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“Beyond the Village and Back” Takes Us #SouthOfUnionSquare

Village Preservation recently unveiled our interactive Beyond the Village and Back Maps, the latest in our series of maps that tell the story of our neighborhood. With so many entries, we’ve had to divide it into two storymaps: one covering Manhattan below 72nd Street, the other for the rest of the city

The storymaps highlight institutions, buildings, and sites across the five boroughs with roots in or deep connections to Greenwich Village, the East Village, or NoHo. Several of those have their roots or connections in the area of Greenwich Village and the East Village South of Union Square, an endangered but historically rich area for which we are seeking landmark protections. Today we’ll look at a few of those sites from the Beyond the Village and Back maps, and invite you to explore the maps more on your own.

Empire State Building

Empire State Building

The Empire State Building, at 350 Fifth Avenue, was completed in 1931. The building stands 102 stories, designed in a striking Art Deco style. It was designed by William Lamb of the architecture firm of Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, and constructed by the Starrett Brothers & Eken contracting company. The building is world-renowned for its beauty and status as a New York City icon, but it is also a marvel of construction. However, the building got off to a rocky start when the original developer failed to secure funds for construction. But then Empire State Inc. stepped in — a consortium of businessmen who all invested in this incredible new office building that would be the most prominent structure on the New York City skyline. The Empire State Inc. purchased the land and in 1929 announced they would build an 80 story building on site, with former Governor Alfred E. Smith at the helm as president (Smith was just off his unsuccessful run for President — the first Catholic major party candidate for President in the United States. There wouldn’t be a Catholic President until John F. Kennedy’s win in 1960, and not another until Joe Biden in 2016.).

While serving as president of the consortium, Smith made an effort to connect to his Irish roots by setting the groundbreaking for the new towering structure on March 17th — St. Patrick’s Day. True to his Lower East Side working-class roots, he also paid homage to the workers by regularly attending the awards ceremonies for the workers and holding the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May Day, an international labor holiday. While the building was being constructed and until his death, Smith lived at 49-51 Fifth Avenue at 12th Street, South of Union Square, a still-extant 16-story colonial revival building designed by Thomas Lamb in 1928.

New York Society Library

Founded in 1754, New York City’s oldest library is the New York Society Library. Still a private library to this day, it has a storied history that crosses four centuries and includes a full lifetime – 81 years – in Greenwich Village. The New York Society Library was located in a now-demolished building at 109 University Place, in the area south of Union Square. Today it is located at 53 East 79th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, a stunning individual New York City landmark built in 1916 — one of the first landmarks designated on the Upper East Side and one of the first in New York for part of this time.

In 1754, there was no library in New York. But six individuals came together in that year to create a library that “would be very useful as well as ornamental to the City.” As the library’s collection continued to grow, a move became necessary. In 1856, the New York Library Society moved to Greenwich Village. It built and took up residence in a beautiful building located at 67 University Place between 12th and 13th Streets, South of Union Square. The street numbers were changed in 1895, and 67 University Place became 109 University Place. Here the library remained for eighty-one years, until 1937. Then the library moved out and uptown again to its current location. Sadly, their magnificent building on University Place was demolished, and in 1940 was replaced with the Art Deco apartment building found there today.

A.T. Stewart’s “Marble Palace”

A.T. Stewart’s “Marble Palace” at 280 Broadway.

The A.T. Stewart Building, at 280 Broadway, now known as the Sun Building, was constructed between 1845 and 1846. It was designed by New York architects Joseph Trench and John B. Snook for the prosperous and pioneering merchant Alexander Turney Stewart (October 12, 1803 – April 10, 1876). This magnificent Italian Renaissance “Marble Palace,” designated an individual New York City landmark on October 7, 1986, is one of Manhattan’s most significant 19th-century structures.

In 1862 as his lucrative business continued to grow, Stewart constructed another building, the most famous one he would commission, his “Iron Palace,” on the entire block bounded by Broadway and Fourth Avenue, 9th and 10th Streets, South of Union Square. This Department Store was the largest building in New York at the time, and one of the first, if not the very first, to use structural steel to hold it up. The new store was described by a journalist from The Independent in 1863 as “…the first and only one of its kind in the world constructed wholly of iron, standing alone, unsupported by any surrounding walls. It is an enduring monument to the mind that conceived it and the architect who executed it.”

The structure burned to the ground in a tragic fire in 1959. Today, a 21-story, full-block apartment building stands on the site of the old Iron Palace on Broadway and 10th Street, built c. 1960 and designed by Sylvan Bien. Named for its predecessor, the Stewart House stands with a towering reminder of its commercial past at the southern edge of the proposed historic district south of Union Square, connecting to the lot’s history and its brother to the south at 280 Broadway. 

Iron Palace with Grace Church northward

These are just three of nearly a dozen sites on our Beyond the Village and Back maps; click here to explore them all, as well as dozens of other sites.

To explore more South of Union Square history, click here or here.

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