This Week in CRE History: Fifth Avenue Opens for Business

191 years ago this week, New York’s Fifth Avenue opened for the first time. Retail and high-end shopping would never be the same.

Just Two Parallel Lines

Like most grand things, New York’s Fifth Avenue was an idea before it was a reality. That idea made its first public appearance in 1811 when William Bridges published the Commissioners’ Plan, the first proposal to create Manhattan’s famous grid system.

“On [that map] appear two parallel lines extending from Washington Square northward to the Harlem River, and on them for the first time in any document appear the significant words, FIFTH AVENUE,” wrote Henry Collins Brown, a former member of the Fifth Avenue Association.

It would be another 13 years before construction began on the historic avenue. The first stretch of Fifth Avenue — spanning from Waverly Place to 13th Street — opened on November 16th, 1824. Construction continued for another 40 years as the thoroughfare extended north, finally reaching the Harlem River in April of 1864.  

Fifth Avenue remained largely residential and quiet until the dawn of the 20th century. “Then came trade as we know it in the modern sense,” wrote Brown. “It came with rapid strides, with vivid enthusiasm, and it settled on land rich In historical Interest...Department stores, specialists In dress, furs, linens, laces, art wares, interior decoration—all the trades that minister to the refinements of life—penetrated Fifth Avenue from 34th Street north, and laid the foundation for its retail supremacy.”

Retail Supremacy

Many attribute the start of the retail bonanza to Benjamin Altman, who moved his department store, B. Altman and Company, to Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in 1906. The store moved from the Ladies' Mile Historic District on 6th Ave, the most popular retail street at the time.

Afterwards, the pace of commercialization escalated quickly. Many other major department stores and retailers began relocating to the Fifth Avenue, including: Best & Co.,Lord & Taylor, Bonwit Teller, Peck & Peck, Saks Fifth Avenue, and more.

The rapid development of commercial properties and increased traffic laid the foundation for the legendary Fifth Avenue as we know it today — the world’s most expensive shopping street. The avenue has remained a retail icon ever since.

Billy Fink
Billy Fink
Billy Fink is a former member of the VTS team.
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