Tuesday, September 07, 2004


Union Square Walking Tour, Parts 1-2 9-7/14-1995

LOOKING BACK, by Wally Dobelis
Union Square, A Walking Tour, Part I
There's good news for Union Square - House of Blues may not come to the former American Savings Bank building, NE corner of East 15th Street. And the vacant lot on SE corner of Broadway and 14th Street will be a Caldor's, a nine-screen movie theatre, a sporting goods (Sports Authority) and records (Virgin) store complex, plus apartments. Good quality businesses, to keep company with Bradlees (now in Chapter 11 but hopeful). On the other hand, the proposed designation of the Square as a National Historic Landmark, hoped to be awarded in time for the celebration of the 113th anniversary of the first Labor Day Parade (September 5, 1882) is on hold, because National Parks Service advisory and review staff has been severely reduced. More about this next week.
This gives us an opportunity to walk around the Park, look at the buildings and sculpture and reflect on the glories of the past. There's a lot of cast iron frontage in this area, if you want to be a detective. And terra cotta, brownish clay construction, basic to New York. This is fun history, not tricky, pay attention.
Let's start on Broadway and 11th Street, SW, with the humble rebuilt purplish 799 Broadway building. It was designed by the great architect James Renwick in 1851, after Grace Church and before St. Patrick's Cathedral. Formerly the St. Dennis Hotel, this is where Abraham Lincoln met with New York's gentry in the 2nd Floor parlor, the same room from which Alexander Graham Bell spoke the famous words: "Come here, Watson, I need you," in 1877. That's as close as I can remember them. Not much of a building, but what a history. Now look at its neighbor! On he NW corner is a massive what - Greek? Classical Revival? - construction, a palace! Okay, I'll tell you, it's the McCreery palazzo, once the home of the finest silks and damask, and it is cast iron. Tap the Composite style column with a key - it's metal. And now that you have a clue to cast iron facades, stand on the corner and look around - how much cast iron construction do you see? There'll be a test next Thursday.
New York is most truly the greatest wonder. The merchants of yore wanted beauty, and style, and "they should drop dead with envy" construction, no matter the cost. Cast iron was the most economical, and it made New York great. James Bogardus, the cast iron genius, lived on East 14th Street, in a modest building, which Margot Gayle should like to see landmarked. It's a nice thought...Anyway, architects such as James Kellum would give the merchants whatever, to the limits of their fantasies and pocketbooks. All Broadway is the evidence, as is the Ladies' Mile on 6th Avenue. Come along with me.
On 12th, SW, is an early skyscraper (1895) by George B.Post, architect of the New York Stock Exchange, Williamsburgh Savings Bank and the City College, North Campus. And on 13th, NW, a great terra cotta castle, the Roosevelt Building, named after Teddy's grandfather, Cornelius, the glass merchant, whose house was mid-block (Stephen Hatch, 1893). The posts on 2nd Floor are crumbling, and you can see what was underneath. I have no idea who was the genius of terra cotta, but he had to be Italian. Amici, per favore, informa me. Altogeter, a miracle of preservation. Now you know how to recognize terra cotta. Walking West on 14th, you see the Bradlees' Building as a balance, continuing the arches of the Roosevelt.
Margaret Moore, the historian of the Ladies' Mile, calls Union Square an unusual collection of first-generation skyscrapers (we will do skyscraper theory some other time). The Lincoln Building, 1-3 Union Union Square West, by H.R.Robertson, 1885, has Romanesque arches and terra cotta decorations, hidden behind white paint.Its motiv is continued by 5 USW, Spingler Building, Renaissance Revival. The next, older, Tiffany & Co Building (John Kellum,1869), now Amalgamated Bank (owned by labor unions), was totally resurfaced in 1950, losing the cast-iron facade. Looks new, doesn't it, for a 126-year old construction? They just don't etc etc...
The Bank of the Metropolis Building, 31 USW (Bruce Price, 1902-3) is an American Renaissance style skyscraper. All the Ladies' Mile businessmen - Tiffany, Sloane, Arnold, Steinway - were on the board of the bank. Price, an influence on Frank Lloyd Wright, was the father of Emily Post. The Union Building (originally Decker Piano, John Edelmann, 1893) at 33 USW is a wonderful Moorish fantasy, a dream. Stand across the street and look at it. I heard the top apartment is for sale, if you have the megabux. Edelman was an influence on Louis Sullivan.
At 35 USW, the Heartland Brewery Building (originally G. Schirmer Music publishers), in Neo-Grec style, has been much spruced up recently. Welcome to the neighborhood! Its Neo-Classical neighbor at 41 USW has much terra cotta detail.
As we cross Broadway, look North. The Romanesque Revival corner tower above the arches at NE 18th street corner is the McIntyre, gloriously picturesque but in neglected. Wampire housing? If anyone has details, please send me a letter. Not to be oushone, there are the Arnold Constable (SW 19th, now ABC), W&J Sloane (SE 19th, ABC), Gorham (NW 19th), Lord & Taylor's barely visible dreamy cream castiron (SW 20th) and Goelet (SE 20th, Bombay) creations, of which more another time. And tiny 870 Broadway was the birthplace of Bergdorf Goodman.
Next week we will go on with the tour, and talk about the May Day, and orators in the Park.
Wally Dobelis credits Margaret Moore, Rex Wassermann and Jack Taylor of the Ladies' Mile project, Prof Debra E. Bernhardt the NYU archivist, John W. Bond, Historical Consultant, and Mary Merha, a friend who got me started on all this. Thanks, gang!

LOOKING BACK by Wally Dobelis
Union Square, a Walking Tour, Part II
On with the tour. We are crossing Broadway East, at 17th Street. On our right is the park, with the parking lot that hosts the best Farmers' Market In NYC on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (thank you, Barry Benepe). This is also the area where the first Labor Day Parade was held, on September 5, 1882, going up Broadway. (Tompkins Park was an earlier location of labor demonstrations and clashes.) The primary contender for the title of originator of the parade, and of Labor Day, is Peter McGuire, of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and co-founder (with Samuel Gompers) of the American Federation of Labor. Other contenders are Matthew McGuire of the Socialist Central Labor Union, and Terence C. Powderly, of the Knights of Labor. Oh, the Irish, God love you!
The parade was a grand event, of bricklayers marching with white aprons, jewelery workers with derby hats and boutonnieres, carrying canes over their shoulders, typographers and the exploited immigrant cigar makers with posters saying "Labor pays all taxes" and "Down with the tenement system." There were German structural workers with huge axes over their shoulders, bricklayers, and piano makers with a music float.
The Labor Day movement snowballed throughout the country, with President Grover Cleveland signing the bill making the first Monday in September Labor Day, in June 1894. The pen went to Sam Gompers. I don't know whether it ended in the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU, which includes the Tamiment Institute library, formerly in the Rand Building on West 15th Street. The Archivist, Prof. Debra E. Bernhardt, PhD, is one of the sponsors to make Union Square a National Historic Landmark, because of the labor connotation.
The labor part notwithstanding, I have vivid personal memories of the annual May Day assemblies, as well as everyday discussions in the park, the nearest thing we had to Hyde Park in the 1950s. There were always speakers and excited opponents, talking up Communism and disputing it. May Days brought on Earl Browder and Gus Hall of the Communist Party, very dull speakers. The Jefferson Book Store was on corner 15th and Park Avenue South, and one could get all the Karl Marx and International Publishers (Communist) lit there, in 15c pamphlets. It was rumored that the FBI had a window overlooking the corner, with a camera, to identify the shop visitors. The standard park joke: orator says: "Comes the revolution, we will all eat strawberries with whipped cream." Voice from the crowd:"But I don't like strawberries with whipped cream!" The orator: "Under Socialism, you will eat strawberries whether you like them or not."
I have been part of the park since the first day of 1950, seeing all the orators and the meetings. And the day in 1953 when silent masses stood in formation around the park and on the side streets, praying that the Soviet atomic spies Ethel nad Julius Rosenberg would be amnestied and not executed. Hundreds, thousands of eyes were boring into me, hoping for a message, as I was walking towards the subway, after putting in my overtime. I had no message, and it made me feel guilty.
But let's go on, along the North side of 17th Street. The Parish or Butler Bros, or Underground Disco Building at 860 Broadway in Neo-Grec style (Detlev Lienau, 1883) has lost much ornamental detail in a 1920 renovation. Note the sunflower frieze and cornice detail.
