FLATIRON BUILDING


Designed by D.H.Burnham and Company; completed 1903
New York, New York
With its striking shape, prominent location, and exceptional height, the Flatiron
Building was one of New York’s most discussed and distinctive skyscrapers at the
beginning of the 20th century. It was originally named the Fuller Building after the
George A.Fuller Company, which had served as the building’s developer and builder and
was one of its original occupants until moving to a new building in 1929. From its lofty
quarters, the New York office of the Fuller Company oversaw as general contractors the
construction of several of the city’s most prominent buildings. However, few called this
skyscraper the Fuller Building; the triangular lot from which this tower rises quickly led
to the building’s popular moniker, the Flatiron.
The architect of the building was D.H.Burnham and Company of Chicago. Daniel
H.Burnham (1846–1912) had established himself as one of America’s most prominent
architects and planners. By the time the Flatiron was being designed and built (1901–03),
Burnham was devoting much of his time to big plans. Among other things, he played an
important role in the development of the Senate Park Commission Plan (1901–02) for
Washington, D.C. Concurrently, his large architectural office was designing numerous
buildings across the country. Burnham oversaw the operation but left much of the
creative work to several talented designers in the firm, including Frederick P.Dinkelberg,
who appears to have had an important hand in the architectural design of the Flatiron.
At 21 stories or 307 feet tall, the Flatiron Building was one of the taller skyscrapers in
New York when it was built. The building’s structural steel frame, with extensive wind
bracing, reflected the recent acceptance of the all-steel skeleton for skyscrapers in New
York, after the pioneering efforts of the Chicago School (in which Burnham and his
former partner John W. Root had played a key role). The limestone and terra cotta that
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cover the building are of the same light monochrome. The rustication and heavily
ornamented patterns of these walls, as well as the conservatively sized windows, give the
façades a heavy appearance, even though these are not load-bearing walls. The multistory
oriels in the midsection, which are prominent in many of Burnham’s Chicago buildings,
are just barely perceptible on the busy, more enclosed skin of the Flatiron. This greater
visual weight becomes especially evident in comparison with Burnham’s earlier and even
his contemporary work in Chicago. It is as if this Midwest-bred approach to skyscraper
design became more formal when it came east to New York.
Stylistically, the design of the Flatiron draws from the classical tradition, with French
Renaissance motifs. Ever since Burnham played a pivotal role in the staging of the 1893
World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he became increasingly enamored with
Beaux-Arts classicism, an attraction that found its broadest expression in his involvement
in the City Beautiful movement. The Flatiron is a vertical extension of a Renaissance
palazzo: the tripartition of the overall design into a distinct base, a repetitive midsection,
and a crowning cornice is now extended over 20 stories, making the whole appear
column-like. If the Flatiron had been a building of a more traditional height, it could have
fit comfortably in a contemporary City Beautiful plan with radial avenues carving
triangular lots in a Parisian manner. But the Flatiron is not of a traditional scale. Its
enormous height stretches its classical garb uneasily. It is not a part of a larger
choreographed urban ensemble; in fact, it stands isolated as a freestanding tower on its
own small urban island bound by 22nd Street, Broadway, and Fifth Avenue. The diagonal
slice that Broadway makes through Manhattan’s grid as it skirts past Madison Square
creates the site’s right triangle. The long, thin triangular footprint of the Flatiron extrudes
up through all its stories. With all three façades facing streets, this tall, thin building was
designed to always have very well-lit office spaces.
The most acute angle of the Flatiron points north. Early 20th-century commentators
often likened this sharply curved corner of the building to a ship’s prow. When seen at an
angle from Madison Square, the building can appear to have little depth, like a wall
leaned precariously against the sky. The gravity-defying illusion of the building is further
enhanced by the enormous cornice projecting aggressively from the top of the building,
giving the whole affair a top-heavy appearance. Although the building is in the flattopped
tradition of the Chicago School, its arrow-like north angle can make the Flatiron
appear as if its horizontal cornice is pointing skyward in photographs. The striking visual
presence of this uncommon vertical mass is what made the building instantly famous
both with tourists and those in the arts grappling with the nature of New York’s
modernity. Did D.H.Burnham and Company intend all of this drama in the Flatiron?
Perhaps not; the elements of the design fit in comfortably with the general development
of the firm. It was the unconventional triangular lot, coupled with exceptional height, that
transformed architectural conventions into something unique.
In the first years after completion, the Flatiron Building received
considerable attention from various sources. In 1903 the reported that strong, swirling winds were congregating at the building’s base and
playing havoc with pedestrians. One writer for Munsey’s Magazine in 1905 contemplated the ironies of
contemporary civilization in New York from a godlike vantage point high up in the
Flatiron. A 1903 essay in Camera Work discussed whether the Flatiron would lead to a rethinking of
aesthetics. Photographers responded most profoundly to the visual challenge of the
Flatiron. Photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen taken soon after the
building’s completion established the Flatiron’s iconic presence upon the modern
imagination. However, these early photographs typically veil the Flatiron in the
atmospheric effects of nature; the building’s stylistic pretensions erode as the sublime
vertical mass becomes dominant.
In 1903 the Flatiron stood in relative isolation near Madison Square, since the city’s
other early skyscrapers were clustered further south on Manhattan. However, ever-taller
skyscrapers soon dwarfed the Flatiron: the 700-foot Metropolitan Life Tower (1909)
arose on the other side of Madison Square, and the Empire State Building (1931) was
built several blocks to the north on Fifth Avenue. From the tops of both of these buildings
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one had new yet belittling views of the Flatiron. Today, the Flatiron is one of New York’s
oldest extant skyscrapers and re tains its theatrical and unsettling presence amid the evergrowing
concentration of Manhattan’s skyscrapers.

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