The Story of the Flatiron Building, “New York’s Strangest Tower”

Few out­side New York know the Flat­iron Build­ing by name, but peo­ple every­where asso­ciate it with the city. That owes in part to its ten­den­cy to appear in the vin­tage imagery of New York that adorns the walls of cafés, hotel rooms, and den­tists’ offices across the world. And that, in turn, owes in part — in very large part — to the Flatiron’s unusu­al shape, the result of a design meant to max­i­mize the prof­it of a tri­an­gu­lar plot of land bound­ed by Fifth Avenue, Broad­way, and East 22nd Street. You can hear the sto­ry of the build­ing, “New York’s strangest tow­er,” in the new video from archi­tec­ture-and-engi­neer­ing Youtube chan­nel The B1M just above.

We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured The B1M here on Open Cul­ture for videos on sub­jects like Europe’s lack of sky­scrap­ers — a con­di­tion that cer­tain­ly does­n’t afflict Man­hat­tan, though at the time of the Flat­iron Build­ing’s con­struc­tion in the first years of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the sky­scraper itself was still a fair­ly nov­el con­cept.

Laws gov­ern­ing con­struc­tion changed to keep up with devel­op­ments in the tech­nolo­gies of con­struc­tion: “Fol­low­ing a recent change in the city’s fire codes,” says the video’s nar­ra­tor, “this became one of the ear­li­est build­ings in New York to shun load-bear­ing mason­ry and instead take advan­tage of steel for its struc­tur­al frame.”

The Flatiron’s archi­tects were Fred­er­ick P. Dinkel­berg and Daniel Burn­ham, the lat­ter of whom is now remem­bered as the orig­i­nal king of the Amer­i­can sky­scraper. In fact, the very term “sky­scraper” was coined in response to the Mon­tauk Block, a high-rise he designed in Chica­go. But while the Mon­tauk Block stood only between 1883 and 1902, the Flat­iron con­tin­ues to stand proud — if, at 22 sto­ries, no longer rel­a­tive­ly tall — on the three-cor­nered plot where it first arose 120 years ago.  Alas, it has also “sat emp­ty since 2019, when its last ten­ants, Macmil­lan Pub­lish­ers, moved out.” After that began a series of ren­o­va­tions, and after that began “mul­ti­ple dis­agree­ments among the build­ing’s cur­rent own­ers and future ten­ants,” which cul­mi­nat­ed in a court-ordered auc­tion of the build­ing won by a bid­der who sub­se­quent­ly van­ished. But how­ev­er deep the Flat­iron plunges into legal lim­bo, its sta­tus as a New York icon will sure­ly remain intact.

Relat­ed con­tent:

New York’s Lost Sky­scraper: The Rise and Fall of the Singer Tow­er

Watch the Build­ing of the Empire State Build­ing in Col­or: The Cre­ation of the Icon­ic 1930s Sky­scraper From Start to Fin­ish

An Archi­tect Demys­ti­fies the Art Deco Design of the Icon­ic Chrysler Build­ing (1930)

A Trip Through New York City in 1911: Vin­tage Video of NYC Gets Col­orized & Revived with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

Why Europe Has So Few Sky­scrap­ers

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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