In 1954, Wanamaker's announced it would close its store complex on the blocks between 4th Avenue and Broadway, 8th and 10th Streets, citing a new focus on suburban stores. The older store, the 1862 A.T. Stewart "Iron Palace" was already being used as offices, having been leased to the U.S. Goverment some years earlier. In December 1954, the store closed its doors.
In March 1956, a group acquired the site of the "Iron Palace" with plans to build a complex of 478 apartments. Demolition began a few months later, scheduled to take four months. Then on July 14, a massive fire broke out.
An amazing newsreel from British Pathé. Click the image to view the video, or go here to launch the video on its own page.
The Times reported the blaze took 25 hours to control with 187 firefighters hurt. The Broadway BMT subway (today's N/R) and the Lexington IRT (today's 4/5/6) were closed, as were the surrounding streets, including Broadway and 4th Avenue. Thousands of site-seers surrounded the site to catch a glimpse of the calamity:
There was plenty to see...The area within Twelfth Street on the north, Eighth Street and Astor Place on the south, University Place on the west and Third Avenue on the east resembled a hastily constructed battle scene...From the gray stone pile of the Wanamaker building, which resembled a gaping, bombed-out shell, billowed acrid smoke, intermittently shot through with licks of flame.
New York Times, July 16, 1956
Crowds gather to watch the fire in two shots by photographer Robert Frank.
The top photo seems to be taken from 9th Street at 4th Avenue looking downtown (note the Cooper Union Foundation Building in the background).
The Miracle of Astor Place, Transit Magazine, November 1956
Foundation work for the Stewart House apartments began in April 1959 and the project was completed in 1960.
770 Broadway and home to KMart.
Ryerson & Burnham Collection
Here's the building today.
Ryerson & Burnham Collection
Some stills worth noting from the British Pathé newsreel:
New York Times References
- An announcement of the closing of the store:
- Stories of the final customers and Wanamaker's staff:
- The buildings are sold to an investment syndicate:
- A group purchases the northern site to build apartments:
- WANAMAKER FIRE IMPERILS IRT LINE; 77 HURT AT SCENE; Service Between Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Central Stations Is Halted 'COLLAPSE' THREATENED Police Doubt Subway Pillars Will Stand--Cavanagh Fears Street Buckle (July 15, 1956)
- EAST SIDE IRT AND BMT KNOCKED OUT BY WATER IN FIRE AT WANAMAKER'S; 187 FIREMEN HURT IN 25-HOUR FIGHT; STATIONS FLOODED Service on IRT South to 23d St. Due to Be Restored Today Foundations to Be Checked WANAMAKER FIRE HALTS SUBWAYS (July 16, 1956)
- Traffic Jams Are Expected Today in Area of Wanamaker Fire; AUTOS REROUTED OFF FOURTH AVE. Transit Unit Fears Roadway May Collapse Because of Flood in Subway Tunnel (July 16, 1956)
- Big Downtown Fire Draws Thousands; Defense Workers Help Police With Crowds; TRAFFIC REDUCED TO A MERE CRAWL (July 16, 1956)
- BMT TIE-UP ENDED; FULL IRT REPAIRS MAY TAKE 3 WEEKS; Train Stalled by Wanamaker Fire Is Hauled Out in a Daring Maneuver STATION IS PUMPED OUT (July 17, 1956)
- IRT at Astor Place Gets Concrete Bed (July 19, 1956)
- WANAMAKER SITE QUIET.; Viewers at Scene of Fire Dwindle to a Few (July 23, 1956)