33-37 East 17th, The Century, or American Drapery Building (William Schickel, 1881) was the home of Century and St. Nicholas magazines, and will soon house Barnes and Noble. This Queen Anne Victorian, with dormers, oriel windows and terra cotta detail over red brick, is of a style rarely seen in New Nork.
At 200 Park Avenue South the Everett Building (1908, Starrett and Van Vleck, 1908) replaced the Everett Hotel. It is a Neo- Classical 16-story commercial structure with delicate incised terra cotta spandrels forming an abstract design.
Across Park Avenue South, at 201, is the tallest building on the Park, the Guardian Life Building (D'Oench and Yost, 1911), a Renaissance Revival structure of 22 stories. It has a copper Mansard roof, which covers four stories of height. There is also a 1961 Annex, on 17th Street, a worthy example of the work of Gordon Bunshaft, of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The company was founded in 1860 by a democratic left member of the revolutionary Frankfurt Assembly of 1848, Hugo Wesenonck, who fled Germany under the sentence of death.
The former S. Klein's on the Square Annex, at 24 (1900 Neo-Classical, extra floor of arched windows added), 26-28 (1872 Neo-Grec cast iron), and 30 USE (c.1880, arched cast-iron) is now a Toys R Us store, with the original character still discernible, despite alterations and added floors.
A small Classical temple with Corinthian columns on Union Square, at 20 USE, the American Savings Bank Building (formerly Union Square Savings Bank, Henry Bacon, 1907) was and still may be slated as the House of Blues. I have a personal aside to this building. Around 1950 or so they were doing an expansion, and ripping down a 15th Street building. I knew this building had a small side medallion by Augustus Saint Gaudens, and hoped to somehow rescue it, but I got there too late, it was bulldozed. More power to the urban archeology people who salvage artifacts. I'm all for it.
About the square: it was laid out as Union Place in the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, an oval with a central fountain, at the "union" of Bloomingdale Road (Broadway) and Bowery Road (4th Avenue). The North pavillion, now the bandstand, came to be 1872. There are stories about the construction of the park and the Washington, Lincoln and Lafayette statues, the James Fountain, as well as the Tammany flagpole that I have to get together, for a later telling.

LOOKING BACK by Wally Dobelis
Union Square Walking Tour, Part III
Of the nine squares and public spaces planned for the 450 acres of parks set aside for Manhattan in the Commisioners' Map of 1811, only one survives in its entirety - Union Square. The map was the result of a comprehensive city plan plan that laid out Manhattan above 14th Street in the present grid pattern.
Union Place (it was renamed in 1832) was at the "union" of the Southbound Bloomingdale Road (Broadway) and Northbound Bowery Road (4th Avenue). It was mapped as a park in 1831, and opened in 1839 as New York's first public park, modeled on the small, formal, lushly planted residential squares of London. Ten years later it had a heavy iron picket fence around it, a fountain with mature trees surrounding it, and a gate that was closed at night. We were, then, an exclusive suburb.
By the time of the first Labor parade in 1882 this whole area had become a popular recreation center, with theatres, hotels, restaurants and fine shops. The fence came down in 1872, and a pavillion was erected at the North end, which was squared off.Union Square Hotel (Renwick, 1872) was on the East edge, the Everett Hotel at NW 17th Street and Park Avenue South, Delmonico's Restaurant at 5th and 14th, Luchow's at 108-112 East 14th Street, the Academy of Music (opera, 1854-1925) was at the present Con Ed site. Tiffany's jewelry shop, with an elaborate cast-iron front, resurfaced in 1950, was in the present Amalgamated Bank building.
There were more redesigns of the park. In 1915, the ground level was raised, to accomodate the arrival of the BMT subway station and passageways. In 1935-36 the neglected park was elevated again, to fit in the underground concourse from 17th to 14th Streets, connectin g the various subway lines. And in the late 1980s, through the effort of the neighbourhood associations, LDC and BID, the park had a multi-million dollar redesign and revival. Even the statues have been shifted, over the years.
