Sunday, June 30, 2019

Then and Now: 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, NYC

Alexander's on Lexington Avenue

Alexander's on Lexington Avenue, NYC, in the 1970s,
Looking south from 59th Street on Lexington Avenue, NYC, in the 1970s.
Some changes to the New York streetscape over time are more nuanced than might appear just from looking at the changing names on the marques. Businesses that seem to disappear actually haven't gone away at all, they've just changed form. People who were in Manhattan a few decades ago undoubtedly remember Alexander's Department Store. Alexander's was one of a swarm of department stores with their headquarters or major locations in Manhattan in the middle years of the 20th Century. These included names like Macy's, Gimbels, E.J. Korvette, Bloomingdale's, Ohrbach's, and Sears. Most of them are gone or currently on their deathbed (coughcoughSearscoughcough), and Alexander's fell along with several others. Seeing the above picture of Alexander's entrance brought back some memories, so I decided to do a comparison of Alexander's location on Lexington Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets from the 1970s and 2018.

Lexington Avenue looking south from 59th Street, NYC, October 2017 (Google Street View).
Alexander's was a big store, though the entrance on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan shown in the picture at the top of this page wasn't particularly impressive. It occupied the entire block between 58th and 59th Streets between Lexington and Third Avenues. Located just south of Bloomingdale's on Lexington, Alexander's always faced stiff competition. However, Bloomingdale's aimed at the high-fashion set while Alexander's was aimed more at the middle class, so there was enough business for both of them. I remember Alexander's had a lunch counter on one of the upper floors, a classic greasy spoon that looked like it came out of the 1950s (good greasy chicken). Anyway, as the recent shot above establishes, Alexander's is long gone, having closed down in 1992. While Alexander's corporation still exists as a publicly traded REIT (NYSE: ALX), but it no longer operates a department store chain. The Alexander's saga is probably most remembered these days to the involvement of Donald Trump, who held about a quarter of the company for about five years until relinquishing his interest in 1991 during his financial issues resulting from the recession of the early 1990s.

Lexington Avenue looking south from midway between 58th and 59th Street, NYC, October 2017 (Google Street View).
The Alexander's building was replaced in 2004 when 731 Lexington Avenue opened. It is one of the taller buildings in Manhattan and sometimes is called Bloomberg Tower because Bloomberg's operations are based there.

Bloomberg Tower at 731 Lexington Avenue, NYC, in October 2017 (Google Street View).
The building itself, though, is still owned by Alexander's REIT, the successor to the defunct retail chain. So, Alexander's is still there, it just doesn't operate its own store there (or anywhere) anymore. Instead, it is just the landlord, which actually is a better business to be in anyway.

The western side of Lexington Avenue looking south from 58th Street, NYC, October 2017 (Google Street View).
Also visible in the 1970s photograph was the west side of Lexington Avenue between 58th and 57th Streets. Aside from the building on the southwest corner of 58th Street, which appears to have been replaced by a glass-and-metal building of roughly the same size, all of the building (even those in the distance) appear unchanged. The background is eerily similar despite the passage of forty years or more. That's just more evidence that change in New York City occurs in swirls and eddies, and large sections of the cityscape remain unchanged for decade after decade.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. The Alexander's story shows that even when things change on the surface in New York City, they stay the same in the background - Alexander's still owns its property on Lexington Avenue in 2019 despite the demise of its department stores. Please visit some of our other pages in this series to see how city locations have evolved over the decades.


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