IWalked New York City’s Site of Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
The Brown Building, or Asch Building as it was originally known, is a ten-story building from 1901. It was designed in the Neo-Renaissance style by an architect named John Wolley. The building consists of a granite and limestone base on its first floor before transitioning into a light brown or tan brick throughout. It was named for its original owner, Joseph J. Asch, but is currently best recognized as the site of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a garment factory that specialized in making women’s blouses. Near the beginning of the 20th century, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was the largest shirtwaist maker within New York City with profits exceeding $1,000,000 per year. The factory itself was located within floors eight through ten of the (then) Asch Building.
Employed here were approximately five hundred workers, mostly immigrant women, who were subject to slave-like work conditions. Employees were expected to work nine hours per day (Monday-Friday) and then an additional seven hours on Saturday. For their efforts, workers were rewarded with low wages (earning approximately $7-$12 per week) and petty rules. Personnel also had to provide their own working supplies, were unable to speak to co-workers, and faced fines for any mistakes or “prolonged” bathroom breaks.
On March 25, 1911, approximately two-hundred and fifty workers showed up for their mandatory Saturday shift. At approximately4:40 p.m.(and sadly only about 20 minutes before the factory would shut down for the day), a fire was ignited within the building’s eighth story. With an abundance of flammable material throughout the factory, the fire quickly spread. One worker reportedly tried to address the problem by using a fire hose that he soon discovered had rotted.
Panic began to overtake the building and workers attempted to vacate the premises. Many people soon discovered, however, that they could not leave. It was not uncommon in those days for management to lock and/or barricade the exit doors to prevent workers from leaving before the conclusion of their shift. Unfortunately the only people with the keys to these doors (management) were the first individuals to flee the scene.
Forced to identify creative solutions for possible escape, workers attempted every route imaginable. The stairs were not an option, for as described, the doorways to the stairwell were locked. Elevators existed within the building but had stopped functioning after the fire broke out. Some workers attempted to climb down the elevator cables but many fell to a more immediate death. Others tried the fire escape outside, but due to massive amount of people trying to climb down, the escape ladder snapped from the exterior and dozens more were injured or killed. There were also a handful of desperate souls that just decided to jump from the building.
When the fire department arrived their efforts to rescue individuals trapped within were similarly unsuccessful. Their ladders could not reach any further than the sixth floor, a full two-stories short of the factory. Fire fighters even tried to employ the usage of safety nets, however, the nets proved insufficient to hold the weight and impact of people jumping from such a height.
When all was said and done, one-hundred forty-six people died during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Of these victims, their ages ranged from fourteen years old to forty-eight. At the time of its occurrence, the disaster would be the worst ever known to the city of New York until 9/11 (some ninety years later). It still ranks as the fourth deadliest U.S. industrial accident, ranking behind the Texas City Explosion of 1947 (approximately 550-600 deaths), the Port Chicago Disaster of 1944 (320 deaths), and the Piper Alpha Disaster of 1988 (167 deaths). If anything positive can be attributed to this incident it is that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was an impetus for creating new fire safety rules within the city of New York and it also brought to light the atrocious working conditions of factory workers.
The Asch Building was restored subsequent to the fire of 1911. In 1929, the building was acquired by a real-estate speculator named Frederick Brown who would donate the property to nearby New York University. In turn for his generosity, NYU renamed the former Asch Building in Mr. Brown’s honor. Today, NYU currently hosts a number of classes within the Brown Building.
Address:23-29 Washington Place, New York City, NY
IWalked Audio Tours To See This Site: New York City’s Greenwich Village. (Purchase the MP3 tour here. iPhone application tour is available here. Please note, all NYC tours are now available as in-app purchases upon download of our FREE NYC Lite application, which includes a free 1.5 hour tour of a portion of the Upper West Side.)