Three centuries and three views of Union Square

As one of the first parks in the city (established in 1815 as a public commons), Union Square has been the subject of many early photos.

This one below is from 1893. published in the wonderful book New York Then and Now, it looks west at the south end of Fourth Avenue and East 14th Street.

“This photo was probably taken on an early Sunday morning, for on 14th Street—a popular and important shopping center—stores are closed, there is little traffic, and only a few pedestrians are evident,” reads the caption.

At right is the equestrian statue of George Washington; farther back is one of Lafayette. On the southwest corner of Broadway and 14th Street is the Domestic Sewing Machine Building. On the northwest corner of 14th and University is the nine-story Lincoln Building, from 1885.

Here’s the same stretch in 1974, when Union Square was seedy and derelict. The statues have been moved inside the park; the Domestic Sewing Machine Building is gone. Mays, a discount department store, dominated the south side of Union Square.

Now, in 2012, Union Square is luxe again. We’ve got Whole Foods instead of Mays, which departed in the late 1980s. A glass condo rises on 14th and University Place. The one constant: the Lincoln Building, on the right, now housing a Diesel clothing store.

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21 Responses to “Three centuries and three views of Union Square”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Before May’s it was Lane’s Department Store. In the 60s, practically every Lower East Side kid over 16 years old applied for a job there, I didn’t get one but a few did. I used to go there on weekends and look at record albums but Klein’s Department Store on 14th St, right across the street, had a bigger selection. I remember one album by Tom & Jerry, who later changed their names to Simon & Garfunkel.

    • wildnewyork Says:

      Mays was empty for a while, and if I remember correctly, Bradlees came in in the 1990s, and then another discount retailer. No one could make that space work until they divided it up and Whole Foods took over.

      • BabyDave Says:

        Bradlee’s was a pretty humorous failure (if you weren’t employed there). It had, like, 50-pound sacks of fertilizer, as if the store were in suburban New Jersey.
        I don’t remember Lane’s, but Mays is clear in my mind. Not too long before it closed, I went in for a sale item, and was quite struck by how sparse the merchandise was, and what junk most of it seemed to be.

  2. The Day | Which Neighborhood Is Lin In? - The Local East Village Blog - NYTimes.com Says:

    […] Ephemeral New York reprints a trio of photos of Union Square, one from 1893, another from 1974, and a third from 2012. […]

  3. marinachetner Says:

    wow – are the horses in the top shot pulling trams? I do love the Lincoln Building. Thanks for sharing these.

    • Bob_in_MA Says:

      The first street cars were pulled by horses, fairly far back. I have a map that has a horse car line in our small New England city in 1873. I think electrification began in earnest about 1890.

      I have the 1903 edition of “Appleton’s Dictionary of Greater New York” (a sort of city almanac) and it lists many of the lines in Manhattan as still being horse drawn. I have my doubts, I’ve never seen a photo that late.

    • Bob_in_MA Says:

      Re horse drawn trolley’s, I came across this on the Wikipedia page “Horsecar”:

      “Many large metropolitan lines lasted well into the early twentieth century. New York City had a regular horsecar service on the Bleecker Street Line until its closure in 1917.”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horsecar

      So apparently my Appleton’s is correct. Seems ironic that one of the last places using them was Manhattan.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    I love the church steeple way off in the distance down West 14th Street.

  5. Marc Kehoe Says:

    Gawjus. The glass monstrosity at University and 14th required the demolition of Patterson Silks, which was in an early building designed by Morris Lapidus. Klein’s, was carved out of several
    buildings on the East Side of the square (S. Klein on the Square).
    One of those buildings was the former site of a saloon which housed the famous late 19th century attraction “The Face on the Baroom Floor.” 15th Street and Bway was the site of an earlier Tiffany and Company, and “Deadman’s Curve” was there at B’way and 14th, where the cable powered streetcar had to unhitch from that cable to make the curve, at times fkying off the rails and killing passengers. The getle posters above have forgotten Orbach’s, which also occupied the site of May’s.

    Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

    Looks like there’s been a fire in that earliest picture.

    • wildnewyork Says:

      Thanks for all that Marc. The burnt-out building was the first Spingler Building, named for the Spingler farm that used to be located there. The building that replaced it, still up today, is also called the Spingler Building.

    • Lisa Says:

      The Patterson Silks building had a fancy architectural pedigree, eh? It was an interesting, unusual structure, as I recall. Thanks for that bit of trivia.

  6. Bernie Mooney Says:

    Great photos. I have a friend who has been searching for photos of Union Square Park in the 1970s and hasn’t been able to find any online. I told him that was impossible. So off I went and son of a bitch there don’t seem to be any on the internet. if anyone knows of any please leave a response. I find the lack of images of the park itself amazing.

    • petey Says:

      “I find the lack of images of the park itself amazing.”

      suppressing left wing history, you ask me.

      • Lisa Says:

        Yeah– haven’t you noticed how oppressively FAR-RIGHT this town is?

        First, they failed to keep a rich photographic history of 1970’s Union Square, but I didn’t speak out because I didn’t belong to a union.

        Then, they didn’t keep a rich photographic history of 1970’s Carl Schurz Park, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a German revolutionary.

        Then They didn’t keep a rich photographic history of 1970’s Alice Kornegay Park, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a community activist.

        Then They didn’t keep a rich photographic history of 1970’s Marcus Garvey Park, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Black Nationalist…

      • Bernie Mooney Says:

        You guys. There have to be pictures from those days somewhere. It has nothing to do with political suppression. I just find it amazing that they’re not online. In the 70s, Union Square Park was not a hot bed of radicalism. It was a nightmare of junkies and freaks

  7. Lisa Says:

    Yeah– Union Square was the pits in the ’70’s. My first few months in New York (summer of ’79) I lived at 31 Union Square West, where Parsons School of Design parked its frosh. The park was lousy with drug-addicts and batty homeless people.

    In particular, I remember an old homeless woman named “Lena” who schlepped her possessions around in a supermarket shopping cart. One day the police demanded that her huge pile of junk be cleared away. We watched as the cops disposed of the items in her cart– nothing but boxes and boxes of pizza rind (the end crusts that many people discard rather than eat). Hundreds of em! Lena was inconsolable, cursing the cops while bemoaning the loss of all her “work”.

    To be fair, Lena’s pizza rind piece was no more pointless than the arty-endeavors we Parsons students busied ourselves with. And, who knew that so MANY people dispose of their crust?

  8. april Says:

    I’m surprised no one mentioned the Academy of Music, where I had my choice of seats in the 1970s. I used to hit Clancy’s Bar, do a few more at the park, then grab my seat. My then boyfriend was one of the bouncers and I was privy to the show of shows, sordid but always splendid. Klein’s-On-The-Square stood sentinel to all the seediness, the true flavor of New York!

  9. blautman Says:

    Lane’s was 5th and 14th – not Union Square.

  10. PRINCE & B’DWY NYC | Gail Ingis, ASID Says:

    […] Three centuries and three views of Union Square In “Cool building names” […]

  11. What a photo of 1970s Union Square reveals | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Here’s another view of Union Square in the 1970s—and the 19th century. […]

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