The Skyscraper Museum is devoted to the study of high-rise building, past, present, and future. The Museum explores tall buildings as objects of design, products of technology, sites of construction, investments in real estate, and places of work and residence. This site will look better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.
EARLY GARMENT LOFTS
Triangle Waist Company Fire at the Asch Building, March 25, 1911. Kheel Center, Cornell University.
A "loft" is an open and flexible space, unencumbered with partitions, intended for industrial, commercial, or warehousing uses. Lofts generally housed multiple tenants who rented all or part of one or more floors. As the garment manufacturers were forced out of tenement sweatshops beginning in the 1890s, they first moved their factories into old loft buildings. Soon scores of new lofts were erected to meet the demands of the expanding industry. The principal concentrations were located on and near Broadway near Washington Square and on blocks near Union Square.
The lofts erected in the 1890s and first years of the 20th century were generally metal-framed buildings of 8 to 10 stories with brick and stone facades. Stores occupied street-level spaces. They had passenger and freight elevators, large windows for light and ventilation, steam heat, and plumbing. Most significantly, the new lofts had electricity, which permitted the installation of efficient electric sewing machines, cutting machines, and other time and labor saving devices. They were also "fireproof" and were supposed to have adequate fire escapes and exits.
"Fireproof" was an insurance term that only meant a building would not be destroyed in a conflagration; it did not protect the safety of those working inside. Few buildings had sprinkler systems or non-flammable window frames. The danger inherent in these loft buildings became tragically clear on March 25, 1911, when the Triangle Waist Company's factory, located on the three top floors of the "fireproof" 10-story Asch Building on Washington Place caught fire, killing 146 workers. The building itself, as the term "fireproof" had promised, suffered little damage, and was repaired and reoccupied within a few months. The response of the press and the public, however, resulted in major reforms.