The faces on the Flatiron Building

FlatironbuildingpostcardThe Flatiron Building is so striking and unusual, it’s easy to get caught up gazing at the overall shape and design and not notice that near the top of its 22 floors are some rather unfriendly faces.

These grotesques, like this one below, have been staring pedestrians down since 1902, when the Flatiron Building—originally called the Fuller Building—opened. It was an early New York skyscraper and one of its tallest for years.

Though not an immediate architectural hit, its cultural impact was established fast. Artists photographed and painted the building, and writers referenced its beauty.

In 1906, H.G. Wells wrote: “I found myself agape, admiring a skyscraper—the prow of the Flatiron Building, to be particular, ploughing up through the traffic of Broadway and Fifth Avenue in the late-afternoon light.”


Fun fact: The term “flatiron” was used before the building was ever conceived; it’s what locals called the iron-shaped triangular plot at Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 22nd, and 23rd Streets upon which the building was eventually constructed.

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13 Responses to “The faces on the Flatiron Building”

  1. PizzaBagel Says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that’s Medusa or one of her two snake-haired Gorgon sisters from Greek mythology.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Good eye–looks Medusa-like to me.

  3. James Says:

    Love your stuff, but you’ve stumbled onto my pet peeve. The Flatiron was neither New York’s first skyscraper nor its tallest. Many downtown buildings vie for that title, but the now-demolished Tower Building at 50 Broadway from 1889 was likely the first. When the Flatiron opened in 1902 at 285 feet, it was over 100 feet shorter than the Park Row Building, which had opened 3 years earlier.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    Okay, I stand corrected. I’ll have to look into this Tower Building soon!

  5. Skillz Says:

    I saw this same story on here two days ago

  6. wildnewyork Says:

    That really is a freaky coincidence. I walked by the building a few weeks ago, noticed the face while waiting for the light, and thought it would be a unique way to get the Flatiron on Ephemeral again.

  7. m Says:

    Little Abe Relis here, I see that other guy’s story included that same great old photo of the flatiron that you used last year. The blue one. Maybe it ain’t Medusa cause Medusa had snakes in her hair and they ain’t snakes in this one I don’t think. Really neat stuff here. Thanks.

  8. wildnewyork Says:

    Thank you Abe. I don’t know much about Medusa but I do love that Steichen photo of the Flatiron at twilight. A talented artist who paints with words brought it to my attention one day.

  9. One century and three views of East 23rd Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] But it had its landmarks and haunts—Madison Square Park on the left, commercial loft and walkup buildings, and out of view on the right, the 1902 Flatiron Building. […]

  10. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    No where (in this entry or the comments) is an explanation presented that a FLATIRON is also a solid metal utensil used for smoothing wrinkles from freshly laundered apparel.
    A flatiron was heated (generally atop a cooking or heating stove) and was rubbed across the wrinkled apparel till it was smooth. When the flatiron cooled, it was then replaced atop the stove till the iron utensil was sufficiently heated again. This was a time consuming labor and the iron proved heavy to deal with in a repeated movement. A lucky person had several irons so a laundry-person could move from a cool iron to a warmed one and finish the laundry-chores faster!
    The shape of the FLATRION Building not only fit the real estate configuration between two streets but also bears the form of this well-known laundry tool!

  11. jms Says:

    It was New York’s first skyscraper and its tallest for years.

    Some NYC buildings taller than the Flatiron in 1902
    • American Surety Building (1894): 312′
    • American Tract Society Building (1896): 306′
    • Broad Exchange Building (1902): 277′
    • Commercial Cable Building (1897): 304′
    • Empire Building (1898): 293′
    • Madison Square Garden tower (1891): 304′
    • Manhattan Life Insurance Building (1894): 348′
    • New York World / Pulitzer Building (1890): 309′
    • Park Row Building (1899): 382′
    • St. Paul Building (1899): 313′
    • Standard Oil Building (1899): 280′
    • Washington Life Building (1898): 273/280′ (accounts differ; let’s go with the latter figure)
    Note that the Flatiron Building itself was ~275′, which is neither a precise figure nor what you find in various common references, because when built it was one floor shorter than it is today, and I haven’t been able to locate a mention of its original height. Grrr. All I know is that it was about 10′ shorter back then — but that’s more than close enough for purposes of my little list. Hence, there were at least a dozen taller office buildings in NYC, and one of them was even across Madison Square Park!

    As for the question of its having been NYC’s first skyscraper, I will address that at a later date … but you can probably guess my verdict. 😉

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’ve amended this so it reads “one of its tallest….”

      • jms Says:

        Cool! I thank you and Eternal Verity, a pal of mine, thanks you.

        I would mention, though, stinker that I am, that the number of years the Flatiron was among the city’s tallest wasn’t very many, since after 1902 the race for the sky really took off, and soon there were scads of buildings of comparable height. Would that the Skyscraper Museum had a 20 and Taller page covering developments after 1900 as a sequel to their Ten and Taller project, but that would no doubt have been too exhausting an effort.

        What will always be true of the Flatiron, however, is its striking, soaring appearance. I will never forget walking down Broadway from the UWS in my first month or so as a New Yorker and first sighting the building coming into view, then watching it loom larger and larger as I approached Madison Square. It made an indelible impression. (I clearly recall my somewhat naive if basically accurate observation at the time: The buildings are definitely getting older as one heads downtown.)

        That H. G. Wells quotation (from his 1906 The Future in America: A Search After Realities, a work still much worth reading) has always delighted me, but I wish I could figure out what Wells meant when he says the New York chapter was written “In a room on the ninth floor in the sky-scraper hotel New York”. What hotel would that have been? This is among my great ongoing infoquests.

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