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How West Broadway Became One of NYC's Most Important Streets

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A detail from the 1754 Maerschalk map of New York City.
A detail from the 1754 Maerschalk map of New York City.
Courtesy the Library of Congress

Lower Manhattan is filled with odd streets, from the obscure intersection of Jay and Staple (where you can own your own skybridge!), to Mill Lane and Edgar Street, which duke it out to be the city's shortest thoroughfare. But none are quirkier than West Broadway. The name alone has perplexed New Yorkers for generations. Is it really called that because it happens to be west of Broadway? (Yes.) Leading to the confusion is the fact that over the years the street has gone by so many monikers—Chapel Street, College Place, Laurens Street, South Fifth Avenue, LaGuardia Place—that it can be difficult to sort through what happened when. These days, New Yorkers have a tendency to take West Broadway for granted, but this short thoroughfare linking the World Trade Center to Washington Square provides a compact narrative of the development of the city, beginning with its life as a country lane and ending with today's multi-million dollar condo conversions in Soho and Tribeca.

On one of the earliest plans of New York, the 1728-30 Bradford Map of Manhattan, almost everything west of Broadway and north of Trinity Church appears as an empty lot labelled the "King's Farm." This was a huge tract of land given to Trinity by Queen Anne in 1705; it ran through modern-day Tribeca and Soho all the way to the West Village, which made Trinity then—and now—one of the largest landholders in New York City.

Fourteen years after Bradford published his map, city surveyor Francis Maerschalck drew up a new city plan which showed that streets actually had been run through the King's Farm, including our first look at what would become West Broadway: three blocks of Chappel [sic] Street from Barkly (Barclay) to Warren Street. Maerschalck's map ends at Warren Street where a palisade had been hastily erected in 1745 to ward off a possible French attack during King George's War. Had the map gone further, it would have shown Chapel Street dead-ending just north of the defensive wall in a large swamp.

The Bradford Plan. Image courtesy the Boston Public Library.

Many street names in the King's Farm area honored Trinity Church: Vesey and Barclay had both been rectors of the parish; Church Street ran from the rear of Trinity's cemetery to the front of its "chapel of ease," St. Paul's. Though the name of Chapel Street is sometimes erroneously ascribed to St. John's Chapel on Varick Street, there was never an actual chapel on this road. Indeed, the abundance of ecclesiastical names may simply have been an attempt by the influential parish to fight against the area's growing reputation as the city's red light district. When future treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton started attending King's College in 1774, the school stood at the corner of Murray and Chapel Streets. At that time, as many as five hundred prostitutes worked the area. The college students affectionately dubbed it "holy ground."

The swamp that blocked the progress of Chapel Street was known as Lispenard's Meadow after the family that owned much of the property. (Streets such as Lispenard, Leonard, and Anthony—now Worth—were all named after family members.) According to the 1843 Geological History of Manhattan, the "middle of the swamp ran through that part of the city on which West Broadway is now built, crossed [the yet-to-be-built] Canal Street and ended…[at] Spring Street." The swamp connected to the nearby Collect Pond, which by 1802 was becoming a stinking cesspool. To clean up the area, the city began draining both the Collect Pond and Lispenard's Meadow in 1807 via the canal that would eventually become Canal Street, allowing streets like Chapel Street to run north of the palisade for the first time. This northward expansion happened to coincide with the publication of the city's new street grid, called the Commissioners' Plan, which laid out the city north of Houston Street. While it would take years for the population to move far enough uptown to begin settling those newly numbered streets and avenues, streets west of Broadway were soon run to meet Chapel Street, creating a new neighborhood, which would later be called the Lower West Side, and, eventually, Tribeca.

One of the first people to buy land in the new neighborhood was Gideon Tucker—a sometime politician and owner of a plaster factory [PDF]—who erected a combined house and store at the corner of White and West Broadway in 1808-1809, now the street's oldest building.

The Gideon Tucker house. Photo by James Nevius.

The building, former home of the Liquor Store bar and currently a J. Crew Men's store, has a nostalgic feel. That's actually always been part of its charm—even when Tucker constructed it, its gambrel roof and keystone lintels were already years out of date, hearkening back to the Colonial era. Perhaps Tucker had old-fashioned sensibilities or perhaps he knew what would sell. Soon, other houses popped up along the street, including 135 West Broadway between Duane and Thomas, which was built ca. 1810 and still stands.

