The traditional tale of New York City’s zoning code tells us that the 40-story Equitable Building, constructed in 1915 with no setbacks, was responsible for the 1916 Zoning resolution. However, this building was simply the final provocation New Yorkers needed to get behind the controversial concept of more closely regulating the city’s development — in terms of the height of new buildings, the amount of light and air needed to be afforded residents, and the general public and which types of uses were compatible with others.
Before New York City had preservation laws or even a zoning ordinance, it had planner and Manhattan Borough President George McAneny advocating for its preservation and beautification. McAneny came into office in 1910, and turned his attention to a major issue he saw in the city, retail on Fifth Avenue being negatively affected by the encroachment of industrial buildings, which is his mind would destroy the character of Fifth Avenue, which was emerging as the city’s great shopping street. In 1911, McAneney’s cause to not only preserve what Fifth Avenue already had but to create an even more beautiful streetscape began to gain steam when he appointed the Fifth Avenue Commission.
The project included the repaving of Fifth Avenue, as, like many streets, the avenue had simply had pavement poured over the original stone, making it incredibly uneven. McAneny also sought to add trees and creative lighting and establishing safe areas for pedestrians and taxis.
The Commission’s main job was to follow the outlined agenda for the repaving, widening, and beautification. But also reported in McAneny’s goals was a restriction on the height of the buildings, not just on Fifth Avenue, but the immediate avenues to the east and west, and a restriction on the character of the buildings to make them more uniform. He said the ideal outcome for Fifth Avenue was “the control of the architecture of private buildings facing the avenue, with a view toward securing at least a harmonious scheme.” McAneny’s report aimed to restrict the buildings to 125ft with an allowance of an additional two stories in a mansard style. McAneny was, of course, ahead of the curve, as the zoning resolution would not pass for another five years when he was no longer in office. And regulations based on preserving buildings for their aesthetic or historic value would not even be possible until the enabling legislation of the 1956 Bard Act.
McAneny’s desire to utilize restrictions to keep Fifth Avenue an elite shopping district serves as an interesting analog to other movements afoot in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to restrict or shape building construction to improve living and working conditions for poor New Yorkers. This includes the various tenement house acts, which required more and more light and air and amenities in structures built for the least well-off New Yorkers, and regulations passed after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, which required greater building and fire safety for factory workers. Even the New York City landmarks law, enacted in 1965, was designed to serve the broader public interest — preserving historic sites that the public can enjoy, and regulating from the perspective of what the public sees and appreciates, rather than what benefits or is experienced by private individuals or owners — and saving sites and neighborhoods from demolition that were to be replaced by highways for suburban motorists, or “slum clearance” efforts that often meant destroying vital communities.
It’s interesting to see how McAneny and the Commission’s efforts played out. One of their goals was to avoid the construction of industrial or loft buildings in the area, as well as maintaining a uniform building height. It’s worth looking at one blockfront in our neighborhood along Fifth Avenue which has been completely built out by 1911 — 72, 74-76, 78, and 80 Fifth Avenue, all of which are still extant in their original design, located on the west side of the avenue between 13th and 14th Streets. The buildings on this block front were designed by the notable architects Albert Wagner, Buchman & Fox, Maynicke & Frank, and Cleverdon & Putzel. They were loft and office buildings, which had retail on the bottom, designed in Neo-Rennasiance, Renaissance Revival, and Romanesque Revival styles.
These four buildings have been miraculously preserved over the last hundred years. They represent significant architectural styles of the turn of the century, new construction methodologies, changing dynamics in the city, and all hold significant cultural history. In some ways, they conform with and in some ways, they defy McAneny’s vision for Fifth Avenue. 80 Fifth Avenue at the corner certainly exceeded his proscribed height (though unlike the rest of the block or street, this was an intersection with a wide, major crosstown street, where greater height would make sense). And some of the buildings were used for more storage or manufacturing uses that might not have fit McAneny’s refined vision for the street, whereas some did serve as the office, gathering, or retail space he preferred (much of that in the immediately following years came to be used by left-wing and progressive/grassroots social and political groups, which may or may not have fit McAneny’s vision). Regardless, this perfectly intact century-old block possesses striking architecture and incredibly rich history. But despite this, none of these buildings have been protected by landmark designations, yet.
Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square.
To help landmark 72 through 80 Fifth Avenue and other buildings in this area, click here. To learn more about these buildings, and the other buildings in the area south of Union Square, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, and our preservation efforts in the area, click here. To learn more about Civil Rights and Social Justice sites in our neighborhood, click here.