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November 10, 2005

Flatiron properties
Posted by Teresa at 03:52 PM *

There’s plenty of documentation on the strong winds at the base of the Flatiron Building, but has it ever been noted that when the wind’s blowing strongly in the right direction, the building generates melodious low-pitched flutelike sounds?

Today, for instance. It’s tootling away like the soundtrack of an anthropological documentary.

Comments on Flatiron properties:
#1 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 05:05 PM:

I used to live in a building where the toilets sang in a high wind. Well, the bathrooms did, anyway...

#2 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 05:27 PM:

One of the buildings at KU, Frasier Hall, was a tall, vane-shaped rectangular building with a bad bearing toward the winds, especially the winter wind directions. When it was windy, especially if it was wet or icy, I had to pray someone larger and stronger than I would be there to open the doors, I'd wager a lot of the girls did. Because the wind would keep them sucked shut... (I remember one winter grabbing the door handle hard and, because of no traction on the tile entry floor, just slamming myself up against the door. Of course it didn't open a bit.)

Frasier is just about the first building you can really see when coming from the East. It's very tall, very long, sand colored with a red tile roof.

#3 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 05:47 PM:

My office tends to creak rhythmically on windy days, reminding me of vacations spent on 2-masted schooners off the coast of Maine. The creak sounds just like the creak of the lines on board ship. Also, I'm far enough up along toward the narrow point that I can feel the Flatiron sway, which add to the illusion of being on a ship.

Since the window-washers pulled out the weatherstripping last week, however, my office now whistles at high pitch and volume.

And it's cold and drafty.

#4 ::: Lex ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 05:49 PM:

I don't know if it has been written about, but I recall hearing it several times during the year I worked in the building in the early 1980s.

#5 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 06:17 PM:

The apartment building i used to live in had elevator shafts that would howl in a winter wind. It added extra creep factor to the peelingpaint and tottering elderly and drag queens that also lived there.

#6 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 06:21 PM:

Melissa, have you tried masking tape?

#7 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 06:41 PM:

I took cardboard to public works today to recycle, and the wind kept slamming the van's back door shut.

#8 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 06:50 PM:

No ladies with bare ankles, Keith?

#9 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 06:56 PM:

I'm loving the various blog jokes about Ahhnuld: the "one-term-inator" who will soon face a "total recall."

#10 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 06:57 PM:

I used to live in a building where the toilets sang in a high wind. Well, the bathrooms did, anyway...

Didn't I hear that on the Annoying Music Show?

#11 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 07:51 PM:

A friend of mine insists that it plays "Amazing Grace".

#12 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2005, 09:06 PM:

Didn't you know? The Flatiron building is secretly a device to repel demons. The sound is part of the spell.

More seriously, I wonder what the mechanism of the sound generation is. That's a cool effect.

#13 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 12:14 AM:

A clue might be given by the observation that it plays "Amazing Grace". These are natural harmonics - four of the notes are the root, the fourth, the sixth, and the octave, and those are the intervals one finds in "Amazing Grace". (Also in "Taps", which is an interesting thought.) So a column of air is being vibrated in its natural modes, the mode being determined by the pressure of the wind. The question is, what is doing the vibrating?

#14 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 02:19 AM:

On the subject of wind and tall buildings, though not sonic effects:

One of my exes worked for a while in World Trade Tower 1, on a floor in the 80s. Like some other tall buildings, it was built with some allowance for swaying in the wind, and my ex amused herself by bringing a marble for when she needed to use the ladies room for anything longer than a brief stay. She'd place her toy in one of the grooves between the tiles on the floor, and listen and watch -- and it was apparently even more fun when someone came in and saw the marble moving, apparently of its own volition, across the room and back :-)

This was a short-term temp gig, so she didn't really worry about, you know, serious issues with Big Higher Ups.

#15 ::: Lois Aleta Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 05:44 AM:

This seems to be related:
Guitars and Rockets: Surprising Similarity Between. Or, How is Clint Black's guitar like the Space Shuttle?

Namely, "They both resonate." The article goes on to discuss some of the problems such vibrations -- especially the "sustain" -- cause in rockets and how NASA tries to deal with it.

Anyway, if the Shuttle resonates, it seems not unlikely that buildings like the Flatiron do too. The Flatiron's peculiar shape could well have an influence on it, but I'll leave that to the (choose all that apply):

a) engineers
b) scientists
c) muscians
d) wide awake
while I go away for a couple of days to a family thing. One of my nephews got married recently and this is a belated reception for the couple.

P.S. The clock on your blog still seems to be running on Daylight Time. I have 4:40 a.m. and it's telling me I'm posting this at 5:40.

#16 ::: Lois Aleta Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 05:47 AM:

Geez, I could swear that said "musicians" when I wrote it. (Though muscians are welcome to participate too, I guess.) My need for sleep is becoming all too apparent.

#17 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 08:27 AM:

The old Seattle Art Museum buiding used to do an amazing job of that.

#18 ::: Sandy ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 10:57 AM:

Taps and Reveille can be played on a Trumpet without using the valves (I think; using Trumpet of the Swan for reference material). It would make sense; use a bugle without those complicated and expensive valves for the basic military songs.