Chapel Street terminated at the canal (image at right, via Museum of the City of New York), which would not be filled in and become a paved street until 1819. Meanwhile, north of the canal, in the area that is now Soho, a series of streets were laid out and—perhaps tapping into the same nostalgia Gideon Tucker was trying to evoke—were named for heroes of the American Revolution. Though most of these Colonial figures have faded from our civic consciousness, school children of 1810 knew these streets' namesakes from their history books. They were studying epic poems about "Fearless Wooster [who] aids the sacred cause"; Mercer who "advanc'd an early death"; along with Sullivan, MacDougal, and "Young Laurens" who "grac'd a father's patriot name." While Young Laurens may have been the brave one, it's his patriotic father, Henry, who is the namesake of Laurens Street, the extension of Chapel Street north of the canal. The elder Laurens was president of the Continental Congress and was held as a prisoner in the Tower of London during the Revolution—the only American ever held there. He had little or no connection to New York.

While Chapel Street prospered, development was slow on the Laurens Street side of the canal. Even though the swamp had been drained by 1818, lots that still required "filling in" were being advertised in the New-York Evening Post as being a "great bargain." Two years later, the city began contemplating laying the first sewer on the street. In contrast, a brick house at the corner of Leonard Street and Chapel Street, just a few blocks downtown, was being sold in 1802 with a mortgage of $1,200. Since many New Yorkers struggled to earn a dollar a day, the area of Chapel Street north of the old palisade had clearly established itself in just a little over a decade as a middle-class enclave, while Laurens Street was still an unimproved backwater.

Chapel Place saw its first "re-branding" in 1831, when the Common Council voted  to rename the southernmost blocks of the street to College Place. The new name honored the fact that Columbia College (the former King's College) was the street's oldest and most prestigious resident. Though the school would move uptown less than three decades after the street's renaming, the College Place designation remained in use well into the twentieth century. Today, however, only one remnant of this era is visible: a carved sign on the side of the building at Murray Street and West Broadway.

Around the same time that College Place came into existence, the rest of Chapel Street was beginning to be called West Broadway, though the designation took some time to become official. According to Henry Moscow's Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan's Street Names and their Origins, the name was coined in the hope that it would relieve traffic jams on nearby Broadway, which had established itself as New York's primary shopping district. (East Broadway, which runs east from Chatham Square, appeared around the same time and, according to Moscow, for the same reason.) Presumably, the idea was that by just switching to the name "Broadway," Chapel Street would become more desirable for merchants and thus draw shops and lure shoppers.

Columbia College, at Park Place and Chapel Street, in 1828. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

To that end, a group of merchants petitioned the Common Council to officially rename all of Chapel and Laurens Street as West Broadway in 1837—and they were shot down. The council argued that Chapel Street was both too narrow and too short to deserve the "Broadway" appellation. But no one was waiting for the Common Council's approval; newspaper stories in 1836 are already referring to "West Broadway (late Chapel Street)" and by the 1840s, the name was well established, even in official city documents.

The Hudson River Railroad Depot and Girard House, c. 1851. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

In 1852, West Broadway was transformed—almost overnight—into one of the most important streets in the city with the opening of the depot of the Hudson River Railroad at the corner of Chambers Street. For the first time, commuter trains brought a new breed of suburbanites [PDF] directly to the burgeoning Financial District, making West Broadway the daily entrypoint for coming to work downtown. Meanwhile, as New Yorkers moved out of Lower Manhattan for developments like those on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, West Broadway also became a conduit for urban commuters.

In 1846, James Boorman, one of the key investors in the Hudson River Railroad, snapped up the land opposite the train station's future home and built a four-story building. When the railroad first began operating in 1849, it only ran north of 30th Street; however, when the line was finally extended down to Chambers in 1852, Boorman's building—which had been functioning as a boarding house up to that point—transformed into a hotel called Girard House. A decade later, the hotel was heightened to six floors and redubbed the Cosmopolitan Hotel, the name it still bears to this day. Though the interiors have been stripped of any 19th-century touches, the Cosmopolitan is arguably the oldest hotel in operation in Manhattan and a rare reminder of West Broadway's central role in the city's business life.

The coming of the railroad may have brought commuters to the area, but it ushered in other demographic changes, as well. In 1853—feeling hemmed in by the commercial developments in the area—Columbia College began preparing to move uptown from its College Place home, eventually relocating to Madison Avenue in 1857. As more piers were built along the Hudson River, the area also became both more working class and more African-American. In the years leading up to the Civil War, David Ruggles, the noted black abolitionist, lived at 36 Lispenard Street, just a block from West Broadway, and James McCune Smith, a pioneering African-American doctor, had a private practice and pharmacy on West Broadway where he saw both white and black patients. In 1852, William M. Bobo released a racist guidebook to the city called Glimpses of New York, in which he complains that while West Broadway "is capable of being made one of the handsomest streets in the city," it instead is mostly derelict. He goes on to excoriate the many African Americans he sees there in their "old rickety shanties" or "standing on the corners or trolloping about from cellar to cellar." It's not surprising that during the Civil War Draft Riots, the West Broadway area became a target. On June 16, 1863, at the height of the disturbance, police were dispatched to "Thomas Street, near West Broadway, where, coming upon a mob destroying the dwellings of colored people they made a charge and scattered it."

