57th street is part of a bustling metropolis known as Midtown Manhattan, the west comprising Hell’s Kitchen and the east part of the Midtown East. Midtown is the center for business, tourism, and recreation. Midtown Manhattan was significantly transformed in the 1920s from a “commercial backwater” with one skyscraper, into the entertainment and communications epicenter of New York. Its business centers even began to rival Wall Street’s power and magnitude. Prior to the 1920s, this district was mostly characterized by docks, warehouses, tenements and middle class townhouses. Midtown Manhattan’s glamorous restaurants, boutiques, high-end department stores and skyscrapers remind us just how much things have changed.
Just before World War I, during Mayor Jimmy Walker’s administration, Midtown turned into a huge construction site that reached full momentum in 1927. Back then, mansions were the only suitable way for the profusely wealthy to live in the city. Many of the mansions, that belonged to the descendants of Gilded Age tycoons were torn down and replaced by fashionable shops and department stores. Although, some of this work was done by Jewish real estate kings up from the ghetto, individuals who were not Native New Yorkers also altered the area’s landscape. The transformation provided job opportunities to new immigrants and their rapidly-assimilated children.
Located on the corner of 57th Street and 7th Avenue, Carnegie Hall marks a turning point from the residential to commercialization of 57th Street. The origins of Carnegie Hall goes back to the spring of 1887 in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when Mr. and Mrs. Carnegie met musical director of the Symphony Society of New York, Walter Damrosch on their way to Scotland for their honeymoon. After being invited to Scotland, Damrosch presented his concept of a new concert hall in New York City. Carnegie developed interest in the project and set the plan in motion after he returned to the US. On May 13, 1890, Mrs. Carnegie used a silver trowel from Tiffany & Co., just a few blocks down, to cement the cornerstone of the new concert hall in place. The hall opened with a 5-day long festival and was a great success.
The Main Hall was filled to capacity on opening night while horse-drawn carriages lined up for a quarter mile down the street. The story of Carnegie Hall though, was not always a successful one. The hall faced almost-demolition in March of 1960. Operating Carnegie Hall in its normal way became increasingly difficult with the changing musical landscape in New York City. The owner at the time, Robert E. Simon, Jr. was forced to put the hall up for sale in 1956. Bought by a group of developers, the plan was to demolish the building and create a 44-story office tower. At the very last minute, the Citizens Committee for Carnegie Hall was able to stop the demolition with help from Senator MacNeil Mitchell. And on June 30, 1960, New York City purchased Carnegie Hall for $5 million, as a public trust and chartered the Carnegie Hall Corporation. As a Board of Directors took responsibility for the Hall’s financial and physical properties, Carnegie Hall came under public-private partnership.
The section of Fifth Avenue that crosses Midtown Manhattan including 57th street, hosts the most prestigious shops. Many of the high-end shops on the east end of 57th st cater to the upper crust of New York society, as well as wealthy tourists. Tourneau is a luxury watch retailer with a very interesting history. The Wexler family escaped the Russian Revolution and fled to New York City. They had opened M. Wexler Watchmaker & Jeweler in 1924 near the busy intersection of Seventh Avenue and 34th Street. The Tourneau family emigrated from Paris to New York City in 1924. In 1930, the Tourneau brothers opened their first watch-selling store at 49th street and Madison avenue. In 1975, the Wexler family joined together with the Tourneau family and adopted the name. After opening other locations in the U.S. it wasn’t long before the Tourneau TimeMachine opened on 57th and Madison avenue in 1997. A store with family-owned history is now America’s largest retailer for luxury watches with 35 stores throughout the country. It is an icon of luxury that welcomes 4 million plus visitors annually.
Tiffany & Co. is another well-known high end store on 57th st. In 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany arrived in New York and opened a stationary store, then jewelry store, that was soon to become a world renown brand. Throughout the jeweler’s history, the most prominent members of American society were Tiffany customers. These customers included the Vanderbilts, Astors, Whitneys and Havemeyers and even President Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Although not the first store, in 1940 Tiffany’s flagship store opened its doors on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th St. Like Tourneau’s glass displays, Tiffany’s granite exterior is well known for its extravagant window displays. Many tourists like to take pictures by the displays and store logo. The store is a cultural emblem, serving as the location for a number of films, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Audrey Hepburn and Sweet Home Alabama starring Reese Witherspoon. What was once a destination only for the socialite is now also a popular destination among international tourists.
Our group’s issue is the commercialization of 57th St. Overtime Midtown Manhattan has transformed into an area that’s attractive to residents and tourists alike in terms of economic activity and “cultural power.” We decided to pick destinations along 57th st that portray this gradual change. We decided to look at this street under the lens of commercialization while contrasting the advancements made by the east and west sides.