Saturday, April 17, 2021

Then and Now: A Random Drive Down 5th Avenue

Driving Through the Past

Park & Tilford, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 57th Street, New York City, in 1938. Home to a Park & Tilford grocery store.
Let's take a drive down Fifth Avenue! Well, not today's Fifth Avenue, but Fifth Avenue almost a century ago. 

Fifth Avenue in New York is one of the priciest stretches of real estate in the world. But just how much has it changed? I decided to look over this video of a drive down Fifth Avenue ca. 1938, late in the Great Depression at a time when plenty of poverty and wealth coexisted in close confines. Using it, let's compare this 1938 video of Fifth Avenue to recent times.
Tiffany & Co., 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
You may know the old Park and Tilford location better as its 1940 replacement, Tiffany & Co.
The video shows both sides of Fifth Avenue. First, we'll look at the west side bordering Central Park and down into the commercial area, and then the East Side. Down to around East 60th Street, Fifth Avenue was and is primarily residential. Some of the scenes from 1938 surprised me, but a lot more look awfully familiar.


Time to get oriented. The video shows (apparently one vehicle shot this while rolling three cameras in different directions) three views from Fifth Avenue. One camera shows the western side, another a central view, and the third shows the eastern side of the avenue.

Start with the camera facing directly north ca. East 75th Street:

East 74th 0:22
East 73rd 03:34
East 72nd 0:45
East 71st 0:55
East 70th 01:05
East 69th 01:33
East 68th 01:47
East 67th 01:50
East 66th 01:58
East 65th 02:08
East 64th 02:16
East 63rd 02:26
East 62nd 02:58
East 61st 03:09
East 60th 03:16
East 59th 03:28 (Central Park South)
East 58th 03:39
End ca. East 57th

Switch at 03:49, west side of Fifth Avenue

65th Street 04:30
64th Street 04:42
West 60th 05:27
West 59th 05:38
West 58th 05:46
West 57th: 06:00
06:12 I believe that big maroon car is a Packard ca. 1937.
West 54th 06:26

Switch to the east side of Fifth at 06:52. Start just south of East 74th Street.

East 73rd Street at 06:56
East 72nd Street 07:14
East 71st Street 07:23
East 70th Street  07:30
East 69th Street 07:37
East 68th Street 07:44
East 67th Street 07:53
East 66th Street 08:18
East 65th Street 08:26
East 64th Street 08:33
East 63rd Street 08:42
East 62nd Street 08:49
East 61st Street 08:56
East 60th Street 09:32
Park & Tilford Grocer at 57th Street 10:00
E.M. Gattle & Co. Jewelers at East 55th in St. Regis  10:16 (Gattle closed in 1940).

Okay, let's look at a few specific scenes and see how they've changed.
75th Street randomusings.filminspector.com
Looking north at 75th Street, 1938.
At the very start of the video, looking north from around 75th Street, is a typical residential neighborhood. The comparison with how it looks recently is going to be a common theme in our review.
75th Street randomusings.filminspector.com
Looking north at 75th Street, May 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, well, what do you know. It hasn't changed much at all. That apartment building on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue hasn't changed at all (the corner building is 1 East 75th  Street, and the one beyond is 944 Fifth Avenue). That's Manhattan, folks, in the residential areas you could go over 100 years without seeing much difference.

All right let's look at another spot. This time, we'll look at the corner of East 60th Street.
60th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 60th Street in 1938.
Okay, let's see what has changed in 80 years.
60th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 60th Street in June 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, it doesn't look like much has changed at all. That building on the northeast corner of 60 Street is the Metropolitan Club at One East 60th Street. It's had some renovations and facelifts over the years, but it's the same building that it has been since 1893. That's not likely to change anytime soon, either.

Let's move down by Grand Army Plaza.
58th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north from 58th Street in 1938.
Now, this time we do have a noticeable change.
58th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north from 58th Street in June 2019.
The most obvious change is that now we can clearly see the Sherry-Nederland. It was built in 1927, and during the 1930s it was obscured by a wall of sandstone buildings. Now, that entire block of buildings is gone, replaced in 1968 by the General Motors Building and its plaza at 767 Fifth Avenue.

Let's just say that I'm not a big fan of razing all those classic old buildings between 58th and 59th Streets and replacing them with... that. The pointless plaza on the right destroys the effect of Grand Army Plaza on the left, which somewhat resembled an old town square when it was hemmed in on three sides. Now, it's just another open space.

Moving along, let's take a closer look at Central Park. While it may seem like it's just a big, you know, park, there actually are quite a few buildings in it.
The Arsenal, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
The Arsenal in 1938.
Well, that's certainly an old, castle-looking building. It sure looks spooky! Let's see if anything's left of it.
The Arsenal, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
The Arsenal in May 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, there it is! Well, obscured by trees, but trust me, it's all there.

