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A Walk on Lower Fifth Avenue: Illusory Scenes in Black and White

A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
From the steps of the Salmagundi Art Club at 47 Fifth Avenue, looking south.
An historic art club founded in the 1871 by people who loved to sketch, the club moved to this 1852 brownstone townhouse, originally Irad Hawley House, in 1917.


Like the headwaters for a river that runs upstream, Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village serves as the base for the mighty Fifth Avenue. From the park, the avenue runs north all the way to the Harlem River at 142nd street, bustling at key intersections like Madison Square at 23rd, the Empire State Building at 34th St., Bryant Park at 42nd, and the southeast corner of Central Park at 59th St. Lower Fifth Avenue, stretching from Washington Square to the Flatiron Building at Fifth Avenue and 23rd St., may not be as well known as the more famous blocks from Rockefeller Center to Central Park, but this more sedate stretch of avenue, a comparative dowager, connects in spirit to New York's late Gilded Age as well as to the first stirrings of bohemianism in the Village. It's a pleasure to walk slowly.

A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
at the beginning of Fifth Avenue, looking south to the Washington Square Arch,
built in 1895


A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
elegant revolving doors at 24 Fifth Avenue.
Note the pretty cursive writing on the entrance mat.


With many imposing brick and stone buildings dating from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s, lower Fifth Avenue often gives the illusion of permanence, as if its regal Old New York demeanor will always be best suited for the pen and ink drawing or a photographer working in black and white. Yet, its permanence is an illusion. Many spectacular buildings up and down the avenue, and especially in the northern reaches near Central Park, have given way to newer buildings over the decades, some of them even grander but others pitiful replacements. For a bold example, look at the giant hole in the ground on the east side of Fifth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets. Here, the New School is constructing a new sixteen-story brass and glass University Center, replacing a bland three-story affair. Fifth Avenue is always in flux.

A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
On the west side of the avenue at W. 11th St., the Church of the Ascension, consecrated in 1841


A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
Across the street on the east side, corner of E. 11th and Fifth Avenue. 43 Fifth Avenue was built in 1905
and popular with writers and actors. Marlon Brando lived here in 1946, the year before he became Stanley Kowalksi.


A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
E. 13th Street and Fifth Avenue. The construction site marks the future home of
New School's contemporary University Center.


In our time, we think of the lowest part of Fifth Avenue as a mainly residential thoroughfare, especially compared to the heavily commercial areas in the blocks north. Yet in the 1870s, the era depicted by Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence, lower Fifth Avenue began to lose its stature as a fashionable place to live for more commercial pursuits. In the charming 1872 work, Lights and shadows of New York life: or, The sights and sensations of the great city. A work descriptive of the City of New York in all its various phases, author James Dabney McCabe noted, "From Madison Square to its lower end, the avenue is rapidly giving way to business, and its palatial residences are being converted into equally fine stores. Hotels and fashionable boarding-houses are thick in this quarter." Up until 1910, it should be noted, "the Fifth avenue" was a much narrower thoroughfare than it is now, sporting wide sidewalks for strolling. (see illustration from book at end of post) By the time the avenue was expanded, the center of interest, especially residential, had shifted uptown.

A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
intersection of E 16th and Fifth Avenue. This area within the Ladies' Mile Historic District features more retail than the blocks to the south, so the pace is beginning to pick up.


A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
The Pierrepont Building dates from 1895. 


A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
91 Fifth Avenue. 1894. caryatids, high above the street. The retail floors are home to J. Crew.


These handsome blocks are anchored by Washington Square Park at the south end, dominated by its fountain and historic arch, and Madison Square Park at the north end, with its dazzling architecture. Washington Square Park has just opened its renovated eastern side, and locals and tourists flock to the park to read books, listen to music, or just hang out. Similarly, Madison Square Park draws people for its well-kept lawns, nearby food offerings, and public art program. While people tend to rush through the more frantic blocks of Fifth Avenue uptown, the pace between these two parks is slower, making it easier to imagine scenes of fashionable types of a hundred years ago out and about on an afternoon walk.

A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
originally Arnold Constable Dry Goods Store. now ABC Carpet, Fifth Avenue side, 115 Fifth Avenue.
built 1868-1869; extended in 1870s.


A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
looking back south from W. 22nd St. and Fifth Avenue. The building with the rounded corner
and cupola has recently been restored.


A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
Albert Building, neo-Renaissance building from 1861-1862; home to Restoration Hardware.


Depicted in this post are several buildings that represent moments in the long life of Lower Fifth Avenue. The map includes more details of the prominent buildings and sites. A set on Flickr includes a total of fifty images documenting, or imagining, this section of the avenue. See link below.

A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
23rd Street, looking south along Fifth Avenue. The Flatiron Building is on the left.
originally Fuller Building. 175 Fifth Ave. to Broadway, E. 22nd St. to E. 23rd St. 1901-1903.
Daniel Burnham & Co.


View Lower Fifth Avenue in a larger map

illustration from Lights and shadows of New York life: or, The sights and sensations of the great city. A work descriptive of the City of New York in all its various phases, by James Dabney McCabe, 1872.


Photographic images by Walking Off the Big Apple taken with the iPhone4 and Hipstamatic app. For those who would enjoy a leisurely virtual walk up Fifth Avenue, crossing both sides of the avenue to take a look at buildings and stopping to look in every direction, please see this slideshow on Flickr WOTBA. Sometimes, it rains; sometimes, the sun comes out. That's the way it works around here.









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