Beyond The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Memorial
Since earliest childhood, Suzanne Pred Bass has known about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a workplace tragedy that took the lives of 146 workers, 123 women and 23 men, on March 25, 1911.
For example, she learned about her great aunt Katies’ dramatic escape from the fire — that she grabbed hold of a cable on the last elevator to leave the ninth floor. But another great aunt, Rosie, was never mentioned. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that Pred Bass learned that Katie’s sister has perished in the fire. She was 23.
And there was more that had been withheld, including the fact that Pred Bass’ mom – then a four-year-old child – had accompanied her mother to identify Rosie’s body, “By the time of this revelation, my mother was in her late 70s or early 80s,” Pred Bass told Lilith reporter Eleanor J. Bader. “It was obvious that this experience marked her and she never forgot it.”
Now a New York City-based psychotherapist and a Board member of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, Pred Bass reports that she was so stunned by her mother’s disclosure that she did not ask for additional details. “The family talked about the fire,” she continued. “They spoke about Katie but I think it speaks volumes that I never heard about Rosie. It testifies to the depth of the pain they felt. It was devastating but they had to forge forward. They had to find a place for the pain so it was not an obstacle.”
Pro-union and progressive activism were outlets for the family, she says.
Still, for her, honoring the victims of the fire is paramount and she and the Coalition are now fundraising to erect a nine-story memorial at the site of the blaze. This, she explains, will be a permanent tribute to the largely young immigrant women and girls who spent 12 hours a day, six days a week, working for “shirtwaist millionaires” Max Blanck and Isaac Harris.
Pred Bass spoke to Lilith in late April.
Eleanor J Bader: Do you know how Rosie and Katie ended up working at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory?
Suzanne Pred Bass: Blanck and Harris promised the workers all kinds of things. I read an account that said that they told the workers that if they came to Triangle, there would be music and dancing at lunch time. They did do this – once. But for a newly-arrived immigrant workforce, entering the Asch Building [now called the Brown Building and part of New York University] must have been remarkable. The company had three floors, eight, nine, and 10, and taking the elevator up and seeing views overlooking lower Manhattan must have been thrilling. But the working conditions were horrendous. The fire started on the eighth floor, in the cutting room, and was fed by large piles of fabric. It quickly spread. Most of the workers on the eighth and 10th floors were able to get out, but the doors on the ninth floor were locked; by the time the workers learned of the fire it was too late. There was no escape route.
EJB: Tell me about the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.
SPB: Ruth Sergel was the founder and like many Coalition members, she did not, herself, lose any family members in the fire. She’d read about it as a young woman and the idea of these girls – some as young as 14, 15, and 16 – dying touched her deeply.
For years, there were annual commemorations of the fire organized by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Ruth always went. The event was a moving tribute where the names of the dead were read and flowers were placed at the site. I began going to the memorial after reading about it in the New York Times in the 1990s. After a few years, the people who attended began to recognize one another. We were a mix of family members, union activists, and concerned others.
As the 100th anniversary of the fire approached, we began meeting regularly to plan the event. This is really when the Coalition came together. Our working group ended up helping coordinate 250 programs across the country. Church bells rang in New York City; the Grey Art Gallery at NYU hosted an art exhibition with works about the fire, and there were academic and cultural activities including theater, music and dance performances. It was incredible. We then set our sights on creating a large-scale memorial at the site.
EJB: You clearly have a personal connection to this, but are there other reasons you’ve made this the centerpiece of your activism?
SPB: I’m very proud that the Coalition is an International Site of Conscience, part of a global network of historical sites and museums working to connect past struggles to contemporary social change and human rights efforts. We believe our memorial will be a destination for people visiting New York City,
At the time of the fire, New York was run by incredibly corrupt politicians of Tammany Hall. The fire triggered people like Frances Perkins, Al Smith, and Robert Wagner to get involved in politics. Factory inspections became mandatory and new safety measures were implemented. Wage and hour restrictions, minimum age requirements, worker’s compensation and things like marked exits resulted. Unions as protectors of workers’ rights flourished. It is important to remember this as a triumph over tragedy.
Additionally, I hope that the memorial will be a force to prod new organizing to improve working conditions, to help the underdog.
EJB: Before we talk about the planned memorial, tell me about some of the Coalition’s other projects.
SPB: One of the most brilliant is the Chalk Project that Ruth initiated. We worked to find the home addresses of every victim of the fire and once a year we gather people together to go to the buildings that are still standing – most are in the now-fashionable Lower East Side or in West Harlem. We then chalk the name, age, and what happened to the person on March 25, 1911, on the sidewalk. People stop to read what we’ve written and it’s an amazing moment of connection and education. In addition, we offer walking tours, educational resources, and speak in various settings about the fire. We also regularly publish essays and articles about the fire.
EJB: What is the memorial going to be like?
SPB: We had a competition and 180 designs were submitted. An esteemed jury reviewed the submissions and chose Richard Joon Yoo and Uri Wegman’s proposal. It will be an impressive memorial, one that is dedicated, in large part and uniquely, to immigrant women workers. It will start at the ninth floor of the Brown Building, with a steel mourning ribbon hanging down the corner of the building.
At an earlier event we sponsored, people were asked to bring pieces of fabric that held meaning related to the fire. From this, we sewed a 300-foot panel that was later pressed into the metal to give it texture.
There is also a stone ledge that goes around the front and side of the building. All of the names and ages of the dead will be etched into this. The names will then reflect onto a lower panel. The words of survivors and witnesses will be included as well; text describing the fire, written by Kevin Bacon, will be translated into Italian and Yiddish since these were the main languages of
EJB: This sounds expensive!
SPB: It is! We received $1.5 million from New York State and initially thought that that would be enough to cover the cost. But we also needed to set up an escrow account as the Coalition is responsible for maintaining the memorial in perpetuity.
We recently got some really bad news: the large blocks on the building’s corners do not have the supports behind them that are necessary to hold the memorial in place so we need to remove the cornerstones and replace them with steel supports. These costs are estimated to be around $900,000.
We are now fundraising. We received a $30,000 in two grants from the Puffin Foundation, several unions have stepped up, and many individuals have donated. But we still need to come up with about $800,000. We’re asking everyone who can to contribute.
Our goal is to be done with the fundraising in enough time to have the memorial in place before the next anniversary–March 25, 2023. I am sure that we can and will do it, but it’s our biggest challenge.
EJB: Approximately two-thirds of the dead were Jewish, and one-third were Italian. Has either community ponied up much financial support?
SPB: The Yiddish Theater Folksbiene partnered with us at the 2022 commemoration and they’ve been wonderful. But the overall Jewish community has not helped as much as we’d like. On the other hand, the Italian community has been active. People have put up commemorative plaques and markers in the Italian towns and villages – the birthplaces — of the workers who died. It’s a wonderful way of keeping their memories alive. They’ve also contributed to the memorial.But so much more needs to be raised.
The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, led by Mary Ann Trasciatti, is a group of dedicated volunteers who have been working for more than a decade to build a memorial to those who perished. You can learn more about their work by going to rememberthetrianglefire.org.