North of Canal Street, the thoroughfare was still known as Laurens Street, and it was developing quite a different reputation. The direct heir to the earlier "holy ground," it became known as "Rotten Row" and was home to numerous brothels. New York's prostitutes have always plied their trade in close proximity to the city's more upscale neighborhoods, and Rotten Row was no exception. In the years just before and after the Civil War, the stretch of Broadway north of Chambers Street became the center of Manhattan's tourist trade, with high-end retail shops, hotels, theaters, and restaurants—a sort of 19th-century equivalent to Times Square. So it's no surprise that some of those tourists walked the four short blocks to Laurens Street's houses of ill repute. One place on the corner of Houston and West Broadway was described in The Gentlemen's Directory—an early guidebook to bordellos—as "a first class house with eight lady boarders. Everything is here arranged in the first style, while the bewitching smiles of fairy-like creatures who devote themselves to the services of Cupid are unrivalled by any of the fine ladies who walk Broadway in silks and satins new."

Laurens Street's reputation is likely the reason why, in 1870, a plan was put forward to drop the name altogether. William "Boss" Tweed had just secured "home rule" for the city, removing Albany oversight from much of the city's decision-making, and though it might have made logical sense to name the whole thoroughfare West Broadway at this time, the city and Tweed had other plans. Tweed backed a plan to push Fifth Avenue through Washington Square. As New York's Deputy Street Commissioner, he had already overseen the widening of Laurens Street; Tweed now wanted to rename it "South Fifth Avenue," hoping to boost property values by tying Laurens Street's fortunes to the more illustrious Fifth Avenue north of the park. With Tweed there was always an ulterior motive, so it seems likely that he—or his cronies—owned property on Laurens Street, and thus it was their fortunes he wanted to improve.

To confuse matters further, the new South Fifth Avenue was renumbered north-to-south, with No. 1 being just south of Washington Square. Because this new plan coincided with a boom in new cast-iron construction, prime examples of this now-defunct numbering scheme remain. At 422 West Broadway, for example, the number 130—its South Fifth Avenue address—is forever molded into the columns flanking the entryway. Similarly, the building that now houses the Anthropologie store at 375 West Broadway is adorned with its 159 South Fifth Avenue address on the cast-iron facade.

South Fifth Avenue did see a small real estate boom in 1872 and 1873, but property values soon began to fall again. It didn't help matters when, in 1878, the Sixth Avenue Elevated Railroad was opened, running the length of West Broadway/South Fifth Avenue from Murray Street to West 3rd Street before turning west toward Sixth Avenue. Though the "El" was seen by many—including Tweed—as a necessary modernization and a solution to the city's massive traffic problems, ground-floor shops under the shadow of the train tracks tended to suffer and everyone was affected by the noise and exhaust from the coal-burning trains.

The South Fifth Avenue moniker only lasted until 1896 when it was finally replaced by West Broadway. This left only the remnant of College Place downtown with a unique—and by that point, long out-of-date—name. But West Broadway still had new identities in its future.

Soon after Samuel F.B. Morse's introduction of the electric telegraph, New York became the center of the burgeoning telecommunications industry. Dozens of rival telegraph companies competed for business until one-by-one they were either bought by—or driven out of business by—Western Union. Even after the commercial introduction of the telephone in 1878, the telegraph reigned as the quickest and most efficient way to communicate.

Western Union saw huge growth in the 1920s and decided to move from its antiquated headquarters on Lower Broadway (the building with the time ball that gave rise to our New Year's Eve tradition) to a new headquarters (right) on West Broadway. The Lower West Side, as Tribeca was then generally known, saw a boom in communications buildings in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them designed by noted architect Ralph Walker. In 1927, he completed the Barclay-Vesey Building for the New York Telephone Company, and in 1932, the AT&T Long Lines building at 32 Avenue of the Americas, just off West Broadway. In between, he constructed the new Western Union headquarters filling the entire block between Hudson and West Broadway at Thomas Street—the spot where rioters had tried to attack African-Americans during the Civil War. Walker's Art Deco, brick-faced skyscraper housed not just Western Union's offices and equipment, but also a high school for the telegram boys to continue their studies when they were not working. The company continued to own the building until 1972; today, it houses a number of internet ventures and contains displays on the ground floor on the history and cultural importance of the telegram.

