Monday, March 28, 2011

THE TRIANGLE FIRE: A Tragic Centennial

THIS DOOR TO REMAIN UNLOCKED DURING BUSINESS HOURS.  Ever notice this puzzling placard above the door as you’re leaving a commercial building?  There’s a story behind it dating back almost exactly a century to this day, though it’s not a very happy one.

In the early twentieth century, health and safety codes were casually enforced where they existed at all.  Building owners were under scant obligation to ensure public safety on their own premises, and in large cities, buildings were routinely overcrowded and unsanitary.  But the widespread lack of even the most basic fire safety measures would soon prove the deadliest bane of all.

In New York City, on March 25, 1911, a fire started just before quitting time on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, an overcrowded sewing loft mainly employing young immigrant women.  Fed by cutting scraps littering the floor, the blaze quickly spread to the stories above, with nothing more than 27 fire pails available to fight it with.  Most of the workers on the eighth and tenth floors managed to escape, but those on the ninth floor, finding one exit blocked by fire, rushed to the other only to find it locked from outside.  

In desperation, a few people made it onto the fire escape before it collapsed under their weight.  With the entire ninth floor now in flames, the majority of women were driven to the windows where, one by one, they jumped to their deaths before horrified onlookers on the sidewalk.  In the span of twenty minutes, 146 people perished, most of them immigrant girls in their teens and early twenties.

The public’s anguish at this needless tragedy quickly turned to outrage.  It was alleged that the factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had intentionally locked the exit door to keep the women at their sewing machines, though this was never proven.  But there was no doubt that the ninth floor was overcrowded, with as little as 18 inches of aisle leading between the sewing tables to the unmarked exits.  In any case, the exit doors opened inward, making them impossible to open once the force of a panicked crowd had pushed against them.  

Perhaps most frightening of all, there was nothing unusual about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.  There were countless workplaces just like it across the nation.  

The following year, a report on the fire by the New York Factory Investigating Commission finally spurred regulations setting occupancy limits in commercial buildings, and requiring basic fire safety features such as adequate fire escapes and clearly-marked exits.  The report further noted, “The necessity for clear and unobstructed passageways to exits should be absolutely insisted upon...” 

Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter and acquitted, largely because the prosecution could not prove they had knowledge of the locked exit.  In twenty-three subsequent civil suits, they were ordered to pay the families of the victims an average of 75 dollars each.   

The heartbreaking lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and, alas, a number of even deadlier fires since, have formed the hard-won foundations of our modern fire safety codes.  Today, when we go to a mall or to the movies, we take it for granted that we’ll find unobstructed, clearly marked exits and outward-opening doors with panic bars.  We know we’ll find emergency lighting, diagrams showing us where the exits are, and signs stating just how many people the owners can pack in there with us.  

And, yes, we’ll find that cryptic message posted just inside the entrance:  THIS DOOR TO REMAIN UNLOCKED DURING BUSINESS HOURS.  

It’s just a flimsy little sign, but it came at a terrible price.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Mausoleum of Big four railroad magnate
Charles Crocker, Mountain View
Cemetery, Oakland, California (c 1888)
Suppose I told you about a marvelous outdoor museum of architecture with full-scale examples of every major building style of the past hundred years? And suppose I told you it’s in a beautiful park-like setting that’s great for picnicking, and that there’s no admission fee, and that thousands of people can be found there every day of the year?

Would it matter to you if just about all of those people were dead? If so, proceed to the Wall Street Journal. Otherwise, read on.

Cemeteries contain some of the most splendid—and overlooked—collections of architecture to be found anywhere. And heaven knows, there are plenty of them around. Every metropolitan area has some venerable and important cemeteries nearby. Near my own home outside San Francisco, for example, is Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, laid out—as it were—by the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame. Here, a series of hillside mausoleums known as Millionaire’s Row boast the last architectural efforts made on behalf of Charles Crocker of transcontinental railroad fame, F. M. “Borax” Smith, chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli, and numerous other 19th-century high rollers.  Just down the street is a 1926-vintage columbarium designed by architect Julia Morgan, of Hearst Castle fame.  
Ionic columns grace the miniature Greek temple mausoleum
of the Corby family, Pine Grove Cemetery, Manchester, N.H.