There's actually a debate about how many buildings should be allowed in Central Park. The city could make quite a bundle, for instance by allowing in some fast-food restaurants there. They'd make a killing, too, because there are tons of hungry joggers and walkers and sunbathers in the Park all the time. However, so far those efforts have been resisted by people who think a park should be a park and not an open-air food court.

But the Arsenal at 64th Street has a unique claim to being in Central Park because it was there before there even was a Central Park. It was built in 1847-51 to be a, well, an arsenal. They designed Central Park around the Arsenal, and there is stays. Fortunately, they build such buildings to last back in the old days, and there are more of them remaining than you might think (such as the Archive Building in Greenwich Building). Anyway, the Arsenal was there in 1851, it was there in 1938, it was there in 2019, and it's likely to be there in 2200, too. It houses the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the nearby Central Park Zoo. If you want to reserve a ballfield or a tennis court, that's where you go.
57th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north toward 57th Street in 1938.
Fifth Avenue at 57th Street is one of the most desirable retail areas in the world. Judging from the 1938 scene, it was pretty fancy back in the day, too. The stately maroon car, incidentally, appears to be a 1937 Packard (correct me if I'm wrong).
57th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north toward 57th Street in June 2019.
Well, the look of this block obviously has changed quite a bit. That happens in retail sections of the city. However, in the 1938 photo, look on the other side of the street (57th Street Street). That building hasn't changed much at all. It is the Beaux-Arts style Bergdorf Goodman Building that was built in 1928. Now, if this video had been taken about a dozen years earlier, you would have seen the glorious Cornelius Vanderbilt II House. That is considered a long-lost treasure of New York architecture. But... the Bergdorf Goodman building is pretty memorable, too, and it's likely to be there for quite a while longer despite the 2020 bankruptcy of its parent company, Neiman Marcus.

Not everything was peaches and cream in 1938 despite all the fancy Phaetons and other signs of conspicuous consumption. The Great Depression was still in effect. Let's look at a subtle sign of it in our video.
73rd Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 73rd Street in 1938.
The photo above shows a lovely Brownstone mansion that has seen better days. Those closed-off windows suggest that it has been abandoned and likely is slated for demolition. It's not the only one we see on our 1938 drive, either. I didn't hold out much hope that I would see it still there recently.
73rd Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 73rd Street in May 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, the brownstone is long gone, along so with many others. In its place is 923 Fifth Avenue built in 1950 and converted to condominiums in 1983. Can you imagine a boarded-up building at 73rd Street and 5th Avenue these days? Those were some hard times.

Let's look at an interesting edifice.
70th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
70th Street in 1938.
This wasn't one of your typical Upper East Side mansions of the 1930s. Let's see if it is still there.
70th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
70th Street in June 2019.
Well, there it still is! That's the Lenox Library, completed in 1877 by James Lenox to house his personal book collection. The Lenox Library was old already in 1938, it's still around, and it's still housing those books from James' personal stash.

Let's look at something a little different.
East 66th Street, Fifth Avenue, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Northeast corner of 66th Street in 1938.
There's an empty lot on the northeast corner of 66th Street and 5th Avenue, and there doesn't seem to be any work going on there. What gives? Let's find out what happened to that lot.
East 66th Street, Fifth Avenue, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
We have the right place. The reason we can be certain is that the small building to the north (on the left) is still there, with its distinctive pointed window casings.

That empty lot turned into 1 East 66th Street. It's a pricey coop, you'd better have a couple of million dollars in cash lying around if you want to live there. It was designed by Rosario Candela and completed in the late 1940s.

I haven't been able to find a reason why the lot was empty in the 1930s and not filled for a full decade ca. 1947-49. Perhaps the war intervened? Or, it being New York, maybe the parcel was in litigation the entire time. In any event, building there made a definite improvement over a construction zone.
55th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
55th Street in 1938.
Finally, just as the video fades out, the driver makes it down to 55th Street. That is the location of the St. Regis Hotel, one of the grand hotels of Manhattan. These retailers lease their space from the St. Regis hotel. As can be seen, in 1938 we can see two of those retailers on the southeast corner of 55th Street,  E.M. Gattle & Co. Jewelers and Kayser Hosiery.
55th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
55th Street in June 2019.
Today, E.M. Gattle is long gone (it closed its doors in 1940). Kayser, on the other hand, is still in business as Kayser-Roth, though it long ago left its space in the St. Regis. Replacing them is Harry Winston, a top jeweler. As we like to say here, the more things change, the more they stay the same...

I hope you enjoyed this walk, er, drive down memory lane. If you did, please visit some more of our pages!

2021

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