Faces on Fifth: Alice Sparberg Alexiou

Alice Sparberg Alexiou has a unique link to the subject of her book The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose with It: from 1946 until 1997, her family co-owned the Manhattan icon, one of the world’s most famous skyscrapers.

Alexiou’s book covers the history of the building from its genesis, centered on the compelling and tragic figure of Harry Black, President of the Fuller Company, the real estate firm that erected the tower. Her own history with the building has been one of quiet pride: “I feel a real sense of family stewardship in it in it,” she says.

The critically acclaimed history has a second connection to its subject – it was produced by St. Martin’s Press, a longtime tenant of the Flatiron. Editor Peter Joseph, a past profile for Faces on Fifth, assisted Alexiou with the process.

The book is the basis of an episode of the PBS show Treasures of New York. “It was a fascinating experience seeing the story translated to film,” Alexiou says, who was introduced to the film’s producer through her son. “I loved being able to reframe the story in visual terms – the building deserves it.”

As the author of the first biography of Jane Jacobs, Alexiou has a lifetime love of architecture and urbanism. She points out that development and preservation, far from being mutually exclusive, balance each other out. “The past is a frame of reference – a touchstone. Preservation is a guide. As long as developers understand this, new development doesn’t have to be a bad thing. And when a developer truly loves architecture it’s a good thing on all sides.”

Currently working on a boom about the history of the Bowery, “New York’s weirdest street,” Alexiou never tires of the landmark that helped define modern New York. She’s particularly taken with the “cow-catcher,” an addition to the building’s prow that now contains an alternative art space. “I love it – I think it makes a great art space. It’s an aesthetic victory. We don’t need everything to be symmetrical.”

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