The Gilded Age in New York City, from roughly the end of the Civil War to 1900, is a cacophony of contradictions. On the surface, the era was defined by excess, luxury, materialism, abundance, technical advancement, and extreme new wealth, which brought with it unprecedented corruption, inequality, and unrestrained greed. The Gilded Age is easily and readily romanticized in film and television through its beautiful architecture, interiors, clothing, parties, and pure excess. But this “gilding” can be a distraction from the massive societal changes the United States also underwent at this time. The hit HBO show The Gilded Age uses historically accurate architecture, design, fashion, and more to illustrate the all-encompassing changes occurring throughout New York City at the time, namely the migration of New York City’s elite from Greenwich Village and the surrounding areas – including the neighborhood south of Union Square – to upper Manhattan. Village Preservation has tracked the migration of many organizations and institutions that began in our neighborhoods but moved to upper Manhattan during the Gilded Age on our Beyond the Village and Back Maps.
The neighborhood south of Union Square was at the front lines of this demographic shift. From the 1830s to the late 1860s, this area, along with the areas around Washington, Union, Stuyvesant, and Gramercy Squares (the area South of Union Square basically fell between Washington and Union Squares, when both were centers of gravity for wealth and prestige), were considered to be the central hub of wealthy, genteel New Yorkers. This inspired a number of department stores to set up luxury outposts in the neighborhood by the late 1860s. The migration of retail establishments to this area marked the beginning of the neighborhood south of Union Square as a true crossroads — where art, politics, industry, commerce, the New York elite, and the working class collided to create an eclectic built environment and cultural ferment emblematic of New York City’s status as America’s cultural capital and melting pot. Architect John Kellum designed a pair of luxurious retail emporiums in the neighborhood just up Broadway from one another — one extant, one sadly gone.
One of the first luxury department stores to move to the area was A.T. Stewart of the famous “Marble Palace” at 280 Broadway just north of City Hall. By 1853, the original A.T. Stewart Department Store — the first department store in America — had achieved such success it outgrew its original marble home. On November 21, 1855, Stewart leased 29 lots between Broadway, East 9th Street, East 10th Street, and Astor Place for a new home for his department store. By 1859, Stewart began constructing his next retail palazzo on this block. Opening on November 1862, the next A.T. Stewart store had arrived, this time in the neighborhood South of Union Square.This new architectural feat, designed by John Kellum, was no less astonishing than its predecessor. When completed in 1862, the new A. T. Stewart Department Store was the largest building in New York, 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.” Designed in the Italian palazzo style, the white-painted, five-story structure featured street-level sheets of plate glass between tall Corinthian columns, and four higher tiers adorned with 84 identically arched windows. Unfortunately, the structure burned to the ground in a tragic fire in 1959.
Another Gilded Age establishment that became a fixture of the neighborhood was James McCreery & Co. Dry Goods at 801 Broadway/67 East 11th Street which opened its doors in the neighborhood around 1869. Mr. James McCreery, an immigrant from Ireland, was employed by Ubsdell, Pierson & Lake, a department store located on Broadway and Grand Streets. McCreery worked his way up to become a partner in the company. Upon Lake’s retirement in 1867, the company was renamed James McCreery & Company. McCreery then commissioned a new store on Broadway and 11th Street, responding to the area’s growing popularity with wealthy New Yorkers moving north of Washington Square. The building was also designed by architect John Kellum, known for his work in the then-new medium of cast-iron. Kellum incorporated into the design a new kind of show window with extensive glazing. The opulent Italianate/French Second Empire style provided an appropriate setting for the extravagant goods housed inside, namely the luxurious silks unavailable elsewhere. Focusing on the female shopper, the store catered to the monied carriage trade. Before long, The New York Times would deem it “one of the most highly esteemed dry goods establishments in America.” In 1872 the newspaper commented on the store’s goods: “Shawls, silks and furs, of good quality, and especially suited to the season, may be obtained at McCreery & Co.’s establishment, Broadway and Eleventh-street. They have recently added largely to their stocks, and now offer a fine selection of goods intended for ladies’ use.” Around 1895, McCreery followed the department store trend up to “Ladies’ Mile,” 6th Avenue between 14th and 23rd Streets, when he opened his second store on 6th Avenue and 23rd Street. While not landmarked, the 11th Street and Broadway building is still standing today and retains a remarkable level of architectural integrity.
It is no surprise that Department Stores proliferated throughout the Gilded Age as industrialization spread across the country and luxury items were more readily available than ever before. As the Gilded Age progressed, luxury retail followed wealthy New Yorkers even further Uptown, laying the groundwork for what would become a retail and entertainment playground for everyday New Yorkers looking for great deals and cheap thrills.
With the new mayoral administration and influx of new council members, Village Preservation is releasing new information, programs, and initiatives about the area South of Union Square. To learn more about the neighborhood, check out our new and frequently updated South of Union Square Map and Tours. 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 these incredible historic structures and other buildings in this area, click here.