(The Grey Art Gallery at New York University) I have just co-authored a book on 80 Wooster Street--a loft building that became an important center of the art scene in the neighborhood that was to become known as SoHo in the 1960s. Completed in 1894, its early life was filled with candy and specialty cardboard companies until the Fluxus arts movement founder, George Maciunas, bought the underutilized building in 1967 and transformed it into Fluxhouse Coop II. When built, there was no fire protection for 80 Wooster, or for any other of the neighborhood buildings. No law required fire escapes, fire sprinklers, or outward-opening doors.
In 1901, architect John Woolley completed the Asch Building, a 10-story loft building just north of Houston Street at 23-29 Washington Place (245 Greene Street). It was constructed to meet the standards of a “fireproof” building. But the workers in the building, largely immigrant young women from Italian and Jewish backgrounds, toiled in overcrowded conditions, placing them in a vulnerable situation.
On Saturday, March 25, 1911–100 years ago and 10 years after the building was completed–a fire erupted in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, spreading from the 8th to the 10th floor, five minutes before the closing bell. Fueled by flammable fabric and oil used to lubricate sewing machines, the fire spread quickly, resulting in 146 deaths (the last six names have only recently been identified)--the greatest workplace disaster in the United States before 9/11.
The birth of the labor movement, details of the fire and its legal aftermath, its memorials, and the art that was spawned by its memory is the subject of a thoughtful new exhibit at The Grey Art Gallery at New York University. Co-curated by Professors Lucy Oakley and Marci Reaven, in collaboration with NYU graduate students in public history and museum studies who worked in teams, the exhibit draws upon photos, newspaper clippings, illustrations, books, sheet music, and artwork to document the century since the fire broke out. “It was a great mix of skills and interests," says Reaven, “but also, the pressure of wanting to do the right thing by the subject and the centennial kept all of us moving.”
Striking photography in the exhibit includes two photos by Lewis Hine (Young Woman Tending Thread Spools, c. 1908 and Italian Family En Route to Ellis Island, c. 1905-1926); a group shot of working women raising money by selling the Socialist newspaper (The Call, c. 1910); a photo of Clara Lemlich, a worker who gave a galvanizing pro-union speech at a mass meeting in the great hall of Cooper Union, 1910; and news photos of the fire and its immediate aftermath: fire trucks periscoping water from high-pressure fire hydrants, buckled fire escapes, a New York Herald March 26, 1911 photo of the bodies of victims taken by an photographer for Brown Brothers photo service, in which a figure of a policeman and a male victim has been cut into the original shot (an example of “early” Photoshop); a photo of crowds of spectators milling on the streets below; and a photo of the April 5, 1911 procession in memory of the victims that included over 400,000 participants and spectators.
A pale pink shirtwaist blouse, sewn by an NYU graduate student in Costume Studies, hangs on the wall, conjuring up images of the new working women whose blouses of cotton lawn fabric were understood as the stylish counterpoints of men’s shirts. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, was the city’s leading shirtwaist manufacturer with profits over a million dollars in 1908. Some 240 people worked at 75 foot-long tables on the 9th floor of their factory alone.
As we see in this exhibit, art frequently was created to further social justice and changes in the law. A facsimile of John Sloan’s illustration for The Call, published on March 27th, shows two figures--a fat cat owner crying phony tears, and the skeleton of death, leaning on a large triangle. Its three sides are inscribed with the words Profit, Rent, and Interest. A folk art painting by Victor Gatto, a pipefitter who was an eyewitness to the fire (c.1944), shows police pushing people away with their nightsticks and white shrouds lined up on the sidewalk. There are details from sections of two murals done in 1938-1940 by WPA artist Ernest Fiene which were commissioned for the auditorium walls of the Central High School of Needle Trades (now the High School of Fashion Industries), and an entire section inspired by sculptor Evelyn Beatrice Longman, whose memorial to the fire is located in Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn.
The fiftieth anniversary of the fire in 1961 was used to spur the passing of a new stricter sprinkler bill, and the exhibit documents the work of David Dubinsky and others in advocating for the bill’s passage. From the 1980s on, contemporary tributes to the Triangle fire have included the performance work of Lulu Lolo, who celebrates her Italian heritage and the powerful effect the fire had on the Italian community. There have been books by Leon Stein and David von Drehle, children’s books, a graphic novel, even a 20-minute segment on the fire seen by 21 million people on PBS. An HBO documentary on the fire debuts on March 21st.
The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition has created a vibrant educational website on the fire, including details on outside NYC centennial events in Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. And, of course, there are annual events in the schools across America with children donning fire hats and learning about fire safety. Last year, documentary filmmaker Anthony Giacchino, in an effort to remember the 39 Italian workers among the dead, came up with the idea of compiling the addresses of the dead and mailing out a short message to the victims. Mr. Giacchino hopes to exhibit the letters, many bearing the stamp “Return to Sender” or “Deceased” in time for the centennial celebration.
The Asch Building (now NYU’s Brown Building) became a national historic landmark in 1991 and was given New York City landmark status in 2003. But the effects of the fire on memory, art, and place extend far beyond Manhattan. There are tombstones memorializing victims in cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island; there is a mural in Bedford Stuyvesant; and since 2004, there is the chalk video project designed by Ruth Sergel where, every year at the anniversary of the fire, people go to the addresses where the fire victims lived and chalk their names, address, and age on the sidewalks. “It is,” says Lucy Oakley, “an ephemeral tribute, but, like life, it is renewed annually.”
Chalked words on concrete marking the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire are much like the blue beams of light that haunt lower Manhattan each year on 9/11--a reminder of the thousands of victims who lost their lives there when the Twin Towers fell.