Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A.T. Stewart, John Wanamaker, the Great Fire, and the Great Flood (Part II)

Ed. Note: If you missed Part I, you can check it out here.

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).
I haven't been able to pinpoint this second photo, although I have some ideas. Guesses?

With an estimated 50,000,000 gallons of water used on the fire, the Astor Place station was completely flooded.  The track foundation for the IRT line was washed away, and the Transit Authority feared that 4th Avenue might itself collapse.  The BMT and IRT lines were completely shut down for two days and normal service was not restored for five days.  A week later, 4th Avenue remained closed from 8th Street to 11th Street as repairs continued.

July 1956: A great shot of the construction activity in Astor Place after the flood, taken from the northwest corner of 9th Street and 4th Avenue.  Note the scaffolding at the far left from the demolition of another landmark, Bible House, underway at the same time.  Also note the billboard advertising the 1955-56 World's Fair in the Dominican Republic instead of the Coca-Cola display made famous by Rudy Burckhardt.
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.

A view of Wanamaker's "new building" in 1933.  This view looks west across 4th Avenue and Lafayette Street. The building survives today as 770 Broadway and home to KMart.
Ryerson & Burnham Collection

Here's the building today.

Some stills worth noting from the British Pathé newsreel:
  • At 0:36: Appears to be looking down Broadway (east side) across 8th Street at the corner where the Gap now stands (it was a Manhattan Savings Bank in 1956).
  • At 0:42: A ghostly image looking up 4th Avenue from 9th to 10th Streets, note the shadow of the Con Ed tower in the upper right.

New York Times References

Coverage of the Wanamaker's store closing and sale by the New York Times:
Coverage of the Wanamaker's fire by the New York Times, July 15-19, 1956:


EV Grieve said...


Jeremiah Moss said...

great stuff!

an interesting point i read about the closing of Wanamaker's--that when Wanamaker's was gone, its absence contributed to the death of nearby Book Row. apparently, husbands would shop for books while their wives shopped at Wanamaker's. those husbands stopped coming after Wanamaker's was gone.

jw said...

thanks for this - I've always thought the "new" Wanamaker building was beautiful, so well proportioned, but never knew the whole story about the older building.

cvinzant said...

Amazing stuff. It's certainly fun to see a video of the neighborhood back then. I wonder if the water did lasting damage. So where was the building that burned? Was it on the north side of 9th Street?

pinhead said...

Yes, the old building was north of 9th Street. This photo might help orient you.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating story. Great coverage of an often overlooked area. My father was born in the neighborhood and remembers watching the original building burn. The damage to the IRT station was extraordinary as well.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Wow, I had no idea about any of this. Thanks for sharing your research!

~evilsugar25 said...

i echo everyone's sentiments - GREAT job... i would have never found that newsreel. amazing. can't wait for the next installment... and the next... and the next... :)

Kathyo said...

My uncle Edward O'Connell was a firefighter at the Wanamakers Fire. He suffered a heart attack & died after fighting the fire. Since I was 4 years old when he died, I never knew him & knew nothing him except "he died fighting the Wanamakers fire." Thanks for filling in a lot of blanks about that event.