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Ladies' Mile Historic District

Location

New York, NY
United States

West 23rd Street in what is now the Ladies' Mile Historic District, ca. 1908. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

Sometimes listed as Flatiron District, Photo District, Midtown South.

Description

The Ladies' Mile Historic District historically served as a commercial retail center for New Yorkers in the mid to late 1800s and into the early 20th century, and was considered the "heart of the Gilded Age1." The name, Ladies' Mile, was coined because of the fashionable row of department stores located on Broadway where women routinely shopped. According to Jack Taylor, president of The Drive to Protect the Ladies' Mile District, "All these great buildings, all this shopping, engendered a feeling of opulence. And because it was so popular, that made it safe for women to go shopping unaccompanied by men for the first time2." The district contains a myriad of beautiful Beaux-Arts, Neo-Renaissance, Romanesque Revival, and Queen Anne style department stores, loft buildings and several incarnations of early skyscrapers. Much of the architecture was a direct reflection of the City Beautiful Movement inspired by the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The area served as a vibrant social center for shoppers, diners and entertainers and was described as having a "Champagne sparkle3." It was also the home of the literary giants Edith Wharton and Washington Irving. The area originated as a commercial district in 1862, when A.T. Stewart moved his department store from Lower Manhattan to 9th Street and Broadway. Other stores soon followed this trend by moving into the area and eventually taking up a generous portion of the district. In 1878 an elevated train, called the El, was constructed on Sixth Avenue, further promoting more commerce to an already thriving area. The development in this neighborhood followed a pattern of specialized mixed-use. Broadway served as an entertainment center with concert halls, galleries, restaurants and department stores like Lord & Taylor and Arnold Constable4. Sixth Avenue served as a later retail center with department stores such as B. Altman, R.H. Macy, and Siegel-Cooper, while Fifth Avenue became a center for office buildings.The architecture at this time revealed major changes in building technology as the growing needs of consumers and workers changed. An example of this change is the Flatiron Building designed by D.H. Burnham in 1902. An early skyscraper, it combines Gothic and Renaissance styles inspired by the Greek column. Its most unusual feature is its shape due to the placement on a triangular block, yet the Flatiron fits harmoniously within the area's smaller office buildings and department stores. Another noteworthy construction was the Siegel-Cooper Dry Goods store, designed in 1896. The massive Beaux-Arts 6-story department store took up almost an entire city block. The design of the building was inspired by the monumental buildings from the Chicago World's Fair. The store boasted 190,000 visitors a day and employed 8,000 clerks. It was referred to as the "big store, a city in itself5." The economic prosperity once found in the Ladies' Mile district would soon vanish, as stores began to move uptown and the economic downturn of the Great Depression reverberated across New York City. After World War II the area became dilapidated and vacant. However, during the mid to late 1980s, the area was revitalized as new business owners and advertising and publishing firms re-inhabited the area6. The Ladies' Mile Historic District was officially designated in 1989 and continues to encapsulate its historic charm for new shoppers and retailers.

Designation Status

Designated the Ladies' Mile Historic District in 1989

Preservation Campaigns

  • Origins of the Campaign

    The Ladies' Mile area was designated as a New York City Historic District due to the efforts of numerous advocacy groups. The impetus for the designation began in the early 1980s as the visual deterioration of the neighborhood caused preservationists to fear its potential loss. In 1983, Margaret Moore and her husband Truman Moore published the book End of the Road for Ladies' Mile? which contained a series of essays and photographs cataloging the "lost" history of the Ladies' Mile neighborhood1.

    Preservationist Anthony C. Wood, who was the chairman of the Historic Districts Council at the time, also fought to get the district designated. He influenced copy-editor Jack Taylor, who had fought to save the Lüchow's Building, to get involved in the preservation campaign. They formed the group The Drive to Protect the Ladies' Mile District, serving as the umbrella organization for the Union Square Community Coalition, Chelsea Historical Association, The Society for the Architecture of the City, The Committee to Save the City, The Victorian Society in America, The Junior League of the City of New York, and the Historic Districts Council2.

    Athenaeum Club

    It was the 1986 demolition of the 4-story brownstone which housed the Athenaeum Club for the literary community that galvanized these groups and their urgent approach for designating the district3. Developers reached an agreement with preservationists who were against the design of the 21-story condominium to be built where the former club once stood. The developer agreed to top the building with a mansard roof in order to harmonize the new construction with the historic styles analogous to the Ladies' Mile district.

    Opposition

    The main opposition to designation came from the Real Estate Board of New York, who claimed that regulatory control of buildings within the district "would make it more difficult for property owners to function on a daily basis"4. They also argued that not all of the buildings within the district merited landmark status. In response to this, Jack Taylor remarked, "To designate piecemeal would be a travesty, for the gaps and inconsequential structures are negligible5."

    Designation

    Advocacy groups banned together to promote its designation. They were able to get the support of several celebrities, including Woody Allen, Diana Vreeland, and Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival. In addition, these groups raised public awareness by providing walking tours and exhibitions educating the public about the area's rich history. Several business owners in the proposed Ladies' Mile Historic District also supported landmark designation. Israel Taub, who owned the former Adams Dry Goods store and the former B. Altman store, testified in favor of the district's designation6.

    Furthermore, the media's coverage also became a conduit for the success of its designation. A New York Times editorial that appeared on September 8, 1986 commended the efforts of the various preservation organizations7. The book End of the Road for Ladies' Mile?, by Truman and Margaret Moore, was an effective tool for demonstrating to the public the significance for protecting the buildings in the district.

    The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Ladies' Mile as a historic district in 1989. The district contains over 440 buildings in 28 blocks8.

    1 Brozan, Nadine. "Panel Gives Ladies' Mile Historic District Status." New York Times May 3, 1989.

    2"Loving Ladies' Mile." New York Times editorial, September 8, 1986.

    3Mathiasen, Karen. Interview with Jack Taylor. October 13, 2007.

    4 Brozan, Nadine. "Panel Gives Ladies' Mile Historic District Status." _New York Times_ May 3, 1989.

    5 Dunlap, David W. "Historic District Being Weighed For Retail Hub." New York Times June 11, 1986.

    6 Mathiasen, Karen. Interview with Jack Taylor. October 13, 2007.

    7 "Loving Ladies' Mile." New York Times editorial, September 8, 1986.

    8 "Ladies' Mile District Wins Landmark Status." New York Times May 7, 1989.

Archives, Personal files, and Ephemera

Mathiasen, Karen. Interview with Jack Taylor. October 13, 2007.New York Preservation Archive Project174 East 80th StreetNew York, NY 10075(212) [email protected]://www.nypap.org