Thursday, June 13, 2019

Then and Now: West 34th Street at Fifth Avenue, NYC

Ohrbach's in Manhattan, 1979

Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, NYC,
34th Street at Fifth Avenue, New York City, in 1979. Ohrbach's is on the right.
The heart of Manhattan, the place where all the action takes place in the business (though not financial, that remained down on Wall Street) world, moved steadily northward during the 20th Century. By the 1920s and 1930s, 34th Street was pretty much the center of the New York business scene. Along with its other famous occupants, several large department stores saw their opportunity and built virtual shopping palaces on 34th Street. Only the biggest and most iconic, like Macy's, and the smallest and nimblest, such as souvenir shops, managed to survive to see the 21st Century. One of the ones that did not make it was Ohrbach's, located just off Fifth Avenue on the north side of West 34th Street. This is a comparison of the Ohrbach's location on West 34th Street from 1979 to 2017.

Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, NYC,
9 West 34th Street. James McCreery and Co. Store ca. 1905 (Wurts Bros. via Museum of the City of New York).
Ohrbach's was located at 5 West 34th Street. In 1954, Ohrbach's took over this space from McCreery's, a high-end department store that originated in the 1860s but failed in 1953. McCreery's apparently opened its magnificent location at 9 West 34th Street around the turn of the 20th Century. It lasted a long time, but wars and the Great Depression and declining quality ultimately did it in. It was McCreery's that installed the massive awning/canopy over the entrance to the building that Ohrbach's only slightly scaled back. The owners of Ohrbach's apparently felt the company would have better luck with the site catering to a slightly more mass-market clientele. They did for a few decades. However, just as McCreery's high-end fashions gradually fell out of favor with the increasingly corporate denizens of the area, Ohrbach's similarly saw its mid-market offerings lose favor with the discount shoppers who gradually took over the area.

Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, NYC,
9 West 34th Street, New York City (Google Street View).
Well, so the place has history. Everyplace has a history. But what does it look like now? Well, the same building is still there, but the canopy is long gone since Ohrbach's closed its doors in 1986/1987 (it was a bad year for department stores in the area, as Gimbels on Herald Square finally shut down then, too). Now, the old Ohrbach's address (which over the years seems to have changed from 9 to 5 to 7 West 34th Street for no discernible reason) has become another "mixed use" building - which describes half of the office buildings in midtown Manhattan. The building is now characterless and soul-less, but it survives, and that ain't beanbag. As of late 2017, the building's owners were having difficulty finding a tenant for part of the street level store space. However, someone has stepped into the breach in the other part, putting its own stamp on the block as the true department store of the 21st Century.

Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, NYC,
7 West 34th Street, New York City in late 2017 (Google Street View).
Yes, Amazon has taken over part of the old Ohrbach's space on West 34th Street. But, befitting a retailer which doesn't really need much brick-and-mortar retail space, Amazon only took part of the old department store area, continuing the building's retail character into a new century.

Empire State Building, Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, NYC,
The view of the other side of the street, across from the old Ohrbach's location (Google Street View).
If you're not from New York, you might not recognize that solid stone building on the south side of West 34th Street across from Ohrbach's. Maybe that's an important building, too? Well, it is 20 West 34th Street, if that means anything to you. But, maybe another photo will provide the answer to that building's identity. Yes, it is the Empire State Building, which hasn't changed at all since it was completed in 1931. So, it has been a neighbor of McCreery's, Ohrbach's, Amazon, and... well, time will tell, but there most definitely will be others.

Empire State Building, Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, NYC,
A look back on West 34th Street toward Fifth Avenue, with the old Ohrbach's location on the left and the Empire State Building on the right (Google Street View).
I hope you enjoyed this entry in my "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit some of the other entries in the series as we dabble in a little urban archaeology.


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