Remember Me to Herald Square: Thirty-fourth Street River to River
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- Entertainment & Nightlife
- Herald & Greeley Squares
- Empire State Building
- Then and Now (Scroll to the bottom to view images)
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34th Street, located a few blocks south of Grand Central Terminal and home to Pennsylvania Station is at the center of the nation’s busiest rail transportation hub. Starting in the 1830’s tracks began snaking up Park Avenue and the far west side carrying passengers and freight. This trend continued with the construction of elevated railways along Second, Third, Lexington, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues; and the opening of a station at 33rd Street for the Hudson & Manhattan Tubes (now PATH) as well as the inauguration of direct rail service between New York and points west (1910). For over a century and a half 34th Street’s fate has been associated with the movement of vast numbers of people and goods by rail.
Nothing has been as transformational as the completion of the rail tunnels connecting New Jersey and New York. Before tunnels were built under the Hudson, commuters and long-distance passengers coming from New Jersey and points west had to get off their trains and board ferries to complete their journey into New York City. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s construction of tunnels to provide direct rail service also meant building a station of appropriate size and scale to accommodate all those passengers. Demolition for Pennsylvania Station began in 1903, leveling blocks of tenements, shops, and factories and displacing an estimated 1,500 people. Real estate speculation flourished, and an ensuing building boom included the construction and expansion of a number of large hotels including the Martinique (expanded 1907), the McAlpin (1912), the Pennsylvania (1919), the Governor Clinton (1929), and the New Yorker (1930).
Pennsylvania Station opened in 1910. Designed by the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, it was inspired by the Baths of Caracalla, and has been called “one of the great monuments of classical America.” The rising popularity of automobile travel cut into the Pennsylvania Railroad’s profits, and eventually led to the decision to replace the building with a high-rise that would accommodate an underground station and Madison Square Garden. When demolition began, a 1963 New York Times editorial noted that, “We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” Today, Penn Station’s destruction is widely credited for the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Mourning for the magnificent old station has never completely subsided and plans are in place to repurpose the Farley Post Office building — also designed by McKim, Mead and White as a companion to Penn Station — into a new gateway for rail travelers. It will be named Moynihan Station after the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who first proposed the idea.
While 34th Street is popularly thought of as an intensely commercial area, people have lived in this region for hundreds of years. Today, the waterfront is viewed as a desirable place to reside, but for much of the city’s history, the Manhattan shoreline including the eastern and western edges of 34th Street was used to transport and trade goods and process them into finished products. Slaughterhouses, lumberyards, factories, stables, ferry terminals, and rail lines abounded on both the East River and Hudson River ends of 34th Street.
Poor immigrants and native-born Americans poured into the city starting in the 1830s, and housing them was a profitable business for landlords who constructed cheap tenements in these industrial precincts. Hell’s Kitchen, which stretched along the far west side from the 20s to the 50s, rivaled the better-known Lower East Side as one of the city’s most crowded and unsanitary neighborhoods.
In an era before a public welfare system, charitable organizations, many of them religiously based, moved in to serve the poor, providing shelter and health care, often delivered with a heavy dose of moral education. The area around 34th Street was home to many such institutions among them the New York Institution for the Blind, the first school in the U.S. of its kind (1837); St. Mary’s Free Hospital for Children, which moved to 34th Street in 1873; and the West Side Boys Lodging House and Industrial School of the Children’s Aid Society which opened an outpost on West 32nd Street in 1884.
While the eastern and westernmost edges of 34th Street were home to the poor, Fifth Avenue and the surrounding streets began to take shape in the 1850s as precincts of the rich. The northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street was home first to a lavish mansion built by Samuel P. Townsend between 1853 and 1855, and then to an even more opulent home erected in 1869, by department store mogul A. T. Stewart. Just across the way, on the south side of 34th Street, stood the twin mansions of the Astor family, built between 1856 and 1859. By the late nineteenth century, Madison and Fifth Avenues were commercializing, and mansions and rows of elegant brownstones were giving way to multi-family dwellings, department stores such as Macy’s, Oppenheim Collins and Altman, and office buildings.
