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Traces of an American Tragedy: Inside the Former Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Photo: On left, Dennis Kroner points down basement hallway. On right, Dennis Kroner's badge and NYPD 9-11-01 remembrance patch.

“I know the building is haunted, because you can feel it,” said public safety officer Dennis Kroner as he unlocked the door to a hidden stairwell in NYU’s Brown Building. “But I’ve never seen ghosts or anything.”

Most days you can find him keeping watch at his station near the adjoining Silver Center’s entrance, where thousands of students stream past on their way to and from class each day. But since he was posted there in 1983, Kroner has also become an informal expert on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the defining tragedy in Brown’s—and the neighborhood’s—history.

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 Photograph shows the Asch building, scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire, which took place on March 25, 1911, New York City.

The Asch Building at Greene St. and Washington Place—scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911. Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

 

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, shortly after the bell had rung to signal the end of work for the day, a fire (likely sparked by a lit match or cigarette butt tossed in a pile of fabric scraps) broke out on the 8th floor of what was then called the Asch Building, at the corner of Greene St. and Washington Place. The fire quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors, engulfing the whole of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where hundreds of workers, mostly women, toiled daily at sewing machines to produce the ready-to-wear blouses popular at the time. 

archival photo: Group of striking women - shirtwaist workers. NYC. 1909

Shirtwaist workers striking in 1909. Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Just a little more than a year before, 20,000 shirtwaist workers had gone on strike, demanding shorter hours, safer conditions, and recognition of the Ladies Garment Workers Union. While some companies settled with their workers, Triangle remained an anti-union shop that disregarded the safety concerns and refused to participate in the Protocol of Peace agreement developed to smooth labor relations following the strike. On the day the fire broke out, the doors to the Triangle factory exits were locked to prevent employee theft and unauthorized breaks. As flames made the Greene Street stairway impassable, workers crowded onto a single rickety fire escape, which soon collapsed. Others climbed up to the roof or crammed into an elevator that quit working after a few trips in the heat.

The incident shocked the city. Newspapers from the Yiddish Forverts to the New York Times became outlets for grief and anger as the bodies of the victims—mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, some of them girls as young as 14—were laid out at a makeshift morgue at the 26th street pier for their families to identify. In the years to come, outrage over the fire—which would remain New York’s worst workplace disaster until the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center—led to substantial labor reforms, fire safety legislation, and building codes that still protect us today.

NYU came to own a piece of that history when Frederick Brown donated the building to the university in 1929. Now, each March, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition organizes a ceremony to commemorate the tragedy at the corner of Green and Washington Place, in the heart of the Washington Square campus. In 2011, the Grey Art Gallery mounted a special exhibition for the 100th anniversary of the fire.

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photo: plaque honoring Triangle Fire victims on the side of the Brown Building

A plaque on the side of the Brown Building honors the victims of the fire. Photo from the NYU Archives.

While a variety of efforts ensure the Triangle victims are not forgotten, Kroner’s natural curiosity has also helped preserve their memory. With access that only building security can boast, he’s spent numerous lunch hours poking around Brown’s hidden corridors and storage spaces. “After more than 25 years here,” he says, “I know the building better than probably anybody else except for the engineers—all the little ins and outs.” Over the years he’s played somber tour guide to a number of historians researching the fire and its legacy, pointing out relics—original wood flooring here, a hundred-year-old elevator shaft there—that survived both the nightmare and the building’s subsequent renovations.

It can be disorienting to contemplate the fear and anguish of workers fighting for their lives as you follow Kroner around in what is now bright and convivial academic space; the very spot where the fire started, for example, is now a busy chemistry lab. But when you venture into an original stairway—hardly wide enough for one person, let alone a throng running for their lives—or up to the roof where so many found themselves trapped, 1911 suddenly doesn’t seem so far away.

Everywhere, too, are reminders of the vital role this building’s grim past played in charting a safer future; Brown’s modern fire safety system becomes, in an odd twist, the emotional centerpiece of Kroner’s tour. Broad, sturdy fire stairs, exit signs, fire alarms, a phone system for disseminating emergency information—they’re all here, Kroner points out, because of the Triangle fire. “There was no firefighting equipment back then,” he says. “No sprinklers, nothing.” In the stairways modern hoses hang alongside the remnants of the original equipment installed in Triangle’s wake.

Kroner also points to one positive chapter in the whole terrible Triangle story, which involves a lesser-known connection to the university. At the time of the fire, NYU School of Law professor Frank N. Sommer was teaching in what is now Silver (then called the Main Building), and when he and his students realized what was happening, they rushed to the windows with ladders—which they extended over a divide to serve as planks to crawl across—helping around 50 Triangle workers escape to safety.

Here’s how he described the scene to the New York Tribune two days later:

“I was lecturing to a class of about fifty boys, when suddenly we heard the whistles and gongs of fire engines. I threw open the door of the lecture room and then the door of the law school faculty room, which opens on an areaway separating our building from the one in which the blaze started.

Some of the boys followed me, and we saw that the ten story building across the areaway was on fire. The open space between us and that building was filled with ascending smoke. There were ear-piercing shrieks and girls appeared at the windows of the shirt factory.

We hurried to the roof of our building, where two ladders had been left by painters, and the boys shoved the ladders across the areaway to windows on the opposite side. The lads worked like beavers, apparently never giving a thought to the possibility that their own building might catch fire from the flames that were leaping out into the open space.

How it was done I don’t know, but in a surprisingly short time about fifty girls were brought across to safety.”  

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tktktk

As you contemplate the fire’s 104th anniversary this March 25, join Dennis Kroner on a virtual walk around the Brown building—then and now—in the slideshow above.

—Eileen Reynolds

 

Read more on Triangle’s legacy in the NYU Alumni Magazine, on the Grey Art Gallery website, and in a Labor Arts tribute.
 


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