New York Architecture Images-New York Architects

Ernest Flagg (1857–1947)

  New York works;
  Singer Tower<br>(HABS, NY,31-NEYO,71-4)    
  003 Singer Building 017 The Atrium 011 Saints Luke's Hospital Amsterdam Wing  
  PICT0021.jpg (145359 bytes) 047-scribner.jpg (29711 bytes) 001B.jpg (140183 bytes)  

031-Engine Company No. 33.

047 Scribner’s Bookstore 001 The Little Singer Building  
Ernest Flagg studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts and was one of the few Americans who returned from Paris with an interest in and understanding of French architectural theory. Flagg's practice was limited, in part by his obnoxious personality, but he had a few loyal clients (including several relatives) and designed some of the most important residential, institutional, and commercial buildings at the turn of the twentieth century in New York. He designed homes and stores for the Scribner book publishing family (his wife was a Scribner) and was a favorite architect of the Clark family, which was involved with the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Flagg's most famous building was the Singer Tower (1908) on Broadway (demolished), carefully planned to be the world's tallest building. Flagg was also involved in tenement reform and designed a series of model apartment houses and single-family dwellings. 
Ernest Flagg 

Scribner's Magazine 36 (August 1904): 253-56. 

Flagg (1857-1947) practiced architecture in New York from 1891 
following the completion of his studies in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux 
Arts. One of his earliest commissions was the design of St. Luke's 
Hospital and marked Flagg's first great success. He was among those who 
championed the "modern" French school of architecture--what we know as 
the beaux-arts style. Flagg's major buildings include the Singer and 
the Scribner Buildings in New York, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, the 
Washington State capitol at Olympia, and the Corcoran Gallery in 
Washington. His practice was international as well, with building 
commissions executed in St. Petersburg and Budapest. As a native of 
Brooklyn and a resident of New York, he took a special interest in the 
problems of the city. His proposal in this essay to create an extremely 
wide mall-like thoroughfare cutting through and destroying Central Park 
apparently attracted little support. His critique of the 1811 plan for 
Manhattan, however, probably reflected the thoughts of most architects 
and city planners of the time.
Probably no more important plan was ever made at a single stroke than 
that for the laying out of the upper part of the City of New York, 
adopted early in the last century, and since then adhered to with a 
fidelity worthy of a better result. This plan has governed in the 
expenditure of untold wealth; it has probably had as much to do as any 
other one thing in shaping the character, habits and customs of the 
people, for it has fixed their environment; it has lain like a huge 
gridiron on the city, binding it to hopeless monotony and humdrum 
commercialism of aspect, and acting as a barrier to any attempt to 
impart to the town that grand metropolitan air which distinguishes most 
of the great capitals of Europe. If the planners had only followed the 
simplest dictates of common prudence and provided a broad open strip 
along each water front, and another through the centre of the island to 
insure ample means of transit, the other failings of their plan might 
have been forgiven; for even with this much--so great are the natural 
advantages of the site--New York could have become one of the most 
beautiful and commodious cities on earth. 
It is easy enough now, as we look at the plan, to follow the narrow 
working of the minds of the planners. To them the great city of the 
future was to be simply an enlargement of the primitive town of their 
own day. Their horizon was bounded entirely by what they saw before 
them, and their one desire seems to have been to make use of every 
available square foot of land for strictly utilitarian purposes. The 
side streets were to afford quiet places of residence, and the avenues 
the necessary means of communication longitudinally. With this one idea 
in mind, everything else was easy; the natural topography of the island 
was disregarded; streets were laid out over watercourse, swamp and 
hill, with mathematical regularity. The first requisites of a great 
metropolis for other things than streets and lots seem not to have been 
considered. Of artistic effect there was not a suggestion; the thought 
of such a thing probably never entered the heads of the planners. Their 
ideas were narrow and provincial, and their plan reflected and has 
retained their ideals. With such a plan, is it surprising that the city 
should be noted for its lack of civic pride? 