As the Lower West Side was witnessing the growth of commercial skyscrapers, the area of West Broadway north of Canal Street saw its fortunes decline—along with the rest of what would become known in the 1960s as Soho. As retail moved uptown, the old cast-iron buildings in the area continue to house light manufacturing, but after World War II, most of that fled for the outer boroughs and New Jersey, leaving hundreds of vacant buildings that were perfect for artists' lofts. The area became—at least in the eyes of Robert Moses—a slum. By the time the City Club issued the report "The Wastelands of New York" in 1962, those who didn't live in the area believed the only way to redeem it would be to start from scratch. Luckily for the artists who were beginning to occupy many of the buildings in the 1960s as a "shadow presence" [PDF], this plan—along with Moses's attempt to ram the eight-line Lower Manhattan Expressway across Broome Street—never came to fruition.

Because the area was zoned for manufacturing, the artists lived illegally until 1971, when the city's regulations were changed to encourage the use of these old cast-iron buildings for lofts, studios, and galleries. As a sign of the neighborhood's growing dominance in the art world, in 1969, Ivan Karp had broken away from Leo Castelli's uptown gallery and opened OK Harris Gallery at 465 West Broadway, the first on the street. Castelli followed Karp downtown two years later to a space down the street at 420 West Broadway. Among Castelli's stable of artists was Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, who had died in 1956. Pollock had no particular connection to West Broadway, but that didn't stop New York City Parks and Cultural Affairs Commissioner August Heckscher from suggesting in 1972 that an area of West Broadway in Soho be renamed "Jackson Pollock Place."

A New York Times article from that year outlined the various objections from West Broadway's residents. Gallery owner Ivan Karp thought it would make the street a tourist trap. "The artists would become victims of a voyeuristic society that would come to stare at the bohemians and weirdos." Some objected to Pollock as being too out-of-date; others felt they'd never be able to live up to the burden of getting "mail every day with Pollock's name on it."

Heckscher's plan never made it very far, which may have baffled him. After all, just five years earlier, a three-block section of West Broadway running north from Houston Street to Washington Square had been renamed LaGuardia Place for the city's former mayor. While Fiorello La Guardia had been born in the Village and represented the neighborhood in congress, he had no more connection specifically to West Broadway than Pollock did. But in a city that regularly names things after dead mayors and had never once named a street for an artist, Heckscher was fighting a losing battle.

The American Thread building. Photo by James Nevius.

The "bohemians and weirdos" continued to thrive along West Broadway through the 1980s. In 1980, the late-19th-century American Thread Company building was turned into state-of-the-art condos [PDF], complete with "a coin-operated photocopying machine in the basement" and wiring for cable TV for "stock-market news, of course." Whatever industry remained on the street was pushed out by rising rents, as were some of the artists who'd been in the area since the 1960s. Though the city's loft laws still required that the majority of Soho's residents be primarily artists, this was generally ignored, and in 1987, the city offered a one-time amnesty to anyone who'd moved in illegally.

Prices continued to escalate. The average price for a 2,500-square-foot loft in 1990 was $670,000; ten years later the price had risen to about $1.4 million. Today, 2,500 square feet on Broadway will fetch $3.3 million. Despite the upward swing in property values, the area still remained a foreign land to many New Yorkers. In 1993, the New York Times "If You're Thinking of Living In…" column wrote about the area's "desolate Dickensian streets—part of the ambiance of inverse snobbism adopted by residents attracted to the look of post-industrial decay…." However, as high-end retail moved into the area—first on Broadway, then spreading to West Broadway—the graffiti disappeared, the cast-iron facades were repaired, and the area morphed into New York's primary shopping district, much as it had been a century and a half earlier.

Today, residential development continues apace. Inside a former chocolate factory at 325 West Broadway—which once made Tootsie Rolls—condos are rising that will range from $2.6 million to $7.6 million each (though, alas, without a coin-op photocopier). Those prices seem downright reasonable compared to the penthouse at 350 West Broadway, just up the street, which is listed for $26.5 million, though that cost does include a 1,400-square-foot terrace with outdoor kitchen and heated pool. In fact, West Broadway is getting so rich these days that it might be time for another name change. Though some would probably suggest a return to Rotten Row on principle, there are better historical precedents. The old Cosmopolitan Hotel was originally called Girard House, perhaps named for Stephen Girard, a financier of the war of 1812 who had recently died. Girard was one of America's richest men—perhaps the fourth richest man in American history—and he has about as much a connection to New York as Henry Laurens or Jackson Pollock ever did. Hanging out in your rooftop pool in your $26.5 million apartment on Girard Place? It has a nice ring to it.

James Nevius is the author of three books about New York City, the most recent of which is Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers.