Did you know that the iconic department store Macy’s actually started out right here in the Village on the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue & 14th Street? Today the Landmarks Preservation Commission payed homage to this past by voting to calendar the lovely Neo-Classical building at 56 West 14th Street – part of the original Macy’s complex – for potential landmark designation.
R.H. Macy Dry Goods originally opened in a small building (since demolished) on this corner in 1858, and as its success grew it expanded into a number of neighboring buildings. No. 56 was built in 1898 by then-owners Isador & Nathan Straus; four years later, in 1902, the department store moved uptown to it’s present location on Herald Square.
Though hard to imagine today, 14th Street was an upscale shopping district in the mid-19th and early-20th centuries. The area originally known as Ladies Mile (called such because it was lined with department stores frequented by fashionable women) stretched along Broadway from 9th Street to 23rd Street, though the name later came to encompass a larger area that also included Fifth and Sixth Avenues from around 14th to 25th Streets. Macy’s would have sat at the entrance to this very stylish district.
Rowland Hussey Macy worked in his youth as a sailor, and in those days gained a red star tattoo that many believe was the inspiration for the store’s logo. Whether or not that’s true, faded reminders of Macy’s presence also appear on another of its former buildings at 55 East 13th Street, which the Strauses built in 1891-94 and which now belongs to the New School.
The calendaring of 56 West 14th Street is a small but important step forward in the preservation of buildings along this historic 14th Street corridor. Those imaginative enough to look past the street’s loud signage and flashy awnings will discover a great number of buildings dating from its heyday as a fashionable shopping mecca, most of which remain unprotected and vulnerable to demolition and insensitive alterations. Only seven buildings along 14th Street are landmarked, in addition to a small handful west of Ninth Avenue that GVSHP successfully advocated to landmark in 2003 as part of the Gansevoort Market Historic District. We will continue to advocate for the protection of more and more of these valuable and vulnerable historic resources.