Manhattan History – Fifth Avenue – Trade Pursues Fashion

THE plan of 1811, at first only a program on paper, came into effect by degrees as pressure of population and the activities of speculators forced street openings. Until 1836, by which time Fifth Avenue had been opened to Twenty-first Street, access to the rocky common lands in the center of the island could be had only over the old Middle Road which meandered up and down and around the rocks, holding in general to a north- and-south direction. As early as 1827, how-ever, the upper area was accessible enough for those who are forced to take charity, and as the common lands were esteemed of little worth, then began their alienation, which continued until some of the most valuable tracts of the present came irrevocably into private hands at public loss. The 1827 grant of an acre between present Park and Fifth avenues and Forty-ninth and Fiftieth streets went to the Deaf and Dumb Institute for the sum of one dollar. Somewhat similar grants of common lands to religious and charitable institutions which became enriched by selling them later are as follows:

In 1840 the city deeded for one dollar to the Anglo-American Free Church of St. George the Martyr, the 200 feet on the west side of Fifth Avenue, Fifty-fourth to Fifty-fifth Street, 300 feet deep, making twenty-four lots. This became the site of St. Luke’s Hospital, sold later for $2,400,000.

In 1846 the city deeded to the Roman Catholic Asylum for one dollar, for so long as it should be used for an orphan asylum, the block on the east side of Fifth Avenue, running through to Madison, between Fifty-first and Fifty-second streets. To enlarge this property the city leased to the society the block from Fourth Avenue to Madison for one dollar for so long as it remained a corporation.

The Fifth Avenue block, without a plot 75 feet by 200 feet front on Madison Avenue retained by the sellers, was sold in 1899 for $2,050,000, restrictions on sale having been removed. Almost immediately the buyers disposed of less than half the land for $1,235,-000, the Union League Club taking the northeast corner of Fifty-first Street.

At about the same period the city deeded to the Society for Colored Orphans, for as long as it should be used for an orphan asylum, the Fifth Avenue block between Forty-third and Forty-fourth streets. The Orphanage being burned in the draft riots of 1863, the city rescinded the restriction on sale in 1865, where-upon the Society sold for $250,000.

Reasonable ground rents from these and other properties virtually given away by the city within comparatively recent times would go some distance toward relieving the city budget, although the city at least has been receiving taxes since the transfer of these lands into private hands.

These two gifts, be it noted, were made not long after the disastrous panic of 1837, at a time when real estate was in a disastrous slump. The preceding boom had resulted in wild activity, causing the opening of Fifth Avenue from Twenty-first Street to 129th, the addition of Lexington and Madison avenues to the City Plan, and the opening of all the cross streets between Twenty-eighth and Forty-second from river to river. This activity was boom-born. The collapse of 1837 ruined many speculators who followed up the street openings with subdivisions. It was noted, however, that new properties on Fifth Avenue lost less of their old values than any other recently opened tracts and came back into favor more quickly. However, a long period of lagging values had to be lived through before Fifth Avenue swept into its great period as a residence street, which began about 1850.

By 1856 it was reported that “the residences in Fifth Avenue are in many instances beyond all others in magnificence,” and a year later “Fifth Avenue lots are selling rapidly.” For the most part they were brownstone fronts, one much like another, but the Astor boys were to break in on this stale uniformity, this comfortable but uninspiring plutocracy, by building something gorgeous. In 1859 John Jacob Astor III and his brother William built on Fifth Avenue—William at Thirty-fourth Street, John Jacob at Thirty-third Street—the two houses occupying the frontage now containing the Empire State Building.

A description of the house of John Jacob Astor III, which appeared in the Tribune of November 28, 1859, shows in detail the house which set the architectural pace on Fifth Avenue just before the Civil War:

A mansion presenting a rather unique appearance has been erected by John Jacob Astor, Jr., on the 5th avenue at the, corner of 33rd street. It is faced with Philadelphia pressed brick. The window dressings, architraves, cornices, rustrics, columns and stoop are of Nova Scotia freestone, together with the facing of the basement story. The building 50 x 107 feet, is constructed in the French style, there being a slight inclination from the perpendicular on each of the four sides and is richly mounted in front. Facade Corinthian columns—and pilasters flank the main entrance which is approached by means of a double stoop. The height of the first story is 16 feet clear, that of the second, 142 and of the third 13 1/2 feet each. The structure is quite a relief to the monotonous view presented by a vast range on either side of the avenue of brownstone fronts which although stately and spacious, so closely resemble each other as to easily pass for duplicates of the same original.

The Astor houses stood on part of the Thompson farm which was one of the best of the Astor “buys.” It extended east and west of Fifth Avenue from Thirty-second to Thirty-sixth Street. William B. Astor bought half of it in 1826 for $25,000, when it was mostly marsh and rock. The sale of a lot at auction for $1,200 in 1841 roused a titter in the auction room, the price was so ludicrously high. In 1905, the same lot sold for $400,000. As Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were opened through the tract, followed by fashion and brownstone fronts, millions dropped into Astor laps. However, the architectural lead of the Astors did not last long. A year after the Frenchified house of young Astor was erected, along came old Alexander T. Stewart to build his shining marble palace just across Thirty-fourth Street from William Astor.