So little did the makers of the plan foresee the enormous pressure 
which would be brought upon the longitudinal means of transit when the 
city should be built up, by the daily ebb and flow of the vast 
population for which lots were provided, that only one avenue running 
north and south was laid out in a given distance to four tran[s]verse 
streets. Moreover, most of these avenues were arranged so as to be of 
the least possible use. They start from nowhere in particular, for they 
were joined on to the old street system arbitrarily wherever they 
happened to come, and no attempt was made to bring the old plan into 
harmony with the new. The only serviceable through lines for traffic 
were those which already existed--the Bowery and its extension, Third 
Avenue, and Broadway joined to the old Bloomingdale Road. The result 
has been that the main flow of traffic has been congested into these 
streets. The avenues which are crossed by Broadway have never received 
anything like their proportionate development below the points of 
crossing. The lower parts of Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Avenues are dead 
ends, so to speak; they serve little purpose in relieving the stress of 
up and down traffic. To make them serviceable they need a feeder of 
sufficient magnitude at their lower ends, which could be had by 
enlarging Varick Street, in a somewhat more radical way than that 
recently suggested by the Municipal Art Society, viz., by cutting it 
through to meet Broadway at the City Hall at one end, to intersect 
Bleecker Street at the other end, making it of great width and 
extending the avenues to meet it. Broadway would then be relieved at 
its most congested point, and the whole lower west side would receive 
its proper development. If this change were made, even at the great 
cost it would now involve, the increased taxes based on the rise in 
value of the region benefitted would undoubtedly soon more than cover 
the interest on the sum expended. 

The efforts which have heretofore been made to break the bond imposed 
on the city by the adoption of the unfortunate plan of 1807 have been 
so restricted or hampered by existing conditions, and have been carried 
out with so little method and continuity of purpose, that they have 
amounted to scarcely more than makeshifts. From time to time a square 
has been opened here, a park there, a street cut through in one place 
or widened in another, but these improvements have been entirely local 
in their effect, and have failed to change the general appearance of 
the city. Even the greatest of all these changes, the laying out of 
Central Park, was unfortunate, to say the least, for it serves to 
aggravate one of the worst features of the original plan, viz., the 
failure to provide a central artery of communication worthy of the 
coming city. If it was an error to provide four transverse streets in a 
given distance to one longitudinal one for a city in which the main 
flow of travel must always be up and down, what can be said for an 
improvement which practically closed the two central avenues, and 
placed the park on the natural axis of traffic? Perhaps it is not yet 
time for the full magnitude of this mistake to be generally understood. 
Central Park is still regarded by most New Yorkers with pride; and 
rightly so, for it is beautiful, and up to the present time has served 
its purpose well; but the time must soon come when the disadvantages of 
its location will be too apparent to be hid. 

If one examines the present situation without prejudice, he must admit 
that the raison d 'etre for the park as it stands is becoming daily 
less and less apparent. In its laying out and treatment Central Park is 
essentially a suburban pleasure ground. Its scenery is naturalistic; 
its lakes, groves, and meadows are intended to represent a bit of 
beautiful rural landscape. Before tall buildings began to surround it, 
it fulfilled this function fairly well; the illusion was complete 
enough to be satisfying; but now to some extent the charm is lost by 
the intruding buildings, and in the future, when completely surrounded 
by them, it will be almost entirely lost. It will then cease to be a 
rural pleasure ground, and become simply the affectation of one, in the 
heart of a large city, where every requirement of common sense and good 
taste calls for a different kind of treatment. Ornamental grounds of 
this sort should not be so wide as to be inconvenient and serve as a 
barrier between the adjacent parts of the city as Central Park does. 
They should be laid out in a formal rather than a naturalistic way, for 
as they must be seen in connection with the buildings, there should be 
such a degree of harmony between the two that the one may play into the 
hands of the other. The grounds should form a beautiful foil or setting 
for the buildings, and the buildings serve to ornament the grounds. The 
purpose of such pleasure grounds should be to open up and enliven the 
appearance of the city, to bring sunlight, air, and verdure into the 
heart of the town; to afford agreeable promenades and drives; and by a 
judicious choice of location to distribute these benefits within the 
reach of the greatest possible number of people. Since Central Park was 
laid out conditions have changed; with the completion of the proposed 
lines of rapid transit, the real suburbs will become as accessible to 
the mass of the population of the future as the park has been in the 
past. What is needed now is, not a suburban central park, but agreeable 
ways to reach the suburban park system for which provision has 
fortunately been made. The reservoirs which occupy so much of the park 
area are no longer needed where they are. Formerly, when the entire 
water supply depended on the High Bridge Aqueduct, it was necessary to 
have a considerable storage capacity on the island; but now, when there 
can be any number of subterranean conduits, the reason for it has 
ceased to exist. 

