Fifth Avenue at Home

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New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world. The returning troops marched up Fifth Avenue and girls were instinctively drawn East and North toward them - this was the greatest nation and there was gala in the air.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
While Fifth Avenue did not start out as “the greatest retail strip in the world,” its origins are far from humble: expensive private residences lined the avenue north from 34th Street during the Gilded Age, owned by people with last names such as “Vanderbilt” and “Astor” and “Carnegie.” These well-heeled families all chose Fifth Avenue as the venue for their private homes, and went about one-upping each other in terms of size, amenities, and overall splendor.

These same families were instrumental in preventing Fifth Avenue from having a subway line, elevated line, or even a streetcar service along its length. Instead, horse-drawn omnibuses courtesy of the Fifth Avenue Transportation Company, and later the Fifth Avenue Coach Company, carried passengers from the Upper East Side and Central Park to lower Fifth Avenue and Greenwich Village. Motorized buses were introduced by 1907, right after Benjamin Altman opened the first major department store on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1906.

Around this same time, the first round of luxury hotels were being constructed along the avenue, financed by some of the very same families who had previously built mansions just a few blocks away. But as with the subway and the streetcar, other residents fought against the construction of the hotels, complaining about blasting, fireproofing, and the liquor that they would make available for sale. Nonetheless, the hotels were victorious, and the great age of the “Fifth Avenue Hotel” was born: the St. Regis in 1904, the Gotham (now the Peninsula) in 1905, and the Plaza in 1907.

In addition to the hotels and retail shops that began to make inroads into upper Fifth Avenue at the turn of the 20th century, another tradition was being cemented into NYC lore: the parade tradition, many of which have used Fifth Avenue for at least a century. One of the most famous is the annual Easter Parade, a fixture on Easter Sunday since at least the 1880s (since both St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. Thomas Church had thousands of congregants attend Easter Sunday services by this era). Another classic every March is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, while four others also draw tens of thousands of attendees each year: the Puerto Rican Day Parade in June, the German-American Steuben Parade in September, the Columbus Day Parade in October, and the Veterans Day Parade in November.

But of course, it’s the retail attractions of Fifth Avenue that have dominated the public’s imagination for the last 100 years. Saks Fifth Avenue opened in 1924, in what turned out to be a fabulous location: directly across from Rockefeller Center, which itself was built between 1931 and 1939, providing even more retail, as well as office space, restaurants, television studios, the world’s most famous ice skating rink, and a giant Christmas tree every holiday season. Bergdorf Goodman opened at its current location in 1928, while Tiffany & Co, originally on 34th and Fifth Avenue, moved up to its current location on the corner of 57th Street in 1940. The last piece of the puzzle was then in place: Fifth Avenue had become the world’s greatest retail destination. And so it remains.
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