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A look at the mysterious histories of NYC’s squares

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Thursday, March 10, 2016, 9:34 AM

The Flatiron Building has long been one of the iconic structures of the Madison Square area.ASSOCIATED PRESS/Chase Gaewski/New York Daily News

The Flatiron Building has long been one of the iconic structures of the Madison Square area.

New York City doesn’t have any squares. Sure, there’s Times Square, Union Square and Herald Square — but they’re not squares, not in the traditional sense.

“Americans just call it a square if it’s bigger than a breadbox,” Lisa Keller, a SUNY Purchase history professor, told the Daily News.

“They called them squares because when they started they were emulating British open spaces, but as time goes by Americans don’t have anything that looks like a square.” In London, she explained, squares are actually square-shaped and typically feature green space — which is pretty much the exact opposite of New York’s best-known square, Times Square.

Despite their non-squarish nature, here’s a look at the sometimes surprising histories of the best-known “squares” of New York.

Madison Square: A Garden, a Circus, a Graveyard, a Barracks

As New Yorkers today well know, Madison Square Garden is, confusingly, not in Madison Square — but that wasn’t always the case.

What is now Madison Square was once a 240-acre plot known as the Parade, according to “The Encyclopedia of New York City.” In 1807, the Parade was set aside for an arsenal, a barracks and a potter’s field — a mass burial ground for paupers. Just a few years later in 1814 the square was renamed after the country’s fourth president, James Madison.

A few decades after that, Madison Square Park opened in 1847 and the area soon became a classy brownstone neighborhood, home to the likes of Theodore Roosevelt.

Then the circus came to town.

P.T. Barnum’s Hippodrome opened in 1873 and until it was replaced six years later by the first Madison Square Garden. Although inside it was “kind of like an adult Disneyland,” according to New York University history professor Thomas Bender, the dirty and unimpressive structure on the corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street was razed in 1889 and replaced with an elegant $ 3 million Moorish structure.

The second-tallest building in the city at the time, it was home to everything from a concert hall to The Westminster Kennel Club shows to apartments to a rooftop cabaret. The facility had some ups and downs and changes of ownership, but Madison Square Garden finally left Madison Square for good in 1925.

Despite the Garden’s departure, the area is still home to some of the city’s most iconic buildings, including the Met Life Tower and the Flatiron Building.

Herald Square : Night Clubs and Newspapers

Herald is one of a few squares formed by Broadway’s diagonal path through the city, which means it forms a familiar bow-tie shape. Herald Square is the northern part of that bow-tie — or at least it has been ever since the New York Herald staked its headquarters in an Italianate building on 35th Street.

The city had acquired the area back in 1846, when Broadway was still called Bloomingdale Road, according to NYC Parks. In the second half of the 19th century the square was at the heart of the nightclub district known as the Tenderloin. Then it was home to to the Herald and by the turn of the century it was home to a slew of other publishers, too.

The southern part of the bow-tie is known as Greeley Square, named after the publisher of a competing paper, the New York Tribune. Horace Greeley founded the paper in 1841, making it the first daily Whig news rag, according to the “Encyclopedia of New York City.”

Though in 1890 he would be commemorated by a bronze Alexander Doyle monument in the square, Greeley is perhaps best known for advising people to get out of the city, according to NYC Parks. The newspaperman was the speaker of the old-time saying that later inspired the naming of an earworming 80s band: “Go West, young man, go West.”

Something’s moving in this cinemagraph of Herald Square.

Hudson Square: Take Me to Church… and the Rotary

Hudson Square hasn’t been called Hudson Square for a couple hundred years – and today it doesn’t really exist.

Sited in the square between Varick, Hudson, Beach (now Ericsson Place) and Laight streets in what is now called TriBeCa, the former Hudson Square began as swampland granted to the Trinity Church Corporation in 1705, according to NYC Parks. Although it remained unused for a century, in 1803 it was officially dubbed Hudson Square.

Once St. John’s Chapel went up on the eastern side, the area became St. John’s Park.

“It was one of the most elegant parts of the city in the 1840s or 50s,” Bender said. Like Gramercy Park, it was “very much modeled on English squares.”

The former Hudson Square is the inside of a traffic rotary now.

The area went down a bit over the years and then, as the New York Times reported in 1867, the “omnivorous appetite of improvement” overtook the area and the park was sold to the Hudson River Railroad Company. It became a fancy three-story brick railroad depot, and the remaining wealthy neighbors immediately moved away and mansions gave way to sorry tenements.

In 1920, the area’s purpose changed again with the construction of the Holland Tunnel, named after the chief engineer who died before the project’s completion. Today, St. John’s Park is the Holland Tunnel Rotary – though Google Maps still labels the sad little grassy area in the middle as St. John’s Park.

Lincoln Square: The Square with the Mystery Name

Though it’s called a square, “Lincoln Square hasn’t been thought very much of as a square historically,” Bender said.

Before about 1900, the area was known as Empire Square, according to a 2005 New York Times article. In 1905 developer John L. Miller started construction on a theater on 65th Street and in May 1906 — before construction was finished — the city’s Board of Aldermen approved a resolution anointing the pair of triangles formed by Broadway and Columbus as Lincoln Square.

Logically, one would assume the area was named after the former president, but there’s actually no proof of that.

What’s moving in this image of Lincoln Square?

The area has also been known by non-presidential monikers, including San Juan Hill, which housed a large number of Puerto Rican immigrants. San Juan Hill was the setting for “West Side Story,” although many of the tenements were torn down after the filming of the 1961 musical as part of a controversial urban renewal project spearheaded by famed city planned Robert Moses.

As part of that urban renewal, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was built — and in the process somewhere around 1,500 black and Puerto Rican families lost their homes, according to “The Encyclopedia of New York City.”

Reservoir Square: Potter’s Field, Palace and Reservoir

What is now Bryant Park had an ignominious start as a mid-1800s potter’s field. Later, it became home to the reservoir for the city’s first water system, the much-celebrated Croton system.

“That was built in 1842. It was a great water system,” Bender said. The 50-foot-high reservoir took up the eastern side of the site but, according to the Bryant Park Corporation, it wasn’t until 1870 that the western side officially became a park known as Reservoir Square.

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The Sixth Avenue El is shown passing the 42nd Street stop in 1936, with Bryant Park at the right.

Starting in 1853, Reservoir Square was home to the Crystal Palace, a grand and supposedly fireproof exhibition hall constructed for America’s first World’s Fair.

However, the palace burned in 1858 and the reservoir was demolished at the turn of the century to make way for the public library.

During the Civil War, the square became an encampment for Union troops and afterward, in 1884, the park was renamed for William Cullen Bryant, the poet and longtime editor of the paper known today as the New York Post.

For most of the 1920s, the park was closed due to construction – the subway was coming through. In 1934, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses oversaw a redesign of the park, complete with stone balustrades, a fountain and a large central lawn.

Despite its grandeur, the park went downhill and by the 1970s was a notorious drug-dealing hotspot until, according to “The Encyclopedia of New York City,” the Bryant Park Corporation came in and did a decade-long renovation.

Times Square: Suburbia Gone Seedy

In the 1980s, Times Square was the seedy site of strip clubs and XXX movies — but a century earlier, it was quite the opposite. Starting in the 1830s, the Astor family made the area into an exclusive neighborhood, according to “The Encyclopedia of New York City.”

In the 1890s, the area took a downhill turn and by the turn of the century it was home to so-called silk hat brothels. At that point, it was still known as Long Acre Square, but that would soon change.

In 1904, the New York Times opened a brand-new 25-story skyscraper on 43rd Street, and the area thereafter became known as Times Square. Two years later, publisher Adolph Ochs held New Year’s Eve festivities in the square, inaugurating a tradition still in place today.

By the start of the first world war, the area had become a theater district as playhouses began migrating north along Broadway. Times Square was a booming cultural center — until the stock market crashed in 1929. As the Depression wore on, upscale playhouses gradually converted to grinder theaters and burlesques, peep shows and penny arcades moved in.

The remaining Broadway productions suffered a fatal blow with the onset of World War II. Despite regular and repeated clean-up efforts, the area stayed seedy — as commemorated on film in 1976’s “Taxi Driver.”

Finally, in 1995 new zoning laws paved the way for a family-friendly Times Square and grindhouses and peep shows gave way to chain theaters and Disney.

Times Square is on the move in this cinemagraph.

Tompkins Square: Riots and Mayhem

Although it was first called Clinton Square, Tompkins Square was originally a swamp. Then, John Jacob Astor sold it to the city in 1834 and it was promptly renamed after New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins and opened as Tompkins Square Park.

In the 1860s, the park was made into a military parade ground, but it reverted to a park a decade later.

The surrounding area was a working class neighborhood populated by Germans and Irish immigrants, but the square became known as a protest place.

“It was an area somewhat like Union Square, in that it was a major area for labor meetings and events,” Bender said.

In 1874, the square saw a “Blood or Bread” riot when out-of-work protestors sparred with cops, but in later decades labor organizers made good use of it, too.

One of the last violent demonstrations in the park was in 1988 — when authorities came to evict the drug dealers who’d taken over.

Washington Square Park: From Potter’s Field to the First Suburb

Before it was a park, this Greenwich Village square was once a site for public hangings, according to the NYC encyclopedia.

It didn’t start that way, though. Originally it was a marshy area, but according to Bender it was farmland until the British took over the city in the 1660s.

“The Dutch allowed their slaves to earn money on the side; for something like 20 peppercorns of rent they could farm patches of what was then very far from the city,” he said. The British put an end to the practice when they kicked out the Dutch.

From 1797 to 1826, it was used as a potter’s field and also as a spot for executions. Then, in 1827 the city got the land for use as a public park, and Washington Square Park was built shortly thereafter.

Between the development of large Greek revival homes and the growth of the newly founded New York University, the area became “kind of an elite neighborhood,” Bender said. In fact, it became the first suburbs.

“It’s the first neighborhood in which men who were going to work would leave their houses and have some sort of transportation downtown to work. That’s the first instance of that in New York City,” he said.

The park is named after George Washington and, accordingly, the iconic Stanford White-designed Washington Arch was erected there at the end of the 19th century.

Union Square: The Working Man’s Square

Though the name sounds like a reference to northern forces in the Civil War, Union Square is named for its geography. A potter’s field until 1815, the then-oval-shaped area was known as Union Place because of the number of streets that came together there.

It only became a square because developer Samuel B. Ruggles nagged the city to make it so — and in the 1830s they did. The square opened as a public park in 1839 and became the site of all manner of mass gatherings including, appropriately, a 100,000-man Civil War rally in support of the Union cause.

When Tiffany’s opened in the 1870s, the park was redesigned — but the hoighty toighty shopping district turned to a manufacturing hub by the 1880s. Famously, the first huge Labor Day celebration was held there in September 1882.

After that, Union Square became a place for workers to rally — and in the 60s it became a place to burn draft cards. By the 70s, things had taken a turn for the worse and the shabby square was populated by drug dealers and pimps, but the two decades of improvements that followed have once again made it into one of the beautiful squares of Manhattan.


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