Places that Matter

Garment Center Capitol Buildings

Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Loft buildings where the "new Garment District" was born
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When they were built in 1921, the Garment Center Capitol Buildings, a pair of buildings at 498 and 500 7th Ave., heralded the move of New York's flourishing garment industry uptown to the district where it has remained ever since. New York City's continued hold on the fashion industry has preserved a symbiotic relationship between fashion design and manufacturing, which take place on the same city blocks in the heart of Midtown. At this point in time, though, the Garment District faces new development pressures. Although designers like Patricia Underwood still retain their facilities in the buildings, newcomers like the Bates USA advertising agency have moved in as well.

The Garment Center Capitol Buildings included enough modern amenities to lure almost the entire garment industry uptown--notably electricity, light, and ample space that most garment factories had lacked before. When the ready-made clothing business first began to grow in the 19th century (by producing clothing for the slave trade as well as for soldiers and sailors), it was located on the Lower East Side, where part of its workforce took piecework into their tenements. Most of the area's workspaces were small. Larger factories were located slightly to the west, in what is now SoHo.

As the ready-made clothing business expanded from uniforms to men's shirts and then found its real cash cow, women's clothing, the manufacturing district was poised to overflow its boundaries. During the same years, workers in the industry had organized, often becoming significant members of nationwide labor movements (The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union was founded in 1900 and in 1909 they led an influential walkout called the "Uprising of the 20,000"). After the infamous fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where 146 garment workers were trapped and died, New York created new labor regulations that required factory owners to provide safer and more spacious working conditions. Department stores, where the masses might buy the manufactured clothing, were moving uptown, and Midtown emerged as a transportation hub--nearby Penn Station was completed in 1911. The garment industry began to move from the Lower East Side to lofts above 14th Street. It concentrated around Fifth Avenue, and then began to spread north from 34th Street, where luxury department stores catered to the rich, but it was quickly cut off.