Two weeks ago, the eyes of the world were on Times Square, but how did it get that way? Take a walk through history at The Skyscraper Museum’s exhibition — Times Square, 1984: The Post Modernist Moment through the end of January.
You’ll find out that the crazy, frenetic, chaotic landscape of this town square and its surrounding theaters was nearly lost when the City Fathers and the real-estate community thought Times Square should be “sanitized”. It took wrecking balls destroying several historic theaters to bring activists, celebrities, actors, historians, and preservationists into the streets and paddy wagons to reverse course.
The Skyscraper Museum has assembled the architectural models, videos, personal memorabilia collections, and planning sketches to resurrect this nearly forgotten war story. See the installation views on our Flickr site.
The show opens with a 1905 Mutoscope film showing the panorama from the top of the new Times Tower – the first skyscraper in that part of town. See it here on the exhibition web site. The Times started the ball drop in 1907, and it’s continued as one of the City’s most famous traditions.
The “Great White Way” name became popular in the 1920s and 1930s to indicate the glow from theater marquees lining Broadway, Seventh Avenue, and the side streets. The second skyscraper wasn’t built until 1927 (the Paramount Building/ Hard Rock Café), and remarkably, no other skyscrapers popped up until 1972.
The Portman Hotel (now Marriott Marquis) project was sketched out in 1973, but it took until 1985 to open. The fortress-like complex was designed to look inward on purpose – away from the tawdry street life that characterized Times Square in the “bad old” days when drug pushers, crime, pickpockets, loudmouths, and fistfights were the norm. The atrium and rotating rooftop restaurant were marvels to tourists, who were happy to have an inside-escape route.
By 1979, it was so bad outside that the City proposed some drastic plans to make it all better: Why not tear down a few blocks and make an indoor entertainment mall, complete with a 15-story indoor Ferris wheel and the world’s biggest movie screen? Why not make Times Square look more like Sixth Avenue by building monolithic skyscrapers on each corner of Broadway at 42nd?
Real estate deals ruled the city at the time, and the bonanza created by tourism was still decades away.
The actors, preservationists, and architects were aghast at plans to tear down so many historic theaters for the Portman/Marriott Marquis and began staging street protests and galvanizing public opinion to save Broadway. Through a lot of community organizing, a Save the Theaters study, and a night where all the theaters turned the lights out, the battle was won. Yes, new towers would be built, but the demolition of theaters would stop.
In 1993, Disney pledged to take over and restore the New Amsterdam, the study identified theater features of historic value (including backstage areas), and a 42nd Street redevelopment effort commenced. Julian Eltinge’s theater (now AMC Empire 25) was moved 130 feet down the street, rehearsal studios were built, and the New Victory brought children’s theater to a house that used to be Minsky’s (and the Belasco).
Today, the crossroads is dominated by tall, sparkling skyscrapers and bustling with high-spending visitors. The TKTS island serves as a concrete village green for the entire area.
Insiders at the Skyscraper Museum’s winter program at Columbia University let us in on the fact that the there are actually design requirements for flashing signs and billboards in Times Square to be at off-angles and tilts to maintain the slapped-together look of the area – design elements flouted by Vornado’s new block-long HD video billboard.
This short synopsis is only the tip of the iceberg on Times Square. For the full story and history, get to the show and take time to watch Carol Willis’ historic, all-star panel from last November, where you’ll meet the people who saved the Theater District, remade 42nd Street, and created the landscape of Times Square that the world knows today. You’ll never look at it the same way again:
For more, click here to read the exhibition story online and see more photos, videos, and artifacts.