Although nearby Murray Hill, stretching from 35th to 38th Streets between Park and Lexington Avenues, also lost some of its luster (and its wealthiest residents) during the commercial development of the area. Nonetheless, Murray Hill retained many of its original structures, and in 2002 was designated a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
In a city defined by streets laid out in a strict grid pattern, Broadway, which slices diagonally through Manhattan, is the most obvious and dramatic holdout. This peculiarity of the streetscape creates a series of crossroads that have historically been the preferred locations for theaters and other forms of nightlife and entertainment. Between 1870 and 1895, the center of the city’s theatrical life shifted uptown, away from two of these crossroads, Union and Madison Squares, to another, Herald Square, where it flourished briefly before firmly establishing itself around Longacre (now Times Square). Within that quarter century or so, the blocks north and south of the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Broadway saw a theater-building boom and the development of a vibrant nightlife centered on hotels, restaurants, and clubs some highly respectable, others notorious for harboring activities that were at best, unsavory, and, at worst, blatantly illegal.
Among the important theaters that enjoyed a brief life in and around 34th Street were Daly’s (1879) at Broadway and 30th Street; Wallack’s (1882) across the street on the northeast corner of the intersection; and the Eagle (1875) on Sixth Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets, later renamed the Standard. In what would become a familiar pattern, the Standard became the Manhattan in 1898, was converted to a movie theater in 1906, and a few years later fell to the wrecking ball to make way for Gimbels department store. A similar fate awaited most of the theaters around Herald Square, among them Koster & Bial’s New Music Hall on the north side of 34th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, which was demolished during the construction of Macy’s; and the Herald Square Theatre (1894), converted to a movie house in 1912 and sold in 1914 to make way for a garment-industry building.
One of the rare survivors of that era is the Manhattan Opera House, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, which opened in 1906 with a production of Bellini’s I puritani. Built by Oscar Hammerstein in what would be his second failed attempt to compete with the Metropolitan Opera House it functioned as an opera house for a scant four years. After changing hands several times, the building was purchased, in 1922, by the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Free Masonry, which altered the structure’s façade and added a Grand Ballroom on the seventh floor. The building, whose name was changed to the Manhattan Center in 1940, now houses two performance and events spaces. The Hammerstein and The Grand and serves as one of the city’s premiere venues for recording, television production, and video post-production.
The historical maps included in the exhibit provide a great example of how an area developed over time. The 1914 map of Midtown around the old Waldorf Astoria Hotel is a case in point. The Waldorf Astoria was where the Empire State Building now stands. Behind the building on Broadway was the Hotel Martinique. Across Broadway is Greeley Square (unmarked) and across Sixth Avenue is Gimbel’s, currently the home of the Manhattan Mall.
Another map shows a pond that covered parts of 32nd Street and Fourth (now Park) Avenue as well as the Murray Hill area in 1865, consisting mostly of farm land. A 1934 map of 34th Street between Fifth and Seventh Avenues depicts some familiar sights, but if you look closely there are some changes. Many of the businesses listed no longer exist, and many smaller buildings have been torn down.
A newspaper map shows the (then) proposed Pennsylvania Railroad Tunnel under the Hudson River. This tunnel finally linked Pennsylvania Station with stations west of the Hudson. Before this tunnel was constructed, commuters coming from the west had to disembark at a railroad/ferry terminal in New Jersey to cross the Hudson. From there, they boarded trains to take them the last mile to Penn Station. Transportation is the theme of another map showing all the train lines from Newark, New Jersey through the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.
Herald and Greeley Squares are the two triangular bits of New York real estate formed by the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Today, both are leafy, green oases maintained by the 34th Street Partnership, a privately funded business improvement district (BID). The City of New York acquired the area in 1846 as part of the opening of Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway). Maps from the 1850s show islands of light industry springing up in a sea of what was still largely vacant land. By the 1870s, the neighborhood was becoming the city’s newest entertainment and theater district. Just a few decades later, at the turn of the twentieth century, its character began changing again with the arrival of large department stores, drawn there by the myriad transit lines that served the area.
