Monday, September 13, 2010

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied the 7th, 8th, and 9th floors.
Cobblestoned Greene Street is now full of NYU students.
The new buildings that now surround the old one on Washington Place and Greene Street.

Another shot of the upper floors.
The east side of the building.
A shot of the south side of the building.
The base of the building.
Another shot of the top floors
Science classes for NYU students are now taught here.
Another look down the cobblestone streets.
Another look down the cobblestone streets.
I can very clearly remember learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that occurred in the Asch Building on Washington Place and Greene Street on March 25, 1911, in eighth grade social studies class, and having very little interest in it other to try and figure out what a "shirtwaist" was. I found out about a week and a half ago that it was another name for a woman's blouse at the time. They never explain the simple stuff in school. What they did harp on was the significance it had in inspiring the labor movement and the organization of unions.

When I first found the building, now the NYU Brown Building of Science, donated to the university in 1929, I tried to imagine what the block must have looked like back then. A couple of the streets are still cobblestone, and I can picture the horse and buggies hustling by, and the first cop to arrive on the scene, who was actually also named James Meehan coincidentally, to come galloping up on horseback. Most people don't realize it, but the same building is still there, and pretty much looks the same as those old photographs. The eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, where the factory was located, were gutted after the fire, but were able to be restored and I assume now hold chemistry, biology and physics classes for smart rich kids. As I checked the number on the door to make sure I had the right building, #29 Washington Place, it was 4:40 in the afternoon, and class had just been let out. The doors swung open with swarms of hipster college kids piling out, talking about their plans for the rest of the night, dressed in their cargo shorts and flip flops and macaroni necklaces. It reminded me how easy college life really was. I wonder if they new or cared much about what went on in this building. Not that I blame them ... New Paltz had a lot of history that I never bothered to explore when I lived there. It's funny, though, how NYU seems to be snatching up some of the most historic buildings in the city -- this building, the Puck Building, and most of the space around Washington Square, they're unofficial quad. It would seem like the perfect place for an amateur New York City historian like myself to go. Maybe I'll get my masters there.

Let's see:
- An appreciation for the concept of having the whole of New York City as my campus? Check!
- An unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the truth? Check!
- About a hundred thousand dollars a year? Oh, well. Two outta three ain't bad.

As I looked up at the top three floors, I can imagine the plight of the poor teenage and twenty-something women who toiled there day-in-day-out for next to nothing, most of them immigrants who spoke little English. The owners locked the doors so they couldn't take breaks or steal any fabric for their own families, and that, combined with the fire trucks insufficient ladders, which could only reach to the sixth floor, caused many of these women to jump from the windows to their deaths, much to the horror of the crowds gathered. A number of people that day saw a couple kiss at a window before falling together to the concrete below as they realized the fire was inescapable.

In the end, the owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were put on trial for the murder of 146 men and women, but were acquitted because the prosecution was unable to prove that the owners new the fire exits were locked. However, they lost a civil suit in 1913 in which the families of victims won compensation in the amount of a mere $75 a life, spare change compared to the $60,000 Harris and Blanck received from the insurance company. That same year, Max Blanck was arrested once again for locking the doors to his factory, and was fined $20.

It's hard to be poor and live in this city now, but stories like this just show some of the injustices the poor endured back then. After taking a few shots of the area and looking around once more, I headed to my cousin's salon on Elizabeth street for a quickie haircut because I had an interview the next day, a response to something I actually applied to online. Yeah, I'm shocked, too.


  1. I learned about this tragedy in college. Good article.

  2. I cannot believe I walked right past that building and had no idea at the time that's what that was! Now it gives me the creeps to have visualized and seen the pictures, I do not think I could stomach walking on those floors now. That was so sickening what those two did to those innocent people! good article!