Our “What’s In A Name?” series looks at the names behind buildings, streets, parks, or other locations in our neighborhoods which hold more meaning than we may realize.
Many assume that Wanamaker Place, which covers the block of 9th Street between Broadway and Lafayette Street, derives its name from the Wanamaker’s Department Store and Warehouse which used to be located on either side of the street. But that’s actually not quite right and leaves out an important chapter in the history behind this place name in our midst.
Wanamakers was a department store founded by John Wanamaker in Philadelphia after the Civil War. In 1896, the store expanded to New York and took over the old A.T Stewart Cast-iron building, pictured above, which has since been demolished and replaced by a large apartment building. In the late 1890s, Wanamaker found his business expanding as the store quickly became one of the city’s most prominent department stores. So, Wanamaker sought to expand his business.
In 1903, John Wanamaker purchased the land one block directly south of the current store and hired the prominent Chicago Architects D. H. Burham & Co., who just one year earlier designed the Flatiron Building. The full-block building at 770 Broadway was built in two stages in 1903-07 and 1924-25 due to the existence on the block of a building at the northeastern corner of 8th St known as the Jones building. In 1924, the Jones building was finally demolished, and 770 Broadway was completed as planned.
This impressive building and company was the largest company to be held under the sole ownership of one man, John Wanamaker. But it was not him nor the business for which Wanamaker Place was named. In 1922, when John Wanamaker fell ill, he passed sole ownership of the business to his son Rodman Wanamaker. The younger Wanamaker was a deeply impressive and fascinating man, but if it wasn’t for the street named for him, he would almost be forgotten in history.
Rodman Wanamaker was a Princeton graduate, a businessman, and an investor in the arts and aviation. Among his many honors: he was honored by the Deputy Police Commission of New York in 1927; he was decorated as Chevalier in the Order of the Crown of Italy for his treatment of General Armando Diaz in 1922; he presented the cup to the winner at the second annual Scurry Stakes in the U.K. in 1924; a new ferry boat from the Battery to Staten Island was named after him in 1923; and when he died in 1928, soil from three different parts of France was flown to the U.S. in a bronze urn and placed on his grave.
Perhaps most notably, during his life, Rodman Wanamaker became deeply invested in the lives of Native Americans and the disappearance of their race. In the early 20th Century Americans were not yet willing to confront atrocities committed against Native Americans on a large scale but they began to recognize the erasure of the people and their culture. Wanamaker conceived the idea of a Native American memorial at the mouth of the New York harbor on Staten Island, pictured below. He gained support from elected officials, Native Tribal leaders, and even President Taft. In an effort to gain more support and educate himself and the rest of the country, Wanamaker funded two expeditions across the United States to photograph the “vanishing race” with photographer Joseph K. Dixon between 1908 and 1913. There were actually two expeditions; after the expeditions, there was a groundbreaking for the memorial. However, World War I broke out and took the attention of everyone funding the memorial, including Rodman Wanamaker. The memorial was never built.
Wanamaker did continue his interest in Native Americans, as he funded the publication of the books of the expedition. He also made arrangements before he died to hold an exhibition of Winold Reiss’s paintings of the Native Americans at Wanamaker’s Store. This exhibition opened in April of 1928, showing 50 of Reiss’s paintings. Though such an exhibition could be seen as at best skimming the surface of telling the story of Native Americans’ culture and struggles in the United States, Wanamaker’s goal was to at least raise awareness within the country of the plight and lives of the native peoples of our lands.
Wanamaker’s exhibition of Native American art at the Department Store and his interest in Native American culture was particularly apropos given the store’s location — directly adjacent to what had been known hundreds of years earlier as Kintecoying, a sacred Native American meeting ground of three tribes of the Lenape nation.
Rodman Wanamaker was also a proponent of the arts, as well as a booster of the city and country. In 1929, Mayor Hylan revealed that Wanamaker offered and even designed a $200,000 home for the Mayor before there was an official Mayoral residence, but Hylan declined the offer. Wanamaker wanted to construct a home for the Mayor of New York City some twenty years before Robert Moses would convince Mayor LaGuardia to use Gracie Mansion. In 1920, Wanamaker purchased his home, 12 Washington Sq North, a beautiful row house that has been thankfully preserved. He died in Atlantic City New Jersey on March 9, 1928. On April 25th, 1928, the Board of Alderman of New York unanimously adopted the name change of 9th Street between Broadway and Lafayette Street to Wanamaker Place in his honor.