The northernmost of the two parks, Herald Square, takes its name from the New York Herald, a daily newspaper founded in Lower Manhattan in 1835 by James Gordon Bennett and moved, in 1893, to a new building just north of 34th Street by his son, James Gordon Bennett Jr. (1872–1918). Although the ornate building, designed by the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, was inspired by an Italian palazzo, its function was industrial; and New Yorkers from ragged newsboys to theatergoers in full evening dress loved peering through the Herald’s plate glass windows to see the next edition rolling off the presses. When the building was torn down in 1921, the mechanized statue of the goddess Minerva and two blacksmiths by the sculptor Antonin Jean Paul Carle that had topped the building were put in storage. In 1940, they were installed in the square as a memorial to the Bennetts; they were restored again in 2007. Today, Minerva and her brawny blacksmiths, who wield hammers to ring the hours, continue to delight passersby as they did when they sat astride the Herald Building. Two bronze owls, of the 22 that once ringed the building’s roof, also reside in the park.
Greeley Square, located between 31st and 33rd Streets, is named for Horace Greeley (1811–1872), an influential editor and political leader who founded the New York Tribune in 1841. Greeley was an outspoken advocate for the rights of labor, and a staunch abolitionist. He is perhaps best known today for his famous commentary on the notion of manifest destiny and territorial expansion, “Go West, young man, go West,” which inspired many a fortune seeker to head for the frontier. A bronze sculpture of Greeley by Alexander Doyle (1857–1922), which now presides over the southern end of the square, was dedicated on May 31, 1894. It was commissioned by the Greeley Post of the Grand Army of the Republic; the New York Typographical Union, local Number 6 (of which Greeley had served as president) and the Brooklyn Typographical Union, Number 98. Although originally intended for City Hall Park, midtown’s rapid development in the 1890s influenced the decision to install the monument at its current location.
The massiveness of the Empire State Building and its iconic status as one of the world’s most recognizable buildings make it hard to imagine a time when it did not loom over the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. But in fact, the site of this 1,250-foot landmark is among the most dramatic examples of New York City’s tendency to transform itself.
Farmland and the Astors
Until 1827, the block was farmland. It was purchased that year by the wealthy and powerful Astor family. The land remained undeveloped until 1859 when John Jacob Astor III, erected a mansion on the southern end of the site. Three years later, his brother William Backhouse Astor, Jr. built next door. The Astors in particular William Backhouse’s wife, Caroline turned this stretch of Fifth Avenue into the center of New York’s social life.
However, by the 1890s as the streets around them became more commercial, the Astors saw both the need to move on and an opportunity to make money. In 1890, William Waldorf (John Jacob III’s son and heir) decided to raze the house he had inherited, and erect a luxury hotel in its place. The hotel, called the Waldorf, after the Astor family’s ancestral village in Germany, opened in 1893 and was described in The New York Times as “a regal establishment” and “a realm of splendor and luxury.” From the moment of its opening, it became the center of New York City’s social life, and within four years the house next door, still owned by Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, had been demolished and replaced by a second hotel, the Astoria. When physically joined, the twin structures became the Waldorf-Astoria, and this ornate building with more than 1,000 guest rooms and forty public rooms was, for a scant two decades, the most fashionable gathering spot in the city.
By the early twentieth century this stretch of Fifth Avenue was fully commercialized. Luxury department stores and specialty shops had invaded, and the millionaires had moved northward. The Waldorf-Astoria fell out of favor as a society gathering spot, and, in 1929, was sold to Bethlehem Engineering Corp. for an estimated $14 to $16 million.
Floyd de L. Brown, the president of Bethlehem Engineering, was trained as an architect and had already built several buildings in Manhattan. However, all these buildings were shaped to go around “holdouts,” those who owned plots of land and refused to sell. As a result, Brown never had a full city block upon which to build, so he was looking forward to designing the new building, which he called the Waldorf-Astoria Office Building. Unfortunately for Brown, he could not make the final payment to Chatham Phenix Corporation for the site even with the loan made by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. He ended up selling his claim to Met Life.