It is not pretended for a moment that the densely populated part of the 
city requires fewer breathing spaces than it now has; on the contrary 
it needs more, and a better distribution of them. The few open squares 
scattered about the town are utterly inadequate. As now arranged they 
serve rather to remind one of the general lack of verdure than to 
supply its want. The few trees which they possess are a poor substitute 
for the wooded avenues one finds in other great cities. There is a 
crying need here for long stretches of grass, avenues of trees, and 
gardens, so placed that they can be conveniently reached by all the 
people; and the shape of this island is such that if there were a 
parkway through its centre, this want might be fulfilled. New York 
ought to have such an avenue like the Champs Elysées of Paris, Unter 
den Linden of Berlin, or the Ring Strasse of Vienna, but more ample 
than any of them; for here, of all places, owing to the shape of the 
island, there is the most need of such a thing. Fortunately this can be 
had now, if we want it, without either bankrupting the treasury or 
curtailing the habitable area of the town. To obtain the funds, it 
would only be necessary to sell off land which the city now owns, and 
apply the proceeds to the purchase of other land of at least equal 
extent. If those parts of the park lying between Fifth Avenue and the 
extension of Sixth Avenue on the east side and between Eighth Avenue 
and the extension of Seventh Avenue on the west side, were sold, and 
the proceeds applied to the purchase of all the land lying between 
Sixth and Seventh Avenues, from Christopher Street to the Harlem River, 
the city would then have a strip for a park thousand feet wide and more 
than ten miles long, lying right on the central axis of the city, where 
it would do the most good to the greatest number of inhabitants. Here 
could be constructed a thoroughfare worthy of the metropolis of the new 
world. If opened up at the lower end by a suitable avenue of approach 
from the City Hall Park, such as already suggested by way of an 
enlarged Varick Street, and connected with the district beyond the 
Harlem River by the necessary bridges, it would solve the difficulties 
of through transit for the city for all time, become the finest, as it 
would be the most important, highway of the world, and at the same time 
give to the entire island the breathing space and beauty it now so 
sorely needs. 

Some idea of the splendor of such a plan may be had when we realize 
that even if the central avenue or parkway had a clear roadway 160 feet 
wide, or four times the width of that of Fifth Avenue, there would 
still remain for gardens distributed on both sides of it a space about 
as wide as Madison Square is long. Now imagine this strip of verdure 
extended for ten miles through the heart of the town, shaded by trees, 
ornamented with shrubbery, fountains, statuary, arches, and every other 
suitable embellishment, and where could one find its equal? The finest 
of avenues of the old world would pale in comparison. The Mall at 
Washington as it is proposed to rearrange it would not be as wide and 
only about one-fifth as long. 

Such a programme of course could not be carried out at once without 
involving unnecessary expense and great inconvenience, but it might be 
done gradually. If improvements were stopped on the area to be 
acquired, the city could easily undertake the conversion of one or two 
blocks a year, at the same time selling off an equal area of its park 
lands. If this were done systematically, in the course of forty or 
fifty years the task would be accomplished without great disturbance of 
values, with little inconvenience, and at comparatively slight cost.