Award-winning history in my book.
31 January 2011
I really, really enjoyed Alice Sparberg Alexiou's history title The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose with It.
Most people are familiar with the Flatiron Building in New York City, even if they've never been there, because it is nearly as iconic as the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building. It's been widely photographed and painted, largely because of its unique triangular shape and old-world styling. In this history of the building, Alexiou* offers a broad architectural and social history tale, describing the business of Harry Black, the man who contracted to have it built (and who wanted it named the Fuller Building, after his company, but that name never stuck), the construction of the building itself, and the broader social and architectural history of New York City. Consider:
"People gasped at the sight of the skyscrapers. They waited for them to collapse, but none did. Critics denounced what they considered the sheer ugliness of the new buildings. There was no possible way, they shouted, for skyscrapers to be made beautiful." (p. 13.)
I really enjoyed the tidbits like that; they helped me feel the context of the times. Imagine thinking, now, that skyscrapers might fall down.
There's nothing fancy here, but Alexiou does a great job of mixing up personal stories with architectural and engineering details; it is simply a very readable history on an interesting subject. Perhaps its subject isn't "big" enough, but this is the type of history book I'd like to see win a few more awards. I tend to think of this type of book as good journeyman nonfiction--a subject that hasn't been done to death, good straightforward prose, strong storytelling but not necessarily story-driven or breathlessly told, good basic research, endnotes and indexing. In short: two thumbs up, and definitely a book you'll want to read if you're interested in New York City, architecture, or early twentieth-century American business and social history.
*Alexiou is also the granddaughter of a man who once owned the Flatiron (along with several others), giving this narrative a nice personal touch as well. (And it looks like she's also written a biography of Jane Jacobs, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, which I will have to look into.)