Terra-cotta, Latin for “fired earth,” is an ancient building material, made of baked clay, first used throughout early civilizations in Greece, Egypt, China the Indus Valley. In more modern times, architects realized that “fired earth” actually acts as a fire-deterrent. In the age of the skyscraper, terra-cotta became a sought-after fire-proof skin for the steel skeletons of New York’s tallest buildings. In the early part of the 20th century, the City’s most iconic structures were decked out in terracotta.
You’ll find terra-cotta on famous facades from the Flatiron to the Plaza, but the material often flies under the radar of pedestrians and architecture buffs alike because it can mimic other materials, like cast-iron or carved wood. Now, this long-underappreciated material is getting its due. On October 24th, the Historic Districts Council will present its annual Landmarks Lion Award to the terra-cotta firms Boston Valley Terra Cotta and Gladding, McBean, which work to keep terra-cotta alive worldwide, and to the preservation organization Friends of Terra Cotta, which has worked to preserve New York’s architectural terra-cotta since 1981. The ceremony will take place at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar, under the magnificent Guastavino terra-cotta ceiling recently restored by Boston Valley Terra Cotta. Fired up about finding “fired earth” around town? Here are 10 of the most impressive examples of New York terra-cotta!
Learn more about New York’s Terra Cotta Treasures
New York’s iconic Flatiron building, built in 1902, gets plenty of attention for its distinctive, triangular design. But the massive restaurant that operated out of the landmark’s basement–known as The Flat Iron Restaurant and Cafe–has seemingly been lost to the ages. The basement restaurant allegedly could seat up to 1,500 guests. And by 1906, Madison Square had transformed from a desirable residential neighborhood for the city’s elite, as it had been in the Gilded Age, to a bustling commercial hub. The lengthy menu reflects that, with offerings that include affordable dishes of shellfish, meats, and sandwiches.
Check out the menu
The Flatiron Building is one of the city’s most iconic and beloved landmarks. Since 1902 it’s been a symbol of New York, though ironically its acute angle formed by the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue makes it an unusual sight in our otherwise orthogonal city on a grid. But while the Flatiron Building may be the most famous product of quirky street angles, it’s far from the only one. In fact, the “off-the-grid” streets of Greenwich Village and the East Village contain scores of them, most of which pre-date the 23rd Street landmark.
Take a tour of the little Flatirons
The Flatiron building is best known for its angular form and its striking architectural details. But back in the early 1900s it gained notoriety for something far less virtuous: the 23 skidoo.
Because the Flatiron building sits at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Broadway, which together form a sharp angle, winds will often collect to create currents strong enough to lift a woman’s skirt. While by today’s standards bare legs and ankles aren’t worth taking note of, back then this sight was a real treat for the fellas. As such, hordes of men would flock to 23rd Street in hopes catching one of the many old-timey wardrobe malfunctions that occurred throughout the day. In fact, according to Andrew S. Dolkart, professor of Historic Preservation at the Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, the number of men who gathered would sometimes become so disruptive that police would have to shoo them away!
watch the full 23 skidoo here
Photo of 1974 jump via Daily News
Picture this: You walk by the Flatiron Building, one of the most recognizable landmarks in the entire city, and see a man positioning himself to jump off. Today, you’d call 911 without hesitation, but 50 years ago it was annual spectacle.
Ephemeral New York uncovered the story of Henri LaMothe, the “diving daredevil” who performed a stunt around the country where he did his “flying squirrel” dive from 40 feet above ground into a collapsible plastic pool with only four feet of water. On his birthday on April 2, 1954, he climbed to the 40-foot mark on the Flatiron Building and did his signature jump. For the next 20 years, he performed the feat annually on his birthday, decreasing the water level each year. On his 70th birthday in 1974, he dove into a pool filled with merely one foot of water, and many say when he stood up, his back was still dry thanks to his famous belly flop.
Find out more about this daredevil
Once upon a time, when 6sqft was not yet launched, a group of writers were asked for their thoughts on their favorite building in New York City. Their choices, some easily recognizable and others a little further from the beaten path, were mixed together with those of a few folks a lot like our readers—interested in and passionate about all things New York. The result? A wonderful blend of what makes this city great: its diversity, not simply demographically but also in the opinions of those eight million souls who weave together the fabric of all five boroughs to create the most interesting city in the world. And it stands to reason the most interesting city in the world is home to quite a few interesting buildings. As one might expect, there was barely a duplicate in the bunch. Some weren’t even on our radar!
Is your favorite on the list? If not, we’d love to know what you think in the comments.
Read on to see if you agree with our selections
Recent reports show that NoMad has taken over the top spot for priciest neighborhood in the city in which to rent, with a one-bedroom unit going for an average of $4,270/month. For most real estate aficionados this isn’t shocking, as the neighborhood has been growing into one of the city’s hottest spots for the past several years, but few know of the area’s fascinating past.
Named for our fourth president, James Madison, the 6.2-acre Madison Square Park was first used as a potter’s field, then an army arsenal, then a military parade ground and finally as the New York House of Refuge children’s shelter, until it was destroyed by a fire in 1839. After the fire, the land between 23rd and 26th Streets from Fifth to Madison Avenues was established as a public park enclosed by a cast-iron fence in 1847. The redesign included pedestrian walkways, lush shrubbery, open lawns, fountains, benches and monuments and is actually similar to the park that exists today.
Find out how our beloved madison square park came to be
- Did you know the Flatiron Building was once referred to as the Cowcatcher? Find out about this and other secrets of the iconic building. [Untapped]
- The “engagement photographer” makes his living sneaking around parks, hiding in bushes, and secretly photographing New Yorkers’ romantic moments. [BI]
- We’re not sure if this engagement was photographed, but one man proposed to his fiancée under the Washington Square Arch and had a wedding cake made to resemble the landmark. [WSPB]
- Documentary project chronicles South Williamsburg‘s Latino community. [DNAinfo]
- Not cool… New Yorkers tip below the national average for food delivery. [Eater]
Images: Flatiron Building via Jeffrey Zeldman (L); Central Park engagement via Vlad Leto (R)
- Brooklyn Mag Reviews Hot Bird: Brooklyn Mag reviews Atlantic Avenue’s Hot Bird in their guide to Brooklyn’s beer bars.
- Flatiron Prepares for Christmas: Design firms are invited to propose installations to go in front of the Flatiron Building for the first time ever this holiday season. Van Alen Institute has details on the exciting new contest.
- Greenpoint’s East River Ferry: The ferry could be back in action as soon as next week — just in time for the G trains 5-week-long shutdown.
- The Smell of Space: FastCo. explores the distinct smell of space and why it’s described as everything from seared steak and sulfur to wet clothes after rolling in the snow. Mmm… wonder if there’s a candle for that.
Images: Tribeca Loft Interior (left), Earth from Space (right)