Manhattan History – Broadway – Country Lane To White Way

BROADWAY —broad only in comparison with the narrower streets of the East Side and in its lower reaches so constricted in breadth that the modern city planner is sorely grieved by it—has become one of the world’s famous thoroughfares after most modest beginnings. There is, however, no consistency in its fame. Once it was famous for aristocratic residences, then for retail trade, and then for theaters. Today the word “Broadway” connotes the “jazz” side of the great city’s life, though those noisy activities occupy only a few blocks north of Forty-second Street, the so-called “roaring forties” around Times Square. Even though most of the famous retail establishments have left Broadway for Fifth Avenue, the street still has a mile of trade for every block of entertainment. Yet the Times Square area, bright with electricity and thronged with night crowds, stands in the public mind for the whole length of Broadway, much of which is as dead at night as a by-street in Jersey.

From its humble beginnings as an Indian path and Dutch country lane, Broadway grew more by accident than by design. For years it ranked far below the short streets to the eastward; and even after the population of Manhattan increased considerably, the Bowery Road to Harlem and Greenwich Street to the village of that name carried more traffic than Broadway. The latter owed its northward extension chiefly to the fact that via Great George Street and Bloomingdale Road, an easy connection could be made with the Post Road to Albany. The Albany Post Road itself was a rather late arrival, the river remaining for many years the great thoroughfare.

As previously mentioned, the first Broadway lots were laid out in 1643. Number 1 Broadway was built upon soon afterward by Pieter Kocks, an officer active in Kieft’s harsh Indian wars. Vrouw Kocks, his widow, kept a tavern there after her husband’s death, and a tavern the Kocks house remained for a century. Archibald Kennedy, collector of the port and afterward Earl of Cassillis, built a handsome residence on the site about 1760, in which British commanders housed them-selves during the Revolution.

By the time of the English occupation, 1664, Broadway had been built up to Wall Street, but by no means handsomely or uniformly, there being inferior wooden houses and many vacant lots between the Fort and Wall Street. After the beginnings of construction at the extreme lower end of the Heere Waege Weg, or Great Wagon Road, construction on the thoroughfare lagged, the burghers preferring the East side. There were only twenty-one buildings in Broad-way in 1665, twelve years after the building of the Wall, which means that the rest of the frontage was in vacant lots and gardens. This lack of favor for Broad-way was probably due to the existence of a sharp little hill, not leveled until after the Revolution, over which Broadway climbed directly it left the Bowling Green and the Fort. From 1665 to 1667 there was some-thing like a boom in Broadway frontage, sixty-five buildings being reported there in the latter year. These were mostly humble dwellings.

The opening of Broadway north of Wall began in 1661 with the purchase of the Damen farm homestead on the east side of Broadway by Augustyn Hermans. This property embraced present Pine and Cedar streets and the lots adjacent. In 1671 Jonas Bartelzen purchased the orchard lands of the Damen farm, also on the east side of Broadway, up to Maiden Lane. On the west side of Broadway, which kept its rural character to a much later period, lay the George Ryerson or Ryerse farm, with 308 feet on Broadway and running down to the river on parallel lines. Ryerson’s widow married Teunis Dey, whose name is perpetuated in Dey Street. His descendants kept the property intact until 1730, when they divided it among themselves, and legally subdivided it in 1743. This stubbornly held block, plus the burying grounds and churches on the west side of Broadway, formed an obstacle which would hold back that side of the street for many years. Going a little farther north, around present Reade Street, land could still be bought at agricultural prices, eleven acres fronting on Broadway being sold in 1703 for $34 an acre.

In 1707 a pavement was laid from Bowling Green to Trinity Church, and five years later some recognition was given the claims of the then upper Broad-way by the leveling of the street from Maiden Lane to the Commons (Vlack or Flat), at present City Hall Park, though no pavement was put down at that time. The Commons, or Fields, as the present City Hall site was sometimes called, were considered then the extreme northern edge of urban settlement. Indeed, al-most fifty years were required for the street to be built up to this point. Similar pushes northward, each of which was expected by conservative citizens to be the last, occurred as follows: to Duane Street, 1776; to Astor Place at present Eighth Street, about 1790; to Union Square, about 1807.

Until the Revolution, Broadway frontage remained cheap, as these prices per square foot for various corners show. With a house on it, a Broadway and Pine corner sold for 5.5 cents a square foot in 1700. There followed a pick-up in value, so that vacant corner lots brought the following prices in the years indicated: 1732, northeast corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, 12 cents a square foot; 1737, southeast corner of Broadway and Exchange Place, with a house, probably valueless, upon it, 9 cents a square foot; 1745, southwest corner of Broadway and Dey, about 6.5 cents a square foot, the cheap price reflecting the West side’s lesser appeal—also the fact that this was untried, newly subdivided property; 1773, corner of Ann and Broadway, 15 cents a square foot. Then comes the Revolutionary leap: northwest corner of Broadway and Liberty, 77 cents a square foot.

