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What is the Flatiron Building?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Flatiron Building is a famous building in New York City which is known around the world for its very distinctive profile. Due to the unusual shape of the lot the building was constructed on, the Flatiron Building has a triangular footprint which does indeed cause it to resemble an old-fashioned flatiron. The building also lends its name to the surrounding neighborhood, which is dominated by this distinctive building; in fact, the building is so distinctive that it creates its own microclimate. Because of the unusual shape of the Flatiron Building and the surrounding architecture, distinctive breezes and winds are endemic in the area.

Officially, the Flatiron Building is actually called the Fuller Building, after one of the chief financiers of the project. However, most people know it by its familiar name, or associate with it with Macmillan, the publishing group which controls the bulk of the building today. In 1979, the Flatiron Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing its unique appearance and contribution to New York culture. The building often appears in films and advertising campaigns set in New York, because it is so recognizable.

This building was constructed in 1902, using a steel skeleton construction technique which was still highly unusual for the time, making the Flatiron Building one of the first skyscrapers. Steel framing allowed contractors to build higher without being forced to put in huge supporting walls on the ground floor, creating the characteristic streamlined, airy profile of the skyscraper. The design was created by Daniel Burnham.

Burnham designed the structure in the Beaux Arts style, which places a heavy emphasis on clean lines and elegant ornamentation. He wanted to make the Flatiron Building reminiscent of classical design as well, so he created three distinct layers in the building, creating a horizontal pattern which is meant to remind viewers of Greek columns. The original design called for heavy ornamentation, especially at the top; the ultimate design was a bit more subdued, but still highly ornamental.

The facing of the building is made from limestone and terra-cotta, both substances which are vulnerable to damage from pollution. Periodic restoration is necessary to protect the integrity of the carvings and ornaments which adorn the Flatiron Building, and heavy accumulations of staining and soot can be seen on some regions of the building, betraying its lengthy history. Once seen, 175 Fifth Avenue is not easily forgotten, as the building looks almost like a massive ship plowing its way through the streets of New York City.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By succulents — On Dec 23, 2009

I didn't realize the building was that old. My grandfather used to grin every time he'd see the flat iron building on a picture or the tv. He said it was the best place to "catch a glimpse of garters"!!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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