Former New York State Governor Alfred E. “Al” Smith, who was on Met Life’s board and knew about the Brown loan, knew the value of the site. Using his political and social connections, Smith helped form a syndicate that included Pierre S. du Pont, which bought the site from Chatham Phenix. Smith erroneously predicted that the Midtown area would replace Lower Manhattan as the city’s newest business district.
On August 29, 1929, Al Smith announced the intention of building the world’s tallest building, over one thousand feet high with more than eighty stories of office space, occupying the two acres of land. This new building was given a variety of nicknames, the Smith Building, the Governor’s Building, even Al’s Building. Because newer buildings were made of stronger materials, the demolition of the Waldorf-Astoria took some time. Nonetheless, the new building was erected in thirteen months.
On May 1, 1931, the Empire State Building opened for business. The building remained half empty until after World War II, when a booming economy created a demand for Manhattan office space. The mooring mast for dirigibles was discovered to be impractical, with updrafts from the structure making it too dangerous to dock dirigibles as well as lacking a way to attach mooring lines to the ground.
Today, the Empire State Building remains one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, and an icon of modernity immortalized in books and films—most famously King Kong.
Mann, Elizabeth, and Alan Witschonke. Empire State Building (New York: Mikaya Press, 2003). Wonders of the world book series.
The Official Site of the Empire State Building (http://www.esbnyc.com/). Viewed January 14, 2011.
Tauranac, John. The Empire State Building: the Making of a Landmark (New York: Scribner, 1995).
Before 34th Street became the city’s premiere retailing district, New Yorkers shopped further downtown, first in the vicinity of Chambers Street and Broadway where A. T. Stewart opened the country’s first department store in 1846, and a second store in 1862 on “Ladies Mile,” which stretched from Ninth Street and Broadway up to 23rd Street. The retailing boom on 34th Street began at the turn of the 20th century, and was spurred in equal measure by real estate speculation, the expansion of rapid transit and rail lines, in particular the construction of Pennsylvania Station, which opened in 1910.
In 1901, rumors began to circulate that R. H. Macy’s, which had opened on 14th Street in 1858, was moving to 34th Street. By 1902, an enormous new building began to rise on the corner of 34th Street and Sixth Avenue. At the time, this was the theater district, and to build Macy’s over thirty-two small specialty stores and chains, including several theaters, were demolished. This was also the center of the notorious Tenderloin district, where gambling and prostitution flourished under the indifferent eyes of a corrupt police department. When Macy’s moved in, the Mail & Express predicted that Herald Square would “no longer be the center of the Tenderloin, but the heart of the greatest retail shopping district on the American continent.” That proved true as other mid-priced retailers relocated to the Herald Square area notably Saks, which opened a store on the southwest corner of 34th Street the same year as Macy’s, and Gimbels, which leased a building on Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street in 1910.
One block east, on Fifth Avenue, a similar transformation was taking place. By the turn of the 20th century what had been a residential street for New York’s wealthiest citizens was becoming a fashionable shopping street as stores began the move northward from 14th Street: notably Tiffany’s to 37th Street and Gorham to 36th Street, both in 1903, and B. Altman & Co. to its splendid new headquarters on 34th Street in 1906. (The Altman’s building, which was later expanded to Madison Avenue, now houses the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as well as the New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business Library.)
Linking the mass-market stores on Sixth Avenue and the upscale shops on Fifth was 34th Street itself, which also began filling with department stores; among them McCreery’s in 1907 and Oppenheim Collins.
Today, Macy’s, which underwent a major expansion in 1924 by adding a second building on Seventh Avenue, is the last remnant of the heyday of department store retailing on 34th Street. But shopping remains one of the street’s most important activities, and where large department stores once reigned, smaller specialty shops now draw tens of thousands of shoppers.