SHADOWS OF R