The caliber of  structures in this relatively obscure cemetery should give you some inkling of the architectural jewels you’re likely to come across in your own town.  The crypts, monuments, mausoleums, and other structures found in large cemeteries nationwide represent a microcosm of American architectural fashions, including not only the expected Gothic Revival, but also Egyptian and Greek Revival, Romanesque (Richardsonian and otherwise), Victorian, Craftsman, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modern. Here, cheek by jowl, you’ll find pyramids, obelisks, temples, domes, and cathedrals, as well as a more than a few architectural creations that defy description.  Since the main purpose of all these designs is simply to look impressive, they’re about as close to pure architecture as anything you’re likely to encounter.  
Egyptian Revival—an especially popular style for funerary
architecture—taken to the limit at the West Point Cemetery
mausoleum of civil engineer Egbert Viele, West Point, N.Y.
(c. 1902) (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Should you decide to take a Sunday drive to your local cemetery/architecture museum, here’s some basic terminology: 

A crypt is a chamber for storing bodies, while a mausoleum is a large tomb containing crypts and entered through a doorway. A vault is an underground tomb, or a tomb tunneled into the side of a hill, though it can also refer to a mausoleum whose decoration is limited to the facade only.  A columbarium is a building containing niches for the display of cremated remains. The last is a fairly recent development in funerary architecture, since the practice of cremation did not gain acceptance in America until the late 19th century.     
Even renowned modernist architect Louis Sullivan
is represented in funerary architecture—here by the
Wainwright tomb in St. Lous's Bellefontaine Cemetery.
(c. 1892)

One highly unusual thing about cemetery structures is that, since their occupants aren’t too concerned about planning for the future, they’re practically never remodeled or modernized. Standing row upon row, sheathed in slabs of marble and granite, they stand essentially as they did on the day they were built.  

And despite the thousands of people who occupy these miniature cities of stone, crowds are not a problem. If you love old buildings but can’t stand the hustle and bustle of the usual tourist traps, this is the place for you. Temporarily, I mean.

Monday, March 14, 2011


A while back, I stopped off at my local “big-box” home-improvement emporium to buy a coupling, a common electrical fitting that costs less than a dollar. As usual, I found myself rooting through a disorganized jumble of products on the shelf, and when I finally tracked down the bin that was supposed to contain the fittings, it was of course empty. Coming away sad and empty-handed once again, I paid a visit to the customer service window to ask when the coupling might be restocked. The clerk peered into his omniscient monitor and informed me:

“The computer says we have eight of them.”

Only after leading him to the scene in real time was I able to convince him that, regardless of what the inventory software might indicate, there were in fact precisely zero couplings in stock. Whether the eight virtual ones in his computer were misplaced, stolen, or had entered another dimension, I didn’t know or care. I just wanted to find out when more real ones would arrive.

“The truck’s coming in tomorrow,” he said, his tone betraying more wishful thinking than certainty. Predictably enough, the parts weren’t there the next day, nor the following day, nor the day after that. In fact, I went back two weeks later and the bin was still empty.

Alas, this experience is par for the course at the big-box home improvement centers. Admittedly, it’s too easy to bash these places, with their perpetually baffled-looking young clerks and inevitable shortfall of exactly the item you’re looking for. And I’ll freely admit that the big-boxes do have redeeming qualities. Their attractive pricing has undoubtedly helped fuel America’s recent home-improvement mania. They’ve also helped acclimate many novice do-it-yourselfers to the often intimidating world of construction by exposing them to a huge range of building products.

But in many equally important ways, the big-box centers have utterly failed the consumer. They’ve dragged both customer service and inventory control down to a new low in the history of retailing, while simultaneously flooding the home-improvement market with second-rate brands from manufacturers especially geared to supply their voracious demand for merchandise. Consumers--myself included--generally seem willing to put up with such shortcomings for the perceived reward of convenience and low prices, but then again, everyone has a limit. I’ve reached mine.

