light displays, and alongside the modernness of the building’s construction process. These attractions are in one sense quite evidently visible, yet the notion that the Flatiron’s construction processes were represented during construction as just that - processes - shifts part of the Flatiron’s attraction into what we might consider to be less visible or representable realms. In the following sections I want to pursue the notion of processes becoming both visible and representable, firstly, by locating the Flatiron within its systematised cultural setting.