Urban Development

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the area that now comprises the Theater District was owned by a handful of families and contained little more than a few farms. In 1836 Mayor Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence opened 42nd Street and invited Manhattanites to “move up town and enjoy the pure, clean air.” More than sixty years later, the theatrical entrepreneur Oscar Hammerstein built his Victoria Theater on West 42nd Street. 

Picture Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

So central is the Theater District to New York’s cultural landscape that it is easy to forget that the area was undeveloped countryside until relatively recently. At the time this image was created, six horse-car lines connected the area to the heart of the city to the south. The area that would become the Theater District could also be reached by the Weehawken Ferry, which docked in the Hudson River at 42nd Street. The Winter Garden Theater now occupies the site of the Hopper family farm.

The Museum of The City of New York

Electrified trolleys made it easy to get to Oscar Hammerstein’s 1,000-seat Victoria Theater. The facility was built for legitimate theater but soon became a venue for vaudeville shows. The glamorous Paradise Roof Garden on top of the theater was another big draw. At the time of the theater’s opening, a reporter for the New York American wrote: "The Victoria, at a bird’s eye view, looks like a big twinkling pearl, all white and gold with the opals of electricity studding it in profusion . . . Gorgeous carpets, splendid lounges and all the ultra-elegance the metropolis loves were to be seen everywhere."

The Museum of The City of New York

Unlike many of the capital cities of Europe, New York is not defined by great public squares. But Longacre Square, really just the intersection of two busy avenues, was an exception. The area was used—and celebrated—as “the crossroads of the world.” Reflecting the location’s earthy dimension, the New York Burlesque Ballet and the Varieties Theater can be seen on the left. The Hotel Cadillac and the Pabst Hotel, owned by the Milwaukee-based brewery, can be seen in the distance.

The Shubert Archive

The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Company was a private business responsible for building and operating New York’s first subway line. Opened in 1904, the IRT serviced the emerging Theater District and was pivotal to the area’s growth and success.

The Museum of The City of New York

Aerial view of Times Square, looking north, showing the Astor Hotel and its popular rooftop garden, at left.

The Museum of The City of New York

In 1904, with the completion of Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz’s Italian Renaissance–inspired tower for the New York Times, which had moved north from its previous headquarters opposite City Hall, Longacre Square received an immediately identifiable architectural landmark, and a new name: Times Square.

Picture Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations

Given its unique location, the New York Times’s trapezoidal building would be forever surrounded by light and air, despite the construction of many tall buildings nearby. At the time of the twenty-four-story building’s completion, observers noted that it “scraped higher clouds” than other tall New York City buildings because it occupied higher ground. The imposing Astor Hotel (Clinton & Russell, 1904) can be seen on the right.

Museum of The City of New York

Some theater historians have suggested that the word “vaudeville” comes from the French voix de ville or “voice of the city.” In any case, the Palace Theater became the undisputed center of this popular form of variety show. As the entertainer Jack Haley recalled, “A feeling of ecstasy came with the knowledge that this was the Palace, the epitome of the more than 15,000 vaudeville theaters in America, and the realization that you have been selected to play it. Of all the thousands upon thousands of vaudeville performers in the business, you are there. This was a dream fulfilled; this was the pinnacle of Variety success.” Haley would go on to fame as the Tin Man in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, but ironically, it was the Palace Theater’s transformation into a movie palace several years earlier that seemed to mark the beginning of the end of vaudeville nationwide.

Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

With monument to Father Duffy. In 1937, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia renamed a portion of Times Square—from West 45th to West 47th Street—Duffy Square in honor of Father Francis Patrick Duffy, a chaplain in a New York infantry regiment known as the Fighting 69th. Georg John Lober sculpted the likeness of Duffy seen here; Lober also created the sculpture of composer, actor, playwright, and producer George M. Cohan located two blocks to the south.

Amanda Hall

The memorial in Duffy Square at night.

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