Since the big-boxes are so profitable (the chain I’m referring to reported a 72% increase in profit for the last quarter of 2010), one would think that hiring a few more knowledgeable clerks for a few more dollars an hour might be in the realm of possibility. So would keeping better tabs on the inventory.  Instead, these stores seem to be moving in the opposite direction, with increasing confusion of both employees and inventory.  

While local Mom-and-Pop hardware stores claim they can no longer compete with the vast big-box chains, that’s not quite so: In that old-fashioned realm called service, they blow the doors off the big-boxes, and always have.  While it’s a rare thrill to glean useful information from big-box clerks, those august folks in your local hardware store routinely diplay an almost supernaturally comprehensive knowledge of the field.  

The Mom-and-Pops have one more uncanny trump card I’ve never been able to fathom:  The big-boxes, despite their vast inventories, frequently either don’t carry the item you need, or else have run out of it. Yet more than once, I’ve walked into some musty, twenty-foot-wide old hardware store, asked for a ridiculously esoteric pipe fitting, and had the clerk nonchalantly reply: “Over there by the window.”

Big-boxes, take heed:  Cheap stuff will get you just so far.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Ayn Rand’s famed novel “The Fountainhead” is the amusingly overwrought tale of an egocentric architect named Howard Roarke.  On finding that one of his brilliant designs has been tampered with, Roarke becomes so incensed that he blows up the finished building.  The novel was eventually made into an even more preachy and melodramatic film—no small task, mind you—with the genius architect portrayed by a chronically pained-looking Gary Cooper.

The Roarke character, a thinly disguised version of Frank Lloyd Wright, was a mouthpiece for Rand’s belief that arrogance and egocentrism are integral components of genius.  Given Rand’s fevered devotion to this unlikeable idea, it’s no wonder the pious Roark was so insufferable.

Alas, fiction isn’t the only place you’ll find architects like Howard Roarke.  The arrogance of many real-life architects is just as legendary.  It’s become sort of an endearing character flaw, to be taken with a wink and a nudge:  Oh well—you know those architects.  

Frank Lloyd Wright remains the undisputed mogul of architectural arrogance, a stature borne out by numberless anecdotes.  My personal favorite involves an enraged client who called Wright to complain that the roof was leaking onto her dinner guest.  Wright’s response:  “Tell him to move his chair.”

Old age did not mellow Wright’s acerbic with, much less his high opinion of himself.  In the 1940s, he gave a talk at a noted school of architecture and declared: 

“There are two kinds of architects in the world.  There is every other architect, and there is me.”

In his later years, Wright frequently engaged in sniping contests with a younger rival named Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who styled himself Le Corbusier, and who was no slouch in the area of self-importance either.  Le Corbusier espoused radical changes in architecture and planning, based on copious theorizing but only a smattering of actual buildings.  

“I propose one single building for all nations and climates,” he proclaimed in 1937.  Wright, with a half century of brilliant work already behind him, dismissed the young architect with the observation, “Well, now that he's finished one building, he'll go write four books about it.”

Geniuses can get away with saying such things--perhaps deservedly so.  But unfortunately, arrogance isn’t confined to geniuses.  It can be found in mediocre architects as well, and too often, the results have been less than humorous.  For the better part of the Modernist era, it was this know-it-all attitude that gave us sterile public buildings, look-alike downtowns, and inhumane urban renewal projects.

These well-publicized failures have helped form the unfortunate modern-day image of the architect:  equal parts prima donna and buffoon, fussing over minuscule points of aesthetics while bungling vast portions of the client’s program.

Reality, of course, lies somewhere in between.  Yet, as we enter the 21st century, it’s clear that we architects are beginning to stagger under the mantle of “master builder”--the literal meaning of “architect”--because it’s now quite impossible for us to know everything there is to know about building in this ever-more complex world.

That’s a problem, because genius is tough to come by, and arrogance won’t get us where it used to.