Today is the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Greenwich Village. The 1911 fire would be the most deadly workplace disaster in the history of New York City until 9/11, with 146 dead. The building, which still stands, is now NYU’s Brown Building, but in 1911 this was the thick of the city’s garment district. A fire broke out on the top floors, and the workers were trapped because the doors had been locked to prevent them from stealing or taking breaks. The fire department ladder only went up six floors, too low to reach the floors consumed by fire. The elevators could only bring down a dozen at a time, and about 40 women threw themselves out the building.
Yet, as written in the book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle, “the 146 deaths at the Triangle Waist Company were sensational, but they were not unusual. Death was an almost routine workplace hazard in those days.. By one estimate, one hundred or more Americans died on the job every day in the booming industrial years around 1911.” What made this fire different was that it was the catalyst that “ultimately forced fundamental reforms from the political machinery of New York, and, after New York, the whole nation,” writes Von Drehle. That machinery was Tammany Hall.
More than a hundred years later, a memorial has been in the works. A design competition was launched in 2013, which garnered 170 entries from over 30 countries. The jury consisted of Deborah Berke, dean at Yale University School of Architecture; Yama Karim, architect from Daniel Libeskind Studio; Wendy Feuer, Assistant Commissioner of Urban Design & Art, New York City Department of Transportation; YeohleeTeng and Shani Grosz, fashion designers; and Richard Greenwald, labor historian, Dean, St. Joseph’s College, New York; and artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.
The winners were from New York City-based Outer Architecture, a collaborative practice founded by Uri Wegman and Richard Joon Yoo. Steel panels will transverse both sides of the Brown Building, extending up to the 8th floor where the fire began. A mirrored panel that will wrap around the lower part of the building will have the names of the victims engraved and tell the story and consequence of the tragedy.
Exterior staircases on the Brown Building after the fire
New York University has allowed the installation of the memorial on the exterior of the Brown Building. New York State has offered to cover $1.5 million in capital expenses, and an additional $1 million is being fundraised for insurance and maintenance of the memorial. Timing for when the memorial will be completed depends on permitting and fundraising, and the group is still seeking donations here.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Memorial has a map that details the name, home address, likely age, country of origin, and final resting place of all known Triangle Fire victims (see below):