One of New York City’s most beloved buildings is the Flatiron Building, which opened officially on November 19, 1902. Though never one of the tallest buildings in the city, the Flatiron Building was nonetheless revolutionary in its own way and was a popular photography spot from the very beginning. We recently got a special tour from Sonny Atis, the superintendent of the landmarked building, who took us to the off-limits spots inside and atop the Flatiron Building, showed us the building’s rich past and current history, and shared with us his passion for the building. The visit was facilitated by GFP Real Estate (the owner of the building), which is an integrated owner, operator, property manager and developer of commercial real estate with many historic buildings in its portfolio.

Like other keyholders of New York City’s most iconic and historic landmarks, Sonny has an idiosyncratic devotion to the operation, the historic details, and the life that has pursed through his building for over a century. The Bay Ridge, Brooklyn native has been working for the Flatiron Building for thirty years and met his wife in the building in 1992. He can rattle off fun facts about the surrounding area too, like when the torch and arm of the Statue of Liberty was on display in Madison Square Park. The Flatiron Building is as much a part of Sonny, as Sonny is a part of it.

Here are some of the building’s secrets that we learned on our visit:

1. The Original Elevators in the Flatiron Building Were Water Powered

The original elevators in the Flatiron Building were Otis water hydraulic elevators, powered by pressure, and subject to both extremely slow travel times and regular flooding. “If you jumped on in the lobby and went to the 20th floor, it could take you ten minutes,” says Sonny. John J. Murphy III, the former director of publicity for St. Martin’s press who lived across the street from the Flatiron Building, told the New York Times in 2010 that his commute was thirty minutes long.

Flooding was more than a one-time occurrence. “We had many a flood,” says Sonny, and compares them to the intensity of the flood in the Ten Commandments. “[For] a lot of the repairs, we didn’t need a mechanic. We needed a plumber,” he declares. The elevator interiors cabs are original and well-maintained. So much so that most people think the ornamental details were part a restoration. They were just very well-made, Sonny says simply.

Part of the water hydraulic system that once powered the elevators

In the second level basement sit the massive water tanks and pipes that once supported the elevator system, minus a portion that has been removed. An original marble sheath with the engraved words “L.H. Prentice Co. Engineers & Contractors. New York & Chicago” still exists as well.

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9 thoughts on “The Top 10 Secrets of the Flatiron Building

  1. ..You state that, ‘…architect George A. Fuller, who was called “the father of the skyscraper.”
    ..Umm, no, he was not called that. Louis Sullivan is called the father of skyscrapers, ref(Kaufman, Mervyn D. (1969). Father of Skyscrapers: A Biography of Louis Sullivan. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.)
    ..Fuller was the creator of the system to which we now refer as general contracting.

  2. I was looking for more than one fact believe it or not. I’m trying to learn about important parts of the Flatiron Building. I was trying to find what the skeleton of the original was made of.

    1. So click on the button for the next fact? There are lots of fun facts including facts about the structure and construction materials.

  3. I could kick myself for never stopping and actually appreciating the building. My first apartment in 1975 was on 21st and 3rd Ave and I would walk past this incredible building on a regular basis. I would look up and remark to myself how cool it looked- a true monument to architecture, but never thought about going in. Maybe access was possible back then. Why is it unoccupied now and why no tours? Is it a safety issue? On my next visit back to the city- I’m going to walk up and actually touch the building, walk around it and appreciate that it will still be standing decades from now. Thank you for your research and sharing it with us.

  4. A great article on the Flatiron Building, but “23 Skidoo” does NOT come from the wind on 23rd Street. The slang term “23” existed in 1899–before the building even opened. I have documented this and my work has been available for about 20 years…The building was also called “Burnham’s Folly”…There are NYC buildings called the Little Flatiron Building (Herring Lock and Safe Company Building on Hudson Street) and the Waffle Iron (432 Park Avenue).

    1. Actually “23 Skidoo” is specifically for 23rd and the Flatiron. Yes, the slang terms “twenty-three” and “skidoo” existed prior to the building, however both of those terms were used independently and separately. In came the Flatiron and now “23 Skidoo” came to be and which became a popular phrase in 1906.

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