NYC - Greenwich Village: Brown Building / Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
Now a New York University science building, this tan brick and terra cotta neo-Renaissance-style loft building was built in 1900-01 by John Wooley for investor Joseph J. Asch. In 1911, it was the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in America that led to sweeping labor form.
The two-story base is articulated by fve massive piers treated as banded pilasters. Because it was only 135 feet tall, it was allowed to have wood floors, window frames and trim instead of the metal trim and frames with concrete floors that would have been required with an addition 15 feet.
Two Russian-born Jewish immigrants--Max Blanck and Isaac Harris--established the Triangle Waist Company on Wooster Street. They specialized in making shirtwaists, a high-necked blouse with a tight waist and puffy sleeves, which came into fashion around 1890. At the turn of the century 40,000 workers (four of five of whom were women) were employed in the manufacturer of shirtwaists. In 1901, the Triangle Waist Company moved into the 8th floor of the Asch Building. Within a few years they took over the 9th and 10th floors. By 1908, their profit had exceeded $1 million and they were acknowledged noot only as the leading shirtwaist makers in the city but some of the worst employers in the industry. Employees were locked in during extended work hours, without breaks. Talking and singing were forbidden. Bathroom breaks were monitored. Fines were levied for erros. Workers had to buy their own needles and thread.
With a nationwide economic downturn, labor relations worsened. A strike involving 200 workers at the Rosen Brothers shirtwaist factory in 1909, resulting in Local 25 of the International LAdies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) unionizing the factory and negotiating a 20% pay hike, emboldened other workers to organize. When Blanck and Harris got word that 100 of their workers held a meeting regarding conditions, they laid them off as well as sympathizers, which led the leaders of Local 25 to declare a strike. Eventually 20,000 to 30,000 shirtwaist workers in New York went on a strike that lasted 13 weeks and resulted in raised salaries, a 52-hour work week and limited required overtime. Triangle refused to recognize the union and although they raised wages to match the pay scale refused to meet other demands about locked doors and better fire escapes.
On March 25, 1911, at about 4:35pm, a fire erupted in one of the huge piles of scraps stored beneath the cutting tables on the 8th floor of the Triangle factory. The fire spread and the room was engulfed with smoke and flames. Most of the workers on the 8th floor escaped, but noone notified the 260 workers on the 9th floor. While all but one of 70+ on the 10th floor, without fire drill preparation the 9th floor wasn't as lucky. As those workers frantically tried to escape, barrel of machine oil exploded cutting off the exit. A drop ladder on the 70" wide fire escape was never installed and as women crowded onto it, the heat of the fire combined with the weight of fleeing workers caused it to buckle and collapse, leaving only the elevators as a means of exit. When they became inoperable, the workers were left with two options: jump or burn to death.
25 minutes after the first alarm, the fire was under control. 146 workers would die in the blaze or from resulting injuries. Two weeks later, the district attorney brought an indictment against Blanck and Harris. Their trial ended in an acquittal, they paid the victim's family a week's pay and they re-opened their business in 1911. A civil sit was settled at $75 per lost life in 1914. The company eventually shut down in 1914.
As a result of the tragedy, the ILGWU worked with local officials, like Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and progressive reformers, such as Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, who had witnessed the fire from the street below, and pushed for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws.
The Asch Building itself survived relatively intact. In 1918, NYU leased and remodeled the 9th floor and then a year later took over the 10th. It was purchased in 1920 by Washington-Bleecker Properties and NYU slowly took over more floors in the 1920's. In 1929, Percy S. Straus, president of **Macy's**, approached Frederick Brown, who acquired the building on NYU's behalf, saving the university $92k in annual rent. On April 22, the building renamed the Frederick Brown Building. It continued to serve as a classroom and laboratory building for NYU, with the 8th floor used for WWII training.
In 1961, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the fire, the ILGWU installed a plaque at the corner of Washington Place and Green Street.
The Brown Building was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on November 19, 2002. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
National Historic Register #91002050