More than three years after Gov. Andrew Cuomo greenlit a $1.5 million grant to build a memorial commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, activists are still working toward having the project completed.
In 1911, 146 garment workers — most of whom were young women — perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in a factory located at 29 Washington Place. Although the building is owned by New York University, the project is being led by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.
To try to speed up the process to get what is known as the Triangle Fire Memorial completed, the group has hired Gina Pollara, a former president and chief executive officer of the Municipal Art Society who served as executive director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, as a consultant. On Jan. 22 the 11 members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission will hold a public hearing and may vote afterward to decide whether to grant a certificate of appropriateness for the Triangle Fire Memorial, according to an LPC spokeswoman. If a vote is not taken Tuesday, a public meeting — without further public testimony — would have to be held, she added. The memorial would be installed on NYU’s Brown Building, which was formerly known as the Asch Building.
Pending the LPC approval, the coalition aims to complete the project by March 25, 2020, which would be the 109th anniversary of the fire. After a blind refereed competition, designers Richard Joon Yoo and Uri Wegman were selected to design their “Reframing the Sky” memorial. One reason for the delay is that the coalition is trying to raise an additional $850,000 to maintain the memorial once it is built, according to the president of the coalition’s board Mary Anne Trasciatti.
“The process of building a memorial is probably more complicated and time-consuming than any of us imagined in the beginning. It’s partly because we are building this public work of art on a privately owned building. So negotiating what we would like to do with this public project and making that work with what NYU needs and wants to do with its building, has required some delicate negotiations, and those take time,” she said. “The other thing is money.”
An NYU spokesman deferred comment to the coalition.
To reach the $850,000 figure, the coalition consulted with engineers, architects and other specialists about the memorial’s potential wear and tear and how much money would be needed to maintain it going forward, Trasciatti said. Should the LPC advise changes to the memorial’s construction during Tuesday’s meeting, that could slightly change the coalition’s estimate for the endowment, she said. “One of the things that we have learned is that until it is up on a building, no design for a work of public art is final,” she said.
Along with a brief description of the tragedy, the names of the 146 victims will be laser-cut into street-level panels on the facade of the building. A stainless-steel “ribbon” will descend from the building’s ninth floor to mark the area where most of the workers died. Yeohlee Teng, who helped to judge the design competition, noted that New York City only has a handful of memorials dedicated to women. In addition to acknowledging the women and girls who died, it is important to commemorate the event since the fashion industry helped to build the city, she said.
As one of the worst workplace tragedies in the U.S., the fire led to a labor movement and historic legislation protecting workers’ safety. The fire started in the factory’s eighth-floor cutting room, where thousands of pounds of fabric caused it to spread rapidly. Panicked workers tried to evacuate by rushing to the stairs, the freight elevator and the fire escape. Most on the eighth and 10th floors escaped, however, dozens who were trapped on the ninth floor died, unable to force open the locked door. In addition, a rear fire escape had collapsed killing many and eliminating an escape route. Days after, the fire marshall believed the fire was caused by a cigarette, according to a WWD report at that time. A faulty fire hose on the eighth floor, willow baskets beside work stations and two partitions may have been other factors.
On March 16 and 17, the coalition and the Fashion Institute of Technology will hold a series of talks and events about the fire including the collective creation of a ribbon made from individual pieces of fabric brought by participants. The ribbon will be used as the main element of the memorial. Donors of $25,000 or more will be recognized on a vertical panel on the memorial. Supporters are also planning to distribute a commemorative book with the names of all donors — not just large ones — at the dedication ceremony.
Referring to the project’s pace, Trasciatti said, “It’s a memorial to a bunch of immigrant women who died and those are not the kinds of memorials that readily get built in the U.S. They weren’t famous people, they weren’t generals, they weren’t statesmen….They weren’t important people so there isn’t a ready fund of money and influential people out there to push this through.”