Changing views of Park Avenue in the East 50s

Has any of Manhattan’s avenues changed as much over the past 100 years as Park Avenue? Known as Fourth Avenue until the late 19th century, it was cut with railroad tracks, as evident in this 1905 photo looking south from 56th Street.


“Because of increased traffic, smoke and noise, the city eventually required the railroad to lower its tracks into an open cut or tunnel from 46th to 96th Streets,” according to New York Then and Now, published in 1976.

“Here we see seven tracks, of which three are temporary, while new tracks are being laid preparatory to electrification. A retaining wall is being built on each side of the cut to allow additional space for an enlarged station approach.”

On the left before the bridge at 54th Street is a Steinway piano factory, in front of the Schaefer Brewery, with the cupola, which once stood at 51st Street.


By 1975, when the second photo was taken, Park Avenue in midtown had become a posh canyon of office towers and a few luxury apartment houses.

The center structure is the New York Central building (now the Helmsley Building), right in front of the Pan Am Building, which opened in 1963.


Today, this juncture resembles its 1975 incarnation—except the trees planted on the mall have grown taller, and the Pan Am Building is the Met Life Building, purchased from Pan Am in 1981.

[Top two photos from New York Then and Now, Dover]

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10 Responses to “Changing views of Park Avenue in the East 50s”

  1. The Unbearable Banishment Says:

    A fantastic post. Here’s a picture I took from a conference room in the Helmsely Building looking up Park Avenue. There’s a couple elevator interior interior pics, too. Fun fact: Park Avenue South was once 4th Avenue but they changed the name to sound fancy.

  2. John M Says:

    Surprised you didn’t include a shot of the time in between the 1800s and 1970s, namely the period when Park Ave. was named that for a reason. Much of the avenue was actually a park, as this photo from the 1920s shows. ( Traffic was limited to one lane in each direction, if I remember correctly, on either side of the huge grassy median. Those were the days…

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    Ooh, that is a lovely photo, thanks!

  4. Ryan Says:

    Actually there is a very current movement to restore the center median to it’s former state. He is an article from October of 2012 with the proposal. (

  5. John M Says:

    Just to point out, Ryan, that that proposal is not to restore the median to its former state. It just makes it a little wider, nowhere near the ‘park’ with single-lane traffic that existed in the 1920s. Personally, I think they should leave things alone at this point. That plan seems, at best, tepid, expensive, and basically pointless. Now, if they want to go back to the ’20s and do it up right, that’s a different story.

  6. petey Says:

    is the third picture one block north of the second picture?
    and the first picture is amazing! but i’m glad i didn’t live there.

  7. wildnewyork Says:

    It must be, but the photo caption says it’s from 56th Street…and I could swear I was standing on 56th Street when I took the photo.

  8. Kytka Hilmar-Jezek Says:

    Thank you for posting – now I know where my father was standing in 1970.

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