The Civil War brought a sudden collapse to all land values, as many properties had been bought speculatively on contract to pay within ninety days, five per cent being deposited at time of sale. Within the ninety-day period the buyers would plot a piece of land and auction the lots in the Exchange Rooms at 111 Broadway, “where every artifice of the speculator, indeed, we may say, of the gambler, was employed. The mock auction business flourished, and it was estimated that as much as two-thirds of the business was bogus,” wash sales, of which more would be heard later in connection with the stock market. The uncertainties of 1860 tied up credit and put a sudden end to that form of speculation for the moment. Soon the speculators were gambling in commodities—notably sugar and wool, anything in fact that the armies needed.

The Flash Age, with Jim Fisk as its fleshly epitome, followed the war. It rose to a shrieking boom in 1868 and continued until the panic of 1873. The realty market of those years is described as “purely speculative,” but as a matter of fact a great many substantial houses were built between Thirty-second and Fifty-second streets in the area from Fifth to Lexington Avenue. North of Fifty-ninth Street the speculators bought and sold without even the pretense of adding improvements, shooting the value of vacant property to fantastic heights. The price on all lots doubled, on some tripled, on a few quadrupled.

How fast “the boys” were working is indicated by the fact that in 1869 a plot between Madison and Fifth avenues was sold four times in sixty days, the first time for $40,000, the fourth time for $55,000. Fifth Avenue lots near Sixty-seventh Street were worth $20,000 each; at 110th Street, $10,000 each; whereas ten years before they could have been bought for $5,000 and $2,000 respectively.

A special and enduring reason for this speculative wave on Fifth Avenue above Fifty-ninth Street was the purchase and early improvement of Central Park. A petition to the mayor in behalf of more parks, dated February 29, 1884, gives these figures on material benefits of Frederick L. Olmsted’s gigantic adventure in park planning and landscaping:

Central Park land cost the city in 1859. . . $6,666,381 For construction and maintenance 16,371,844 Interest on purchase @ 7% for the 25 years to 1884 20,755,925 Total cost to 1884 $43,794,150

Taxes collected in the wards abutting Central Park $110,000,000 Normal tax expectancy without the Park 50,000,000 Balance to credit of city $16,205,850

Within a year after the Park purchase, many abutting lots trebled in value. For one large tract near the Park, the owner refused $1,250,000 in 1869, though he paid only $40,000 for it in 1857, a thirty-fold rise.

The taxable valuation of the three wards containing the Park rose from $26,500,000 to $312,000,000 between 1856 and 1881, at which time they were contributing one-third of the total expenses of the city.

An 1886 estimate of the value of Central Park itself was $200,000,000, or thirty times the original purchase price of seventeen years before. The catch in all such estimates of city-owned park property is this: If the city property were to be devoted to ordinary purposes, the probable effect would be to decrease the value of surrounding property so that the whole area would be worth no more than the built-up part is under present conditions. Central Park may be worth today a billion dollars in terms of near-by assessments, yet the Park value is irrecoverable because if the Park rectangle were to be built up, the private property within range of the Park’s advantages would decline greatly, enough to make the transfer economically unsound, even if there were no considerations involved other than economics. The case for Central Park was condusively proved in the ledgers of traders and on the assessment rolls by the advance of land prices in the neighborhood from 1859 to 1873, and though the panic-aftermath must have left many severe headaches in some circles, the “pick-up” was quicker there than elsewhere and the soaring values of 1860—1870 have since been surpassed many times over.

Farther south, the 1868 boom had less startling results, resolving itself there into the usual stern chase of style business after fashionable residences. The boom there manifested itself, not as a wild speculation in unimproved land, but rather as a combination of speculation, building, and borrowing. Profits were large there also; but it took real money to enter the lower area, as witness John Holy’s paying $115,000 for the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-second Street in 1868. This sale dates accurately enough the leap of retail trade from below Fourteenth Street to the Madison Square neighborhood. Stores of the better class clung to Madison Square for thirty years before setting sail in earnest for the Thirty-fourth Street crossing, which became the dominant retail center about 1902.

To a large extent this advance was encouraged by the shining success of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel under the management of George C. Boldt. William Waldorf Astor built the Waldorf in 1890, and Colonel John Jacob Astor, his cousin, fourth of the name, constructed the Astoria four years later. Boldt combined the two hotels with so much success that in 1901 he could buy the southeast corner of Thirty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue for $1,200,000. He held it three years before selling it to Tiffany’s, the present incumbent, in 1903 for $2,000,000—a neat profit. Tiffany’s move north in 1905 was followed soon after by Gorham, locating at Thirty-sixth Street, and Alt-man’s at Thirty-fourth Street. Since that time, al-though many fine shops have moved north, Fifth Avenue from Thirty-third to Forty-second Street has held its own and seems likely to do so for a long time to come. The new Empire State Building has given that part of the Avenue an enduring southern anchor, and a vigilant Fifth Avenue Association is on guard to ward off, as far as it can do so, influences likely to diminish the attractiveness of the area to the “class” buyers who are in the habit of shopping there. Those who buy in the larger department stores a block west are likely to do their window-shopping on Fifth Avenue below the Public Library.

