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Triangle Fire 100th Anniversary: The Catalyst for A New Architecture in Midtown

Aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire This March 25th marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire tragedy. The fire, which broke out in the factory space on the eighth floor of the building located on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Manhattan, spread to the floors above, claiming the lives of 146 garment workers, most of whom were young immigrant women. The tragedy was one of the worst industrial disasters in American history but it also prompted new legislation designed to ensure the health and safety of workers. While these new regulations improved working conditions for garment employees, they also influenced the development of large parts of the City.  At the turn of the century, New York’s garment industry was developing rapidly, from 39,000 workers in 1889 to 165,000 in 1919, outgrowing its early home in lower Manhattan.  In need of space that would comply with the City’s new laws regulating working conditions, garment manufacturers began moving north.  The industry was able to locate in newer loft buildings, which had large windows and high ceilings, providing greater space, light and air and improving conditions for garment workers. These buildings also had electricity, making it possible to use electric sewing machines and other equipment. In 1919, in response to the industry’s continued growth, a prominent developer joined with the Cloak, Suit and Skirt Manufacturers Protective Association to construct the Garment Center Capitol Buildings along Seventh Avenue between 36th and 38th streets.  These two buildings were built to house showrooms and manufacturing space for the garment industry. The success of this development drew manufacturers further north, causing a building boom from 1924 to 1925, when 47 buildings were built in the surrounding area. Because these buildings were built after 1916, the year of New York’s first zoning resolution, the Garment District more than anywhere else in the city, reflects these new regulations.  These post 1916 buildings feature prominent streetwalls and multiple setbacks from the street, resulting in New York’s distinctive “wedding cake” style of architecture. Settling in the western half of midtown proved to be essential to the vitality of New York’s garment industry. Locating near Pennsylvania Station gave manufacturers access to both out of town buyers and to their employees, who were increasingly moving to the outer boroughs. The proximity to the City’s retail along the renowned Fifth Avenue was also a great asset, allowing buyers the world over to visit manufacturers to view products and then visit stores to see the ways in which to merchandise and market those products. This central location also fostered the growth of a network of industries that were mutually dependent on each other such as fashion, finance, marketing, merchandising and advertising, all of which continue to be a driving force in the City’s economy. For information about events relating to the 100th Anniversary please visit rememberthetrianglefire.org. The Asch Building - former site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire - Photo by Steve Minor
New York University’s Brown Building, the former Ash Building, which was the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire.