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An Elephant Surrounded By Mice

The Macy’s flagship store on Herald Square was constructed in 1902, about six years before this picture was taken. This huge building was only possible in this form because it was built using a steel skeleton frame: it could have been built using steel or iron floor beams and cast-iron columns, but that would have meant less window area than you see here; it could have been built with wood interior framing but that would have meant less window area and that the building would have been a death trap. As is, this was not big enough, and it was expanded to the west to almost fill the block (see below for “almost”) in the 1920s and 30s. With the expansion, it’s about two and a half million square feet of space, which is more than the Empire State Building, located a block away.

Those windows reflect the reality of the beginning of the twentieth century. Electric lighting was available and widely used, but stores still needed daylight for some departments. So the building is somewhere between its smaller predecessors, which had as much daylighting as possible – the Siegel Cooper “big store” less than a mile south on Sixth Avenue had an internal light courts with skylights – and modern-day windowless stores. The most famous bit of old new technology at Macy’s, the wood-tread escalators – date from later, in the 1920s.

We’re looking from the 34th Street Station of the Sixth Avenue elevated, across Broadway (the two avenues intersect at an acute angle at 34th Street) to the north and west. There are no other big buildings to be seen because the area west of Broadway was at that time still almost entirely small-scale residential and industrial buildings. The theater district was briefly around here before moving up to the newly renamed Times Square but the theaters were not particularly large buildings, and there was a fair amount of commercial construction to the east, behind the photographer.

The most valuable part of the block, the corner of 34th Street and Broadway, was not included in the property assemblage, and to this day is not part of the store. As can be seen above, the Macy’s store was built around the “missing” corner. Eventually commerce won out over spite, and the upper floors of the corner building have long been billboards rented by Macy’s.