This beautiful building, housing magnificent collections, occupies an enormously valuable block between Forty-first and Forty-second streets, with Bryant Park behind it toward Sixth Avenue. William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the ancient Evening Post, well deserves this memorial, as he was a leading influence in New York for many years and is the idea-father of the Central Park development. Yet a generation has arisen which knows him not, and agitation is on to rename Bryant for World War victims. Let us hope the effort fails; New York does too much name changing by far.

Forty-second Street was opened from Third Avenue to Bloomingdale Road, present Broadway at Times Square, in 1831, and from river to river in 1836. The width of the thoroughfare, one hundred feet, indicated that it would be a business thoroughfare as soon as the city grew that far, although years would pass before that outcome would be foreseen by any but the shrewdest buyers. In the meantime and down almost to the present century, Forty-second Street had more dwellings than business blocks, and those were of the humbler sort, especially on both ends of the street toward the rivers. As late as July, 1902, the editor of the Real Estate Record and Guide could surprise his readers by asking the rhetorical question, “Is Longacre Square to be the center of the city; is 42d Street to be the great cross-street of the future?” the occasion being the entry of the New York Times into the square of its name. A swift rise in prices in that neighborhood followed; six months later, in January, 1903, the same editor replied as follows:

“The Longacre section, owing to the big ideas of property owners, is now practically exhausted. Here values are now in the neighborhood of $2,000 a front foot, against the $1,000 or $1,500 of a year ago.”

For once it appears that the owners of a thriving area managed to fight off the speculators for at least a little while and keep their golden earth for future increment.

Forty-second Street, still new in the sense of development for business, remained a gamble down to the building of the Grand Central Terminal in 1912. Before that its two great crossings, Fifth Avenue and Broadway, had gone ahead, but the only decidedly “good” area was between Madison Avenue and Broadway. To the east lay the old railroad station, from which the street ran on to the river and a ferry, between rows of dingy buildings and through a near-slum area now the site of Tudor City—a Fred F. French development of apartment houses and apartment hotels, an excellent example of mass-rebuilding of a whole neighborhood. West of Times Square, commonplace houses, interspersed with factories, breweries, and warehouses, stretched away to the Hudson. To this day Forty-second Street slumps rapidly after leaving the theatrical district, and before it reaches Eighth Avenue has lost all of the “character” which it maintains with fair consistency from Tudor City to Times Square, thanks to the new buildings erected there with remarkable speed during recent years—the Daily News Building, the Chrysler Building, the Chanin Tower, the Bowery Savings Bank, the Pershing Square, and the Lincoln Building adjoining the site of the old Hotel Belmont, to name only the outstanding ones. Forty-second Street is still uneven, however, as there are decided let-downs. Rehabilitation east of Times Square is by no means completed; a discerning eye can detect, even between Sixth and Seventh avenues, antiquated buildings sixty or seventy years old which have been modified into stores without improving anything but the incomes of their owners. By contrast the block opposite Bryant Park, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, where Walter J. Salmon has operated on leases from the Gerry and Hoffman estates, is a well sustained commercial development.

The highest value in this area is, as might be expected, the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, 500 Fifth Avenue, where the land is assessed at $30,000 a front foot, a figure equaled only by Number 1 Wall Street. The march of business up-town in the “Golden Twenties” is shown in the in-creasing assessments on this lease, which brought it finally to and above the peak valuation of the Lower Town, though the two have since come to the same level. The front-foot assessed value on the Fifth Avenue corner increased as follows: 1920, $21,000; 1922, $22,000; 1926, $24,000; 1927, $26,000; 1929, $30,000.

With land values at Forty-second Street higher than at Thirty-fourth Street, one may wonder how the Fifth Avenue stores below the Library hold their own. The answer seems to be that the Thirty-fourth Street district is one that shoppers go to, while the Forty-second Street area lends itself particularly to office buildings with small shops on the ground floor paying high rents per square foot, driving a sharp trade on special merchandise with rapid turnover. Westward from the charmed corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, lower valuations and lower rents prevail. And there the one large department store in the area is to be found. A traffic count of Forty-second Street traffic recently showed that a majority of the pedestrians from Fifth Avenue to Madison were men, while west of Fifth Avenue women were in the majority. But whether Stern’s is where it is because of that fact or whether Stern’s brings the women its way is one of those riddles of traffic with which New York is filled. Perhaps the surplus of males east of the Avenue is caused by men commuters hurrying to their trains at Grand Central, while the surplus of women west of the Avenue is caused by suburban wives hurrying to the matinees in the Times Square theatrical district.

The most stubborn defense against the march of trade in the downtown area has been that waged by the residents of Murray Hill, in the upper Thirties between Madison and Lexington avenues, under the terms of a covenant executed on February 22, 1847, by members of the Murray, Giles, Hoffman and Ogden families. Long and bitter legal fights against the covenant have resulted in breaking down its restrictions against trade on the fringes of the area, but the center still holds out, although it is once more in jeopardy as the result of municipal rulings on zoning.

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