Union Square park contains "some of the finest commemorative sculpture in the country" (Rex Wassermann). The bronze equestrian statue of George Washington (Henry Kirke Brown with John Quincy Adams Ward, base by church architect Richard Upjohn) was dedicated on July 4, 1856, originally on the SE traffic island, now containing the WWI Memorial, and moved during the 1930s redesign of the park. The park was where New Yorkers gave George Washington a reception on November 25, 1783, on the occasion of the British evacuation from the city. The Lincoln statue (Henry Kirke Brown), completed in September 1870, was originally on the SW traffic island, now the location of the new statue of Mohandas Gandhi, father of India's independence. Lincoln, who wears a Roman toga and holds the proclamation of Emancipation, was moved during the same redesign. The Marquis de Lafayette, by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (remember him?) was presented to the City of New York by the French government in 1876, in recognition of French assistance to the Colonies during the Revolutionary War, and in gratitude for American help for the French during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 (the Statue of Liberty came later, in 1886). The Marquis was also relocated.
The "Mother and Children" fountain (Karl Adolph Donndorf, 1881) was given to the city by Daniel Willis James, a local philantropist. The 80-ft Liberty Pole (Anthony de Francisci, 1924-26) has a 36-ft diameter base with beautiful bas-relief bronze figures, and 48 star inserts, each named for a state. In the base is also a plaque, with the entire Declaration of Independence, and an awkwardly phrased line from Thomas Jefferson:" How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of and which no other people on earth enjoy." It was erected to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and to honor Charles Francis Murphy, leader of the Tammany Hall. (Tammany Hall moved to 143 East 14th Street, next to the original Academy of Music, in 1869. Both buildings were replaced by the Con Edison structure by 1928; the Academy moved across 14th Street, and the politicians moved their wigwam to a new Hall at the SE corner of Park and 17th Street. Tammany as a Democratic stronghold fell apart in 1932, after the Seabury investigation of corruption and the resignation of Mayor Jimmy Walker. The LaGuardia era was on, for 12 years. In 1943, when Tammany was unable to pay the mortgage debt, the property was taken over by the ILGWU, who rented the hall out for union elections. The news deliverers were the most raucuous, 17th Street would be filled with house trailers, and the candidates would invite the voters for booze and payoffs. The street would reek for days, afterwards. The building became the Roundabout Theatre in the 1980s and is now the Union Square Theatre. As to Tammany, its sachem Carmine DeSapio tried to recapture its former influence in 1945, but the reform movement, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Lehman and Robert Wagner, defeated his candidates in 1958, and Ed Koch beat him out for district leadership on his Greenwich Village home turf. Some day soon we will do more local political history. Sachem, from Algonquian, is an Indian chief, and Tammany is an Indian name adapted by the New York Democrats in 1789, and wigwam... and I feel very old, explaining these things.)
Union Square and the Ladies' Mile were very important in our history. There were about 20 department stores, 6 piano shops, 15 theatres, 10 hotels, and 30 "temples of love," as advertised in the 1890s, for an example. More about what was on each site around Union Square on a later date.
Wally Dobelis thanks Margaret Moore, Rex Wassermann and Jack Taylor of the Ladies' Mile project, the preservationists Margot Gayle, Prof. M. Christine Boyer and Lou Kremer, A.I.A, Prof. Debra E. Bernhardt the NYU archivist, John W. Bond, Historical Consultant, and Mary Merha, a friend.
He also needs stronger reading glasses - in the review of the fine new Encyclopedia of New York City he mixed up his Buckleys. The book does contain an article about William F. and therefore he does not appear in the index. The index entry is for his brother, ex-Senator James L.
Wally also proposes that we celebrate Thursday, September 28, 1995, as the most successful day of the last 365. On this day 100 Israelis and 100 Palestinians, forced to negotiate for two months, in seclusion, declared that they were able to deal with mutual hatreds and suspicions, to the point of hammering out an understanding leading to a treaty, and to get to appreciate each other as individuals. Each one teach one, please. Business people reach understandings; for political ideologues to do it is a miracle. Perhaps there is a hope for a rational world, even in the former Yugoslavia. And China declared that it would not sell nuclear reactors to the threatening, out-of-control Iranians; and no children were killed. This was indeed a day of miracles.

206-7306 rex

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