So you’ve been to Midtown
, and you’ve walked back and forth between 42nd Street, 5th Avenue, and the Avenue of the Americas—but how’s your historical knowledge of the area? Here is a brief description of six major midtown sites. Study hard so you can impress your friends at a holiday party!
The area that is now Bryant Park, a midtown oasis, has been considered a public space since 1686. In 1823, Bryant Park was used as a cemetery for the poor until the graves were excavated in the 1840s and moved to Wards Island. In 1884, the park was named for William Cullen Bryant, an abolitionist. In 1899, the neighboring New York Public Library was built. Today, Bryant Park is managed by the non-profit, Bryant Park Corporation, though it is officially under the tutelage of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
Bryant Park, Between 40th Street and 42nd Street and 5th and 6th Avenues, New York, NY, USA +1(212) 768-4242
New York Public Library Central Information | © leiris202/Flickr
New York Public Library
New York Public Library
In 1886, former New York governor and presidential candidate, Samuel Tilden, passed away, bequeathing $2.4 million to the city to build a library and reading room. According to the New York Public Library website, the resulting library building cost $9 million to make. Designed by Carrère and Hastings utilizing the Beaux Arts style of architecture, the building was the largest marble building in America ever attempted at the time. After opening in 1911, the library continues to be a major institution over a hundred years later with 92 branch locations in service today (established, in part, through some donations by Andrew Carnegie).
New York Public Library, 5th Ave at 42nd St, New York, NY, USA +1(917) 275-6975
The Morgan Library | © Rob Shenk/Flickr
J.P. Morgan, the famous banker, had so much money that he helped bail out the U.S. government during the Panic of 1907. Morgan spent a decent amount of his wealth on his book collection, and eventually built a library to house them. The library was designed by the legendary neoclassical architecture firm, McKim, Meade and White. According to the Morgan Library website, Morgan’s son, J.P. Morgan Jr., transferred ownership of the library to a board of trustees in 1928. The library’s diverse collection includes Mozart’s sheet music, Sumerian seals, and Henry David Thoreau’s journal excerpts. The library has rotating exhibits, but the spectacular reading room is always open for visitation.
Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, USA +1(212) 685-0008
Christmas at Rockefeller Center | © petercruise/Flickr
You may have seen the Christmas tree, watched the Today Show, and binge-watched 30 Rock on Netflix. But, how did this staple image of New York come to be? Funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. during the rise of the Great Depression, Rockefeller Center’s construction employed 40,000 people and was completed in 1933. The Christmas tree tradition started in 1930, while the winter ice rink opened in 1936. The launch of the Today Show in 1950 helped bring the image of Rockefeller Center to the attention of the entire nation.
45 Rockefeller Plaza New York, NY, USA +1(212) 332-6868
Times Square, NYC | © MK Feeney/Flickr
How did Times Square become the Blade Runner-esque tourist trap dystopia that we know today? Much of it was due to the New York Times. In 1904, the New York Times moved its offices to 42nd Street, and the editor persuaded the mayor to build a subway station at the location. The subway stop was named Times Square and the rest is history. However, today the New York Times is located on Eighth Avenue between West 40th and 41st Streets. The advertising associated with Times Square actually started in the 1920s, which inspired Fritz Lang in his influential film Metropolis. The famous ball drop began as a publicity stunt for the New York Times in 1907, continuing uninterrupted to the present; with the exception of the 1942 and 1943 wartime blackouts.
Times Square, Manhattan, NY, USA
Mid-town Manhattan showing U.N. headquarters, New York City | © Boston Public Library/Flickr
United Nations Headquarters
Located along the East River, the U.N. Headquarters is kind of a vision of the future as interpreted by 1950s futurists. Because of the lack of space in NYC, the building might have been located in Philadelphia if not for some timely generosity on the part of John D. Rockefeller. Modeled in a plan by the influential architect Le Corbusier, the U.N. complex and plaza is named after Dag Hammarskjold, the first U.N. Secretary General. Extensive renovations of the General Assembly Hall have just been completed, bringing the 1950s aesthetic to the basic needs of the 21st century. Be happy that this bastion of international diplomacy was able to call New York its home.
Department of Public Information, United Nations Headquarters, Room GA 1B-31, New York, NY +1(212) 963-4475
By Harrison Blackman
Born in Southern California and raised in Maryland, Harrison Blackman studies history, urban studies and creative writing at Princeton University. When he’s not writing about landscapes, he’s running around in them. Check out his blog at http://www.expedictionary.com.