Trust for Architectural Easements Tours Garment Center Historic District in New York

Washington, DC, August 13, 2011 --( The Trust for Architectural Easements helped list the Garment Center Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Garment Center covers 25 blocks of Midtown Manhattan between Sixth and Ninth avenues to the east and west, and between 35th and 41st streets to the south and north. It is known for its distinctive loft buildings built in the 1920s to house New York City’s garment industry, the largest in the country for much of the 20th century.

The garment industry moved here from Fifth Avenue after World War I, under pressure from powerful landowners. Fearing that the industry’s real estate holdings and ever-growing immigrant workforce would threaten Fifth Avenue’s high-end retail development, the landowners successfully lobbied for the Zoning Resolution of 1916, which forced the move.

Prior to becoming the garment district, the neighborhood had been home to tenement buildings, publishing and printing houses, and many theaters and hotels (with legendary nightlife). Some buildings from these years have remained today, including a pre-Civil War fire station at 220 W. 37th St. and an 1870 church at 126 W. 37th St.

With the garment industry came the big lofts, and they forever stamped the district with their distinctive look. Form followed function: showrooms and offices filled ground floors, open-plan workrooms occupied upper stories, and large windows provided light for garment display and production. Lofts typically stood 12 to 30 floors in height; elevators and steel-frame construction, both common by the 1920s, made it all possible. The Zoning Resolution of 1916 also determined the shape of the new lofts, requiring building silhouettes to be “stepped back,” zigguratstyle, from the street over a certain height. Architects responded enthusiastically to these design parameters, and the profile of the stepped pyramid became characteristic of New York City’s tall buildings, particularly of the lofts in the garment district. (The resolution remained in effect until 1961.) An early exemplar of the new aesthetic was the Garment Center Capitol: two 22-story lofts – advertised as “towering masses” – rising up on Seventh Avenue between West 36th and West 38th streets. Completed in 1920 at a cost of $20 million to establish the first permanent, co-operative home for the garment industry in its new location, the buildings included not only offices and showrooms, but also a club, a gymnasium, reading rooms, restaurants, and a roof garden, all within a total floor space of 1.5 million square feet. Promoters touted it as a “city within a city.”

Throughout the 1920s, many more loft buildings were built on the Garment Center Capitol model, replacing most of the neighborhood’s pre-World War I building stock. The busiest years were 1924 and 1925, when a total of 47 new loft buildings were constructed in the district.

Stylistically, the lofts tended to be art-historicist and/or Art Deco. For example, New York architects George and Edward Blum incorporated Gothic-inspired ornament and a metallic Art Deco entrance portal into the design of the 24-story building at 497-499 Seventh Avenue, completed in 1926.

Some of the more stylistically sophisticated lofts included the 14 designed by New York City architect Ely Jacques Kahn. His Bricken Textile Building, completed in 1930 at 1441 Broadway, was dressed head-to-foot with Art Deco lines, patterns, and staccato ornament, its upper floors ascending to the sky in an asymmetrical series of shallow set-backs in classic, New York City-ziggurat form.

Similarly, Kahn’s Bricken Casino Building, completed in 1930 at 1410 Broadway, featured a white-and-black striped brick tower rising, again ziggurat-like, 35 floors to a turret marked by vertical fins flanging out from its corners.

The play of light and shadow against these tall, abstract forms and highly patterned surfaces increased the visual drama of the buildings – no longer lowly factories, but glorious modern monuments to American manufacturing. In Kahn’s own words, they epitomized “a new style of architecture – a New York style.”

With the onset of the Great Depression, the building boom of the 1920s ground to a halt, and only a handful of buildings were constructed in the district in the second half of the 20th century. Fortunately, loft buildings have been easily converted to other uses, and with the recognition provided by the creation of the new historic district, they have a chance to remain standing for many more decades to come.

The Trust protects more than 800 historic buildings across the United States. For more information, please visit

Trust for Architectural Easements
Heather Bratland