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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Birth of the Skyscraper Romantic Symbols
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Romantic Symbols
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So many skyscrapers began to appear in New York that by the early years of the twentieth century these buildings become the symbol of New York. People began to see New York as the great skyscraper city and skyscrapers became romantic symbols of the city. They became the icons of New York, and this is something that remains true throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century as skyscrapers define the city.

The Flatiron Building
The first building to become a romantic symbol of New York was the Flatiron Building. The Flatiron Building was not the first skyscraper, nor was it the first steel-skeleton building, and it was never the world's tallest building—all the things that people traditionally associate with this building. But it was the first skyscraper to capture the romantic imagination of the world. And not only did it become an icon of New York after its completion in the early twentieth century, but it captured the imagination of artists. Edward Steichen photographed this romantic icon; Childe Hassam, the American impressionist painter, painted the building; and many other artists and photographers used this building in their works because it became a symbol of the city. And it was a symbol because of its triangular shape. Thus the name Flatiron, because it looked like the old irons that people used to iron clothing. It was originally called the Fuller Building because it was built by the Fuller Construction Company for its headquarters, but people almost immediately called it the Flatiron Building. The Fuller company understood the value of this name and popularity of the building, so they began calling it the Flatiron Building as well, and that became the name by which everybody knew this building.

Ironically for a building that became the symbol of New York, it was designed by a Chicago architect named Daniel Burnham, who was from probably the most prominent architectural office in Chicago, but he designed in a New York manner. It is a traditionally ornamented building. It is filled with classical ornament, including Medusa heads and classical wreathes and other ornament in brick and terra-cotta on the façade. It was not only a building that appealed to high-art interests, such as people who were interested in Steichen's photography or Hassam's paintings, but this building also entered popular culture. It is at a triangular site where Broadway and Fifth Avenue—the two most important streets of New York—meet at Madison Square, and because of the juxtaposition of the streets and the park across the street, there was a wind-tunnel effect here. In the early twentieth century, men would hang out on the corner here on Twenty-third Street and watch the wind blowing women's dresses up so that they could catch a little bit of ankle. This entered into popular culture and there are hundreds of postcards and illustrations of women with their dresses blowing up in front of the Flatiron Building. And it supposedly is where the slang expression "23 skidoo" comes from because the police would come and give the voyeurs the 23 skidoo to tell them to get out of the area.


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