Urban Fabric: Building New York’s Garment District

New York City’s Skyscraper Museum is currently displaying the exhibition ‘Urban Fabric: Building New York’s Garment District’ until 20 January 2013.

The largest concentration of skyscraper factories in the world, the 18 blocks that were the heart of New York’s Garment District, once supported more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs and produced nearly 75% of all women’s and children’s apparel in the United States. The rapid development of the district (the area of west midtown from 35th to 41st Streets and from Seventh to Ninth Avenues) occurred almost entirely within the boom decade of the 1920s, when more than 125 stepped-back loft buildings took the pyramidal forms dictated by New York City’s new zoning law.

Most of the high-rises were built and owned by immigrant entrepreneurs who had begun their climb from clothing manufacturers, to builders, to real estate moguls. Some made and lost fortunes as boom turned to bust in the 1930s’ Depression, and their names (Lefcourt, Adler, Bricken, amongst others) have faded. The work of a handful of little-known architects (all Jewish, like their clients) responsible for nearly a hundred buildings within the district is highlighted in the exhibition.

For followers of fashion, particularly in New York, ‘Seventh Avenue’ means Fashion in the same way that ‘Wall Street’ means Finance. The architecture of the Garment District shaped the urban stage of Seventh Avenue: the high-rise lofts and showroom towers housed myriad small manufacturers, patternmakers, cutters, sewers, pressers, and finishers, as well as the executives, designers, and models for the leading labels. From these factories clothes were shipped to department stores across America or rolled on racks to Macys or Gimbels close by. Within the anonymous architectural infrastructure of zoned massing and speculative development, decades of enterprising creativity and human toil flowed out onto the streets of the city.

Urban Fabric is guest-curated by Andrew S. Dolkart, the Director of the Historic Preservation Program and the James Marston Fitch Associate Professor of Historic Preservation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.