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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose with It by Alice Sparberg Alexiou

I used to work in the Flatiron Building. On the 17th floor (so count three down from the top), on the Broadway side, which in this picture is on your left, about three windows back from the point. See, that's my old desk! Naturally, this book was published by my old publisher, which is housed in the Flatiron.

The trend towards skyscrapers began in Chicago after the Great Fire. It eventually moved to New York after some building codes were updated. It never moved to Europe. Because so many businesses could be in such a small area, back in this day before phones when most business was done in person, a journalist noted that in the course of a day you could make three appointments in one day in London, about eight in New York, and fifteen in Chicago. It was so much more efficient in terms of doing work, as well as getting a lot more rent out of a property for its owners. And this weird little triangle of New York was destined to be a skyscraper, as that was the only use of it that made any sense given the property value.

This book did excel in random facts, particularly in the beginning, but for the first time, I stopped enjoying them. After a while, they started to feel like filler, as the author attempted to turn what really should have been a very long magazine article into a full-length book. Ancillary characters were turned into major ones. Minor incidents were made major. Building trends in Europe were discussed. Building trends for decades prior were also analyzed. While I did enjoy the main story quite a bit, it was pretty thin, and all the filler around it wasn't sufficient to make it into a great history. Mr. Fuller was interesting, as was his son-in-law Harry Black who completed the building and made Fuller's company into a building colossus  It was well-written and not dry or boring, but it ranged far and wide and if you're looking for a book with more focus, this isn't it. I was also personally disappointed that the author rocketed through the last fifty years of the building's history in a few pages. It was interesting that one reason it is still around today is because it was the subject of a lawsuit and because the convoluted contract said that all three owners had to agree to do anything (not just majority rules).

It is an interesting book for an architecture buff or serious NYC historian, but for an average reader, an article would have been better.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore.

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