So, yes, it has to do with natural harmonics and such. The frequencies that will be naturally accepted and/or amplified by a simple structure are simple ratios of each other.

#19 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 11:09 AM:

But, Sandy, can you play Reveille with a singing toilet?

And why do they call it 'reveille'? I know what it means, but why use a French word?

#20 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 11:27 AM:


I'm reluctant to put tape on the windows for fear of incurring the wrath of the office manager. They are brand-new windows, you see, very expensive.

I'm bringing in a thermometer on Monday and will send hourly temperature updates to all concerned, and if things are not speedily fixed, I will summon reinforcements. Like Tom. Who may be a polar bear, but understands that others of us are not.

#21 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 12:07 PM:

I'm a muscian who plays trumpet and trombone. The natural harmonics are my friends. If you're hearing Amazing Grace, you're not technically hearing 1, 4, 6, and 8. Assuming that the Flatiron Building is in the key of C, the overtone series works out like this:

(0) 1  2  3  4  5  6   7   8   9   10  ...
(C) C' G' C" E" G" Bb" C'" D'" E'" F#" ...

Where 0 is the fundamental. So what you're hearing is the second, third, fourth, and just possibly the fifth harmonic. It would take tremendous energy to produce audible harmonics above that in a building, I'd think.

Serge, the total length of the column of air within a toilet is too short to play bugle calls. I suspect if you added about 15 feet of 1 1/2" PVC to the back of it, you could play bugle calls in the tuba range. It would sound something like an alphorn. (see also)

In my adopted city of Cincinnati, there's a bridge built by John Roebling as a kind of proof-of-concept for the Brooklyn Bridge. Locals call it "the singing bridge," because after it was opened to automobile traffic, it was discovered that vehicles traveling at 20-40 MPH across the roadbed excite the higher harmonic frequencies of the suspension cables, creating deep, sighing, musical moans. It's a bit like driving across a giant instrument built by Harry Partch.

#22 ::: Jimcat Kasprzak ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 12:21 PM:

Bruce's recounting of the marble trick in the WTC brings back memories of my days at Cantor Fitzgerald. I worked on the 104th floor, so we got the maximum effects from wind swaying.

The first thing that we'd notice was the ominous creaking sound. This was from the normal "play" of the structural steel, but even though we knew it presented no threat, we'd still keep expecting pieces of the walls to start cracking off.

A little more wind, and the effects would become apparent in the elevator shafts, particularly the express elevator from the ground floor to the skylobby on 78. The elevator car would occasionally scrape against the side of the shaft, and the car speeds were slowed significantly during high winds.

When things got really bad, you'd notice it in the bathrooms, because the water in the toilet bowls would be sloshing from side to side as though you were on a ship in choppy waters. I saw this happen on a day when the tower was reportedly swaying up to three feet from the vertical at the top. If the sway had gotten to four feet, the building would have been evacuated because it would be unsafe to run the elevators.

The worst day of wind effects that I remember was also the first time that I noticed them. It was a Friday morning, and I'd been out for a significant number of beers the night before. When I sat down at my desk and felt as though the room were swaying, I first dismissed it as aftereffects of the drinking. Then I looked at the cup of water on my desk, and noticed that it was displaying ripples like the ones in "Jurassic Park" when the dinosaurs are approaching.

Several people from the company went home that day because the swaying was making them, er, "building-sick", but personally, I forgot all about any vertigo or hangover effects in the rush of "this is the coolest workplace ever" thrill. But nobody from my office ever thought of the marble trick.

#23 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2005, 02:47 PM:

In the days when the old windows were still in place (and I worked near the "nosecone") in the Flatiron Building, there was both a wuthering and a rattling, which gave one the chilly but pleasant impression of working inside a musical instrument. The whistle and fluting are new since my day. (And sitting outside Tom Doherty's office was always icy, since even in winter he'd have his air conditioner on.

In the 80s, I did some freelance work for a guy in the Mortgage Finance area at Dean Witter at the WTC. The elevators would sway terrifyingly on a windy day. I didn't care for it.

#24 ::: Phantom Wolfboy ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2005, 10:37 PM:

Madeleine Noted:

In the days when the old windows were still in place (and I worked near the "nosecone") in the Flatiron Building, there was both a wuthering and a rattling,

So, Madeleine, you're saying you worked at a Wuthering Height?

#25 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2005, 12:28 PM:

Serge, the total length of the column of air within a toilet is too short to play bugle calls. I suspect if you added about 15 feet of 1 1/2" PVC to the back of it, you could play bugle calls in the tuba range. It would sound something like an alphorn. (see also)

This is the place to go for home-made flamethrowers and tuba-playing toilets. I love it!

#26 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2005, 12:52 PM:

The Flatiron as the set for Wuthering Heights? That has possibilities. Kind of like Rent, which is based on La Boheme. Anybody already working in the Building who could play Heathcliff & Catherine? Throw in a the tuba-playing toilets and we've got a hit.

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