The RED Letter
RED Engineering & Design
Structural Engineers
January/February 2017
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"23 Skidoo!"
Tales of the Flatiron Building

Ever wondered where "23 Skidoo!" came from? How about The Flatiron Building in New York City.
During the time it was being built-1901 to 1903-gawkers would dawdle around the prow-shaped front of the building. This is where the wind is said to have "lifted women's skirts" prompting nearby policemen to yell "23 Skidoo!" to disperse the gawkers.

This iconic building straddling the corner at 175 Fifth Avenue was originally known as "Burnam's Folly." Daniel H. Burnham, FAIA, was a prolific architect and city planner during his day and his "folly" was The Flatiron's triangular design. Its design was considered unsafe. But, behind the scenes there was the George A. Fuller Construction Company.
Developers, structural engineers, MEP engineers, original owner and tenant of The Flatiron Building, the George A. Miller Construction Company was ahead of its time. In 1882, George A. Fuller started his new firm that did everything but the building design. It was the modern concept of the general contractor. Then, his company took it one step further: builder, developer, and owner; culminating in The Flatiron building-forward thinking business practices for the time.
Just like Burnham's daring triangular design and Fuller Construction Company's bold business models, The Flatiron Building is different, daring, and bold in its own right:
  • Rather than a tower rising from a base building that was typical of New York City skyscrapers at the time, The Flatiron Building is one of the first Chicago-style tall buildings in Manhattan with its unbroken, columnar block with a distinct base, shaft, and capital.
  • The building has 21 stories and is steel framed. Its style is eclectic incorporating Greek, Gothic, and Renaissance features into its limestone and terra-cotta exterior cladding. The entrances to the building are along its sides. Its most distinctive feature, the prow-shaped, rounded corner of the building-where 23 Skidoo! originated-is only six feet wide.

  • The original elevators were hydraulic and when the building opened in 1903, it housed an electric generator that supplied electricity and heating.
  • The 21st floor was added three years after the building was completed. It can only be reached by taking a second elevator that was installed on the 20th floor.
  • When the building was completed in 1903, there were only restrooms for men. The building management later alternated floors-one for women, one for men. The alternating pattern remains in effect today.

  • There was a time when the building was referred to as the "Cowcatcher" because of its prow. It reminded people of the piece of metal on the front of a locomotive designed to move livestock off the railroad tracks.
  • Because of its thin profile and lack of understanding about structural engineering and steel cage construction, people thought the building would topple over.

  • The Flatiron Building was a "quick build" for its time. Once the foundation was constructed, floors went up at a rate of one a week. When the steel frame was in place it took only four months to complete the building.
  • It was originally named the Fuller Building, after its owner, developer, and tenant, the George H. Fuller Construction Company. But, the name would not stick as it was nicknamed The Flatiron by locals.
  • Once constructed the critics were quick to criticize: Architectural Record described it as "awkward," especially with "all of those windows." The New York Times called in a "monstrosity." The New York Tribune termed it a "stingy piece of pie." The public, on the other hand, loved it.
  • The Flatiron Building was such a popular tourist destination, that a sightseeing tour company set up shop outside its doors and provided open air bus tours of New York City sights seven days a week. 

Now, 114 years later, today's architects and engineers push design limits, design/build is a popular project delivery method, and The Flatiron Building remains notable and one of New York City's top tourist destinations.

"23 Skidoo!"

Chris Pinkus Takes the Lead

Chris Pinkus, our engineering intern, has taken the lead to create a Young Members Group (YMG) at North Carolina State University for the local chapter of the Structural Engineers Association of North Carolina (SEANC). We look forward to supporting Chris in his efforts to provide another dynamic facet to the local SEA chapter.