For the unknowing passerby, the 10-story loft building at the corner of Washington and Greene streets is unlikely to stand out. But for others, it is a place of pilgrimage. Just over 100 years ago, on March 25, 1911, 129 mostly very young women and 17 men died inside and around this building in the worst workplace disaster in New York City prior to September 11, 2001. The building survived, but on that day in 1911 146 employees of the Triangle Waist Company did not. After many years of commemorative ceremonies, this tragic but world-changing event deserves a memorial. On March 23, Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition is announcing the details of a two-stage international design competition for a vertical, urban memorial at the site.
When architect John Woolley designed the tan brick and terra-cotta building known as the Asch Building (now the New York University Brown Building of Science) in 1901, he incorporated the latest design features and structural amenities, including fireproofing technology to protect the structure and keep fire insurance rates low. As the New York City Landmarks Commission documented in 2003, when the Asch Building opened, it was both fashionable in its neo-Renaissance style and modern, providing passenger and freight elevators, steam heat, sanitary plumbing, and electric lighting. Because it would be 135 feet tall, the building was allowed to have wood floors and wood window frames and trim instead of the metal trim and window frames and the stone or concrete floors required for buildings over 150 feet tall. The plans called for two staircases and a fire escape descending to a skylight in an interior courtyard. After reviewing the plans, the Buildings Department objected to the planned fire escape, noting that it should not simply lead to a skylight. Woolley agreed to correct the plans and requested an exemption for an additional staircase, arguing that the floors were open, the two stairs were far apart, and the fire escape functioned as a third stair. Fatefully, the exemption was granted.
Triangle workers never had a fire drill. No sprinkler system was required or installed. Most likely the fire was started by a match or cigarette carelessly tossed into a bin of scraps on the eighth floor, and it quickly spread. Buckets of water were not sufficient to douse it; the hose had rotted and the water valve had rusted shut. Nonetheless, most workers on the eighth floor escaped via the elevators and the only accessible stairwell, as the other stairwell was locked. On the tenth floor, the owners, their children, and employees escaped to the next roof with help from NYU students from a neighboring building. However, lacking early notice of the eighth-floor fire, more than 250 workers on the ninth floor had to find their way through smoke and flames, around a maze of worktables, chairs, machines, and baskets. A barrel of machine oil exploded in the only available stairwell. The only means of escape were two small (4’9” x 5’9”) passenger elevators and the 17-inch-wide fire escape, closed off with iron shutters. Heroic elevator operators saved many lives; some workers tried to grab the elevator cables or jumped onto the top of the elevator cars, until the elevators stopped working altogether. After prying open the shutters, terrified workers crowded onto the fire escape, which buckled and collapsed, dropping them onto the second floor skylight and impaling some on the iron fence enclosing it. Over 50 workers died as they sought escape through the windows, jumping toward the fire ladder that extended only to the sixth floor, crashing through fire nets, and landing on the street.
Courtesy Mike Glenn
Vehement citizen outrage followed the Triangle fire. Blame cast a wide net: the Triangle’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who were indicted for manslaughter then acquitted; the Buildings Department, which was accused of graft and corruption for permitting occupancy of the building even though it was deficient; and capitalism itself. Reforms quickly followed. The fire department improved training, creating a Fire College. The city’s establishment of the Fire Prevention Bureau in 1912 reflected a growing understanding of the importance of preventing fires by educating people and promoting safety codes. As the Landmarks Commission’s 2003 report notes, almost immediately after the fire, Joseph Asch ensured that some of the defects contributing to the loss of life in his building were corrected. The Washington Place staircase was made accessible to the roof, a new fire escape was added, the iron shutters were removed from the courtyard windows, two large water tanks were constructed on the roof, and a sprinkler system was installed.
Responding to continued demands and political pressure, the New York State legislature established the Factory Investigating Commission led by Senator Robert Wagner and Assembly leader Al Smith. The commission’s 59 public hearings, with testimony from 472 witnesses, resulted in 36 new laws, including stringent requirements for fire escapes, exits, and fireproof partitions, fire alarms, and fire drills in factory buildings. These laws set standards for proper ventilation, lighting, elevator operation, and sanitation in the workplace; required employers to safeguard workers from industrial accidents; and introduced special regulations to protect women and children in the workplace. In order to ensure compliance with the laws, the New York State Department of Labor was reorganized and the number of inspectors was doubled and given greater powers. In 1915–16 New York City’s Building Code was revised, limiting the occupancy of buildings according to the means of emergency egress available. The revised building code also increased protection for workers and required that older buildings used as factories had to be retrofitted to meet the new safety standards. The Buildings Department was given greater power to inspect premises, order repairs, and impose fines. These New York City and New York State regulations, the most advanced and comprehensive in the country, served as models for other state and local ordinances and for New Deal federal legislation.
COURTESY KHEEL CENTER, CORNELL UNIVERSITY
The Triangle Fire has been commemorated each March 25 publicly for at least 50 years, and privately for much longer. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (and its successor, Workers United) marks each anniversary by inviting dignitaries to make legislative proclamations. As a New York City Fire Department truck raises its ladder only to the sixth floor, a fire officer rings a bell and school children read each victim’s name, laying a flower in front of the three plaques on the corner that mark the building’s national historic and landmark designations. On the centennial last March, at exactly 4:45 p.m. (the time the fire broke out), houses of worship and individuals rang bells throughout the United States. This year, the commemorative ceremony will take place at noon, Friday, March 23, and bells will ring on Sunday, March 25.
Fire safety conditions in the Asch Building were certainly better than in many factory buildings of that era. But, as Frances Perkins, member of the Factory Investigating Commission and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, so aptly described, the overarching intent of building and fire codes in 1911 was to protect buildings not their occupants. Many of the workplace protections we take for granted today—sprinkler systems, exit signs, ample means of egress—are the direct and indirect legacies of the Triangle Fire. Over 100 years later it is time to recognize, through design, the sacrifice of these men and women—a sacrifice that forced society to recognize that people, not only buildings, deserve to be protected. For information about the Triangle Fire Memorial competition, go to rememberthetrianglefire.org.