Rushing out of the house on a Sunday morning after a night of carousing, I catch the train from Brooklyn to the Flatiron District tour, sprinting down the subway stairs seconds before the doors waver closed. Above ground, I have time to grab coffee and later learn my elixir was brewed on the site of Edith Wharton’s birthplace. This area drips with history.
After viewing a temporary camera obscura installation that displays an upside-down Flatiron building with figures scurrying past, I join a tour group of six people braving the freezing temperatures. Our guide is the exuberant and knowledgeable Miriam Berman, who fell in love with the location while working in the area as a graphic artist for the past thirty years. Her curiosity about the history of the place and its continual transformation led to notebooks filled with research that resulted in a book she refers to throughout the tour.
We start at the Seward statue, the prominent NY statesman you may remember from Seward’s “folly.” The Baked Alaska dessert was coined at a restaurant on this square in honor of the then-recent land acquisition. Our guide takes us through the park, showing us the Flatiron building from its most photogenic perspective, and casually mentions she was personally responsible for getting the landmark commission to replace the statue that sat atop the original structure. She noticed the statue on top of the Flatiron was never put back after its renovation, so she picked up the phone to inform the powers-that-be. An artist worked six months to recreate the statue from photographs Miriam and her friends provided and it was reinstalled in September of 2001. This is a great example of a small group making a difference for the larger good. It also has tones of the ubiquitous “If you see something, say something” slogan that echoes through the city transportation system, slowly brainwashing me.
Her connection to the Flatiron went even deeper when she designed a postcard to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Flatiron building, shown served on a spatula to celebrate its wedge-like shape. Responding to Katharine Hepburn’s claim that if she were to be any building, she’d be the Flatiron, Miriam mailed this postcard to Hepburn, and received the response, “What fun!”
The Flatiron also caused a wind phenomenon which resulted in the phrase “23 skidoo,” named after a policeman’s beat along 23rd street to chase away men who would linger in hopes of a glimpse of women’s ankles displayed when the wind whooshed down the building and bustled up their skirts. It also knocked over buggies and pushed people into the streets. With the additional tall buildings surrounding the area today, this phenomenon no longer exists.
Shivering against the wind, we are shown the near-complete restoration of the Snook building, built by the architect of the original Grand Central terminal. The restoration is progressing carefully, and the contractors have probed the front exterior to search for evidence of the earlier facade. Next door, we see Delmonico’s first uptown location as it marched northward to match its location with proximity to its wealthy patrons. We learn about Stanford White, “the only name you should Google today.” A prolific architect and lover of teenage girls, his life was cut short after being shot at point blank range by the husband of a woman he had an affair with when she was fifteen. White had dined at Delmonico’s the night of his murder, and the jealous husband dined across the room with his wife.
We peer at an example of the “hold out” phenomenon where small buildings are wedged between looming skyscrapers. These property owners resisted the siren call of cash for their dwellings, and thus retained their space and air rights above their buildings. The hold out at 1129 Broadway is now a tasty sandwich shop, but was one of the first to refuse to sell out to 1890s developers planning towering hotels on either side. This symbol of defiance in a sea of giant structures creates a valuable contrast and an inspiration to stand your ground.
At this point we lose the part of our group that had been the most annoying, getting us off to a late start while we wait for them to tour the camera obscura, interrupting Miriam’s Flatiron tales to point across the park and randomly ask, “What’s that?” and asking her to turn on her portable mic which was unnecessary and created frequent screeching feedback. The remainder of us happily huddle together against the wind.
Miriam goes gloveless to show us pictures and brain dump everything she knows about the area. International toy companies, Christmas ornament shops, the first public Christmas tree, P.T. Barnum, the scaling back of Met Life’s skyscraper plans because of The Depression, the disappointing highrise that snuck into the area at One Madison Square Park, the astonishing decline of the park, overrun by rats and homeless, unrecognizable in the 1970s. Gauging her captive audience, Miriam gives us two hours of her time, instead of the allotted ninety minutes, and we are grateful. My head is crammed, but I want more time to chat with Miriam.
A few days later, she graciously agrees to meet up, spilling tips about how to find information about the neighborhoods I may be interested in researching. As an almost-lifetime resident of Greenwich Village, her only complaint about changes she’s witnessed in the neighborhood is NYU’s snapping up of properties. These include the “Tile Club” cottage, viewable from her house but hidden from the street, which in the late nineteenth century was a group of renowned painters, sculptors, architects (the likes of Winslow Homer, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Edwin Austin Abbey, and Stanford White). Here they would gather to relax, shoot the breeze, and paint tiles together, something like a knitting circle of ceramic artists. Nowadays NYU students can be seen staring at their laptops inside the building. She also tells me about the historic Tenth Street Studio building specifically built for artist studios in the 1850s and the Salmagundi Club as an example of an 1850s rowhouse with its original interior intact.
Hopefully Miriam will offer a Greenwich Village tour someday. In the meantime, the Flatiron District tour is free, courtesy of the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership, and is held every Sunday at 11am. Miriam guides tours every other week, so check her schedule for dates.
FIVE THôT columnist Laura Zander is a book nerd on a perpetual quest to satiate her curiosity and observe the magic of juxtapositions. A veteran of the tech world, she's widely acknowledged as a product, marketing, and operations guru. You can read her other articles on FIVE THôT here, and follow her reading life at loudlatinlaughing.com or @lz
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