Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Then and Now;: East 23rd Street at Fifth Avenue, NYC

East 23rd Street at Fifth Avenue, Manhattan

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, in 1974
Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, in 1974. To the extreme right is the Flatiron Building, and to the extreme left is the Metropolitan Life Home Office building.
This is one of the most iconic intersections in Manhattan, but I bet most people wouldn't be able to recognize where it is from the above photo without the caption. Broadway slicing through the Manhattan grid street pattern creates some of the most recognizable place names in the world: Times Square, Herald Square, Columbus Square, and several others. This is another one: Madison Square. However, it certainly doesn't look very iconic from the above photo. In fact, it looks like a jumbled mess. However, one new building can drastically change the character of a view. When I saw the above 1974 photo, I didn't immediately recognize the location despite the fact that I lived with ten blocks of it for a full decade and still retain roots there. I finally figured out where it was by noticing at the extreme right of the photo that little ridge - that, I recognized. What is it?

The Flatiron Building at Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC,
A better look at the building on the extreme right of the original 1974 photo. Yes, that is the Flatiron Building at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, NYC.
So, we have the right location, but it sure looks unfamiliar. So, I decided to do a comparison of Fifth Avenue at Broadway and Fifth Avenue from 1974 to 2017.

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC,
Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
The reason for my confusion became clear once I saw the current view. What has changed? Well, not much, just the addition of one building. It is Madison Green, 5 East 22nd Street, New York, NY. Madison Green - obviously named after Madison Square Park, which is to our left - was built in 1985. That was the height (pardon the pun) of a Manhattan building boom due to the near-term expiration of some generous property tax abatements. A lot of newish buildings in Midtown South and surrounding areas such as the Flatiron District date from 1984-86, which was not a particularly outstanding era for architecture but featured a lot of very big buildings. I've walked by that building a hundred times and never really notice it, so, at least from perspective, it's not that intrusive. It's just kind of bland and... there.

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC,
Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
Incidentally, that building over on the left hasn't changed in a long time. In fact, that building is even older than the Flatiron Building. That was the site of the Metropolitan Life Home Office building (officially 1 Madison Square), completed in 1893 and then replaced in the 1950s (which is the building we see today). The distinctive tower right behind it was added in 1911. and modernized in the early 1960s. That has been the solid backdrop for Madison Square since the days of the original 1879 Madison Square Garden was demolished to make room for it (yes, this is where the name comes from, even though Madison Square Garden is no longer anywhere near Madison Square).

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC,
The 1957 Metropolitan Life Home Office building, with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower behind it, September 2017 (Google Street View).
There's no question that Madison Green, a 29-story condo, has changed the character of the area. It dwarfs the Flatiron Building, though, of course, the Flatiron Building is iconic and can withstand the competition. How you feel about this kind of change probably depends on your own views about development. It's a fabulous location for residences, with many apartments looking out over Madison Square, others looking out over the East River toward Queens and Brooklyn, and others looking south toward the downtown and the World Trade Center. A lot of cities would try to frustrate this kind of development, but fortunately, New York City allowed it. All of those dwellings help to keep rents somewhat in check, though nobody will ever accuse the Flatiron District of having low rents relative to the rest of the country. And, if you must have a sense of that old-time view, you can still see that lonely water tower over on the right, reminding you of how things used to be before that big money rolled into the area.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. A massive new building like Madison Green may annoy some purists, but it rejuvenates a neighborhood and lets more people enjoy it. Please visit some of our other articles in this series!


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