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Most had come from Romania, Russia, Austria or Italy. Some had been in New York only a few months, even weeks.
All toiled inside one of the city’s most notorious sweatshops, on the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in Greenwich Village.
In the late afternoon of the first spring Saturday 112 years ago, as the 500 or so seamstresses and other garment workers were readying for the end of another 52-hour workweek at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, flames flared in a bin of discarded cloth scraps under a fabric cutter’s table on the eighth floor. Within minutes, the fire had spread through the wood floors above to the ninth and 10th stories.
Hundreds would escape the flames by climbing to the building’s roof and through a neighboring building or via the building’s single workable freight elevator.
But 146 of the workers, most of them not yet 25, many of them teenagers, would not make it out in time, perishing in the smoke and flames or by leaping to their deaths.
In the aftermath
Fire crews doused the flames within a half-hour, but 112 years later the factory fire remains a touchstone, for the families certainly, but also for the labor movement.
In early 1913, the Ladies Waist and Dressmakers Union Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union called a general strike that, within a few days, had succeeded in bringing about an industry-wide collective agreement providing for new, better wage scales, a 50-hour workweek, union recognition and a grievance process.
Within a few years, dozens of pro-labor and workplace safety laws were on the books in New York State. They mandated sprinkler systems and smoke alarms, exit doors that opened outward and stayed unlocked during working hours and lighted exit signs. Ventilation, lighting and sanitation were also addressed.
To ensure the new laws and rules were being followed, the state’s Department of Labor was restructured, including by doubling the number of inspectors.
The Asch Building itself, just 10 years old at the time of the fire, would also get a makeover. Extensive safety features were added, including another staircase reaching to the roof, a new fire escape and sprinklers.
A few years later, New York University moved into the eighth floor of what had been renamed the Greenwich Building. By 1926, NYU occupied the entire 10 floors. Three years later, the realtor and philanthropist Frederick Brown bought the building and on the same day, donated it to NYU. It was renamed in his honor soon afterward.
In 1961, on the 50th anniversary of the Triangle fire, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ installed a plaque on the corner pier of Washington Place and Greene Streets. Thirty years after that, on the fire’s 80th anniversary, the National Park Service put a bronze plaque below that one, noting the building’s status as a federal landmark. And in 2003, following the designation by the New York Landmarks Preservation, yet another plaque was placed on the building’s southeast corner.
Nothing more substantial has commemorated one of the country’s deadliest workplace disasters.
But, later this year, following years of concerted effort by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, a memorial to the victims and survivors of the fire will be installed on the building’s brick and terra-cotta facade.
The monument, designed by architects Richard Joon Yoo and Uri Wegman, will consist of a stainless steel ribbon with a textured fabric pattern descending from the ninth floor along the building’s corner.
At the top of the Brown Building’s first floor, the ribbon will divide and run 12 feet above the sidewalk, along which the names of the 146 fire victims’ names will be etched horizontally and reflected onto a darkened reflective panel at street level.
Recollections and testimonials from survivors and witnesses will be inscribed along the lower edge of the panel.
‘Respect for families’
The memorial, projected to cost just under $3 million, including a maintenance fund, was slated to be dedicated March 25, on the fire’s anniversary. But a host of issues has delayed its installation, including a construction slowdown caused by the pandemic but also structural issues that called for a different method of securing the steel ribbon onto the building’s facade. That new approach, in turn, required the coalition to raise an additional nearly $1 million.
Plans for the memorial, as well as amended designs, also had to go through approval processes at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Contracts, fundraising and engineering particulars consumed many hours of planning.
And before fabrication could begin, the planners had mounds of fact-checking to complete, mostly to ensure correct spellings and birth dates. Some of that entailed traveling, with other aspects demanding close collaboration with scholars and genealogists. “We did due diligence. We tried to respect the wishes of family and we tried to correct obvious errors,” the coalition’s president, Mary Anne Trasciatti, said.
Remarkably for a city whose elected officials often proclaim New York to be a union town, the memorial will be the city’s first dedicated to labor.
Its foremost function will be to honor and recall the 146 people who perished that day. But Trasciatti, the director of Hofstra University’s Labor Studies Program and a professor of rhetoric and public advocacy, said the memorial can and maybe should and must serve other purposes too. “Women really pushed harder for the suffrage amendment because, they said, ‘when we can't make laws to protect ourselves, we die in a burning building,’” said Trasciatti, whose mother and grandmother were garment workers.
She noted that the workers-rights advocate Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, as secretary of labor in FDR’s administration, said the New Deal began on March 25, 1911.
Labor history, Trasciatti said, is full of accounts of tribulations, many of them agonizing and all too often tragic. “But if we join together and say enough and fight and push back, we can make the kind of changes we need to protect working people and to ensure that working people's rights are respected and to make workplaces safer, wages better,” she said.
Suzanne Pred Bass, the great-niece of two women who were laboring at the factory when the fire broke out, said families of the victims have been waiting a long time for the level of recognition the monument will bring.
Pred Bass, who lives on the Upper West Side, grew up knowing about the tragedy but only in early adulthood learned that the younger of the two women, Katie Weiner, who was 17, survived by riding the cable of the last elevator down from the ninth floor, but that 23-year-old Rosie was killed.
“Oh, still, for my family or for me, it's still a very heartbreaking episode that tears me up,” Pred Bass, a coalition board member, said. The monument, she continued, “has so many multiple meanings for me,” including that it will reflect contemporary concerns.
“It's going to be really one of the first ever memorials to women, to immigrants, to laborers and all of that are issues we're still struggling with today,” she said. “For me, it's deeply personal that my family's loss will be remembered and inspiring to people struggling today and who want to understand what that moment in history signified. So it's huge. And of course, it's also a beacon because so many powerful changes occurred because of that fire.”
While Trasciatti said she was somewhat disappointed the memorial couldn't be installed for the 112th anniversary, a few months delay after years of waiting will pass quickly. The plan now is, rather than wait another year, to dedicate it around Labor Day this coming September. “We just feel like as soon as the work is done, we really should get it up on the building,” in good part because the coalition is indebted for support to donors, families, fabricators and others.
“Everybody's really eager to see it up.”
Tax-deductible contributions to support the construction and upkeep of the memorial can be made online at https://rememberthetrianglefire.org/donate/. Checks can be written to Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, Inc., Church Street Station, PO Box 3330, New York, NY 10008-3330.
The commemoration of the fire’s 112th anniversary will take place 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 24 at Washington Place and Greene Street.
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