From Vesey Street to Duane, following a survey of 1760, a section of present Broadway, then called Great George Street, was opened north of the fork at the Commons where the highroad to Boston continued to the northeastward to form the Bowery Lane at Chatham Square. The name Great George, chosen first to honor the King of England and continued as a tribute to George Washington, held for the northern continuation of Broadway above the park until 1794, when the name Broadway became uniform throughout. The decade 1790—1800 saw many changes on the thorough-fare. Sidewalks were laid between Murray and Vesey streets in 1790, and a pavement three years later. Arrangements were made to open the street through Rutgers farm and on for more than a mile, but another long wait intervened before close settlement proceeded that far.

In the meantime, with these activities in the environs, the Broadway frontage farther south began to come into its own as a site for fashionable residences. At last the city had leaped the barrier of the churches and cemeteries. Between Vesey and Barclay streets leading citizens began to build imposing houses. The pioneers in this move were Walter Rutherford, Richard Harrison, and Abijah Hammond. Another famous resident in this area was Aaron Burr, who, when Vice President of the United States, lived in 1802 at Number 221, next to the corner of Vesey Street, in a house owned by the State of New York. Next to him resided Mayor Edward Livingston, in a house owned by John Jacob Astor and occupied by him for some years. This part of Broadway retained its aristocratic character for the next thirty years. In Mayor Philip Hone’s diary is recorded his grief in leaving his old house just below Park Place, owing to the great rise in values developed by the demand for property for business reasons. This proved, however, to be a smart sale. Hone realized $60,000 in 1836 on property which cost him $25,000 in 1821, and soon after he sold came the great slump accompanying the panic of 1837. Astor built the famous Astor House near-by in 1838, using his house site and buying in the rest of the Broadway frontage between Barclay and Vesey streets, and getting the building up while costs were down. In a short crisis Broadway prices might drop, but over many years the upward surge is tremendous.

After leaving the City Hall neighborhood at a profit, Mayor Hone bought a lot 29 by 130 feet on the south-east corner of Broadway and Great Jones Street in 1836 for $15,000. In 1903 it was sold subject to a mortgage of $375,000. At the acreage prices ruling in that neighborhood in 1703, it is dear that the land increased in value at least 10,000 times in the course of two centuries, and at least thirty times in the course of sixty years. Subsequently it depreciated greatly in value, the land being assessed for $130,000 in 1915, and $85,000 in 1933. Yet Great Jones Street was ever small potatoes compared with other locations. In the areas of then humble aspect both north and south of this site, Broadway frontage has done far better than Mayor Hone’s purchase. Fifty feet on Broadway near Wall sold for $240 in 1658. Contrast this with near-by Number 1 Wall Street, the southeast corner of Wall and Broadway (39 by 32 feet, now part of the Irving Trust plot), which brought $700,000 in 1905 and $1,150,000 in 1929, with an old building on it; the land then carried the highest assessed valuation in the city, $30,000 a front foot. An $80 purchase in 1697 of Broadway frontage at Exchange Place (southwest corner, 27 by 30 feet) is today the key piece in a holding altogether worth some $4,000,000. Broadway has beaten the savings banks all along.

Alexander T. Stewart, the famous merchant, lived in the City Hall Park area in 1815 dose by his store, “an elegant marble building” at Broadway and Reade Street (now 280 Broadway, occupied by the New York Sun). Stewart began his career as a dry-goods merchant toward the close of the eighteenth century, in an inferior building, with its gable end to the street, which had been divided into two stores, each about twelve feet wide. There were several other popular stores in the vicinity—Bonfant’s at 305 Broadway and later at 279. Here business, domesticity, and public entertainment waged one of the first of those three-cornered struggles which marked the business development of the street at several points in the uptown progress of trade. Among the places of public entertainment were Washington Hall, Mechanics Hall, Palmo’s Cafe, and Burton’s Theatre, afterward the United States Court. In this particular set-to, domesticity was the first to surrender, followed by entertainment. But retail business, left to itself, could not flourish without fashionable and lively neighbors; and in time tagged along uptown. Mr. Stewart moved his store up to Eighth Street, the present site of Wanamaker’s, in 1868; and built a new marble palace for himself at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. The Lorillard property at Tenth and Broadway came into use for retail trade shortly after Stewart built his mammoth store.

Not even Mr. Stewart could move fast enough to keep up with public favor in shopping sites. Broadway ran ahead of him to Fourteenth Street, then to Twenty-third, where the Flatiron Building arose in 1898, then to Thirty-fourth Street, where the great department stores of today have aligned themselves for a last Broadway stand on Herald Square, leaving Times Square to the theaters and hotels.

Probably because Fourteenth Street was largely a street of boarding houses, the Union Square district seems to have been quickly leaped over. Tiffany’s seems to have been the only fashionable shop to linger until 1903 in Union Square, from which “inconvenient address” the famous silversmith’s moved to the present Fifth Avenue site at Thirty-seventh Street. Other well-known firms in the Union Square area were Arnold, Constable and Company, Lord and Taylor, W. Short and J. Sloane, and Gorham’s, all of which moved into Fifth Avenue, a trek to the north, within a few years after 1903.

Wherever a cross-street wider than ordinary crossed Broadway, forming a more or less open space, leading retail stores clustered, and office buildings sought sites. The Broadway crossing of Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue came into unusual prominence near the turn of the century through the erection of the fourteen-story Flatiron Building, then the tallest sky-scraper and the best advertised, the disorder wrought in ladies’ skirts by the winds playing capriciously against its sides being the stuff of which songs were made in the days when women’s ankles were seldom seen by men. In the scramble for that once famous but now somewhat neglected corner, the property, then containing one three-story building and one two-story building, was bought for $690,000 in May, 1899, and sold a month later for $800,721, a neat profit for one month’s holding on 4,001 square feet of golden earth. The Madison Square area had long been a fashionable residence district; and it included the Fifth Avenue Hotel—New York’s finest—on the site of the present Fifth Avenue building at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street. Here was another case of better class business tagging better class homes and hostelries.

An affinity appears between department stores and residences: a repulsion between department stores and office buildings. Cherchez la femme! Macy’s moved from Fourteenth Street to Herald Square, Thirty-fourth to Thirty-fifth on Broadway, at the Sixth Avenue crossing, in 1901. Until that time Herald Square had been grossly neglected, and Macy’s got what was considered a bargain in its lease, which ran for four twenty-one-year terms. In the same month Saks & Company bought the Lawrence property, a block of old buildings just below Macy’s, for about $1,650,000. Another “quick killing” for speculators, who, sensing the impending changes in Herald Square, had picked up the property thirty days before and realized $150,-000 profit at no investment.

The huge middle-class department stores, in moving to Herald Square, broke away from the lead of fashionable society, which business had been following all the way from City Hall Park. The crossing of Broad-way and Fifth Avenue at Madison Square split trade into two streams: specialty shops and stores for the rich keeping on up Fifth Avenue, while the large emporiums for the plain people went to Herald Square on Sixth Avenue. But if retail trade on the Broadway line lacked the company of wealth, it continued to have for some years the gaiety of the theater. Slowly the theaters moved northwest. Then, quite suddenly, the night life of the town began to cluster around the present Times Square (then Longacre Square) at Forty-second Street.

The transaction which gave Times Square the basis for its new name occurred in 1902, when the agents for the New York Times bought a small part of the triangle and subleased from the florist, Thorley, the Pabst Building, which he had erected in 1898 on a 105-year leasehold at $8,000 a year. Though only four years old, the Pabst Building, a nine-story brick and stone hotel structure, was demolished to make way for the new Times Building, whose owners agreed to pay Thorley $25,000 a year for ten years and $27,500 for the remaining ninety-one years of this leasehold. Mr. Thorley and his heirs, after devoting some fifteen years of their revenues to defraying the cost of his building, have since enjoyed a most secure income of $19,500 a year from this source alone. The owners of the land fare worse than the Thorleys for the next sixty-nine years, but thereafter, unless the land laws are disturbed in the meantime, they can recover a considerable slice of the profits obtainable from the rise of Times Square. The coming of the Times, and the prospect of subways made many fortunes in this area. Property values doubled from 1901 to 1902, and kept marching for years afterward, as Times Square developed the busiest nine corners in the world.

Here we may as well take leave of the Broadway artery since to follow the north-running thoroughfare indefinitely would monopolize this entire book. Broad-way slumps noticeably eight blocks above Forty-second Street and in spite of the near presence of several large office buildings, Columbus Circle has never quite arrived. Logically it should be the next theater center, but attempts to force that advance have met with complete failure. Farther north, Broadway, after a few blocks of automobile showrooms, becomes increasingly a thread on which are tied at intervals shopping centers for the immediate wants of a vast population. Food stores, motion picture houses, small shops, apartment houses, a few hotels which are either old substantials running down or new shoddies enjoying a brief luster, border a Broadway scarcely recognizable to the mil-lions who know Broadway as a glamorous name.

Against the invisible barricade at Fifty-third Street —or is it the quite visible elevated?—the theater district broke in vain. After Winthrop Ames’ great fiasco with the Century at Sixty-second Street, the theatrical men decided to let well enough alone, and by mushrooming out into the side streets below Fiftieth made the compact theatrical district of the present, which with a few outlying spores runs from Eighth to Sixth Avenue above Forty-second Street. Here the American stage struts its stuff, and unless something unforeseen happens to New York’s subway system, this is where your children will attend such first nights as really matter. Oh, yes, there are miles of Broadway above Columbus Circle, but no one cares about that unless he happens to own land there or is otherwise prejudiced.