Ladies' Mile in New York City - a Gilded Age shopping district is born, and preserved
“Many of its older stores are a developer’s dream—soaring spaces with ornate exteriors in the heart of major American cities”
The Gilded Age in the United States generally referred to the post-Civil War period from the 1870s to the turn of the 20th century, when vast industrial fortunes led to lavish lifestyles for those relatively families. Newport, Rhode Island came to be seen as the most fashionable resort for many wealthy industrialists, with such “summer cottages” as The Breakers, Marble House, Rosecliff, The Elms, and others. Eventually, as Henry Flagler extended the railroad down the Atlantic coast of Florida, St. Augustine became a winter destination with the opening in 1888 of the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College), before the winter resorts farther south at Palm Beach, Miami Beach, and the Florida Keys became popular.
The US economy during this period not only produced vast industrial fortunes; it also led to rapid wage growth for workers (the highest wage growth in the nation’s history) as well as significant economic inequality. Taken together, larger cities gained growing populations of people with disposable income. One effect of this can be measured by the rise of department stores from the mid-19th century on.
In New York City, stores such as the Marble Palace on Broadway (1846) were followed by the establishment of stores whose names are still known today, including Macy’s and Lord & Taylor. Department stores were designed to provide for the increasingly luxurious lifestyles for their predominantly female clientele. By the 1880s, the retail shopping district relocated uptown to an area that became known as “Ladies’ Mile,” eventually settling on Fifth Avenue, near where numerous Gilded Age mansions also were constructed.
Most of Manhattan’s Gilded Age mansions have been demolished, but the flagship stores of these iconic department and luxury stores remain, and these historic buildings contribute heavily to the bottom lines of these companies. Lord & Taylor’s flagship store (built 1914) at Fifth Avenue and 38th Streets, recently was sold to WeWork, a new economy business that caters to start-up ventures. Although Lord & Taylor’s will continue to operate out of the building, they will no longer own the historic space. Other companies on New York’s famed Fifth Avenue shopping district have embraced their historic flagship stores.
Bergdorf Goodman was originally started by Herman Bergdorf in 1899 as a tailor shop near Union Square. In 1901, he partnered with merchant Edwin Goodman and the renamed Bergdorf Goodman moved to a location on 32nd Street near “Ladies Mile.” In 1914, the store relocated to Fifth Avenue where Rockefeller Center now stands. And in 1928, the company relocated again, building its current store on Fifth Avenue, on the former site of Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion. The Beaux Arts flagship store has undergone several renovations, the most recent in 2015.
The flagship store of Cartier jewelers occupies the original Cartier mansion on Fifth Avenue at 52nd Street. The extravagant townhouse was built in 1905 for another owner but was acquired by Pierre Cartier in 1917. The mansion recently was subjected to a thorough 2 ½- year renovation that embraced and updated its historic architecture, reopening in 2016 to rave reviews (see here and here).
Tiffany’s moved from its Union Square home (built 1870) to a location on Fifth Avenue at 36th Street in 1906. The company moved to its current Fifth Avenue location at 57th Street in 1940. The company is not only famous for its jewels—it solidified its place in American pop culture with a starring role in a 1961 film starring Audrey Hepburn. The company has embraced this role with the addition of a café to its flagship store so now anyone can enjoy “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Macy’s was founded in Haverhill, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century but moved to New York City in 1858. Its original New York location was at the corner of 14th Street and 6th Avenue, but moved to its new location on Broadway Avenue at 34th Street (Herald Square) in 1904, expanding over the years to occupy nearly the entire block. (The photo above showing Macy's Herald Square store in 1907 is in the public domain). The flagship store underwent extensive renovations 2012-2015 for $400 million, even keeping the famous wooden elevators. The Palladian façade is familiar to anyone who has watched the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, sponsored by Macy’s since 1924. Today, Macy’s historic and more modern buildings are now worth more than the company’s market value!
The New York Preservation Archive Project has been hard at work compiling digital information on numerous historic sites in New York City. The Gilded Age shopping district known as the Ladies' Mile is one of their projects.
The New York Preservation Archive Project
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By Michael Corkery The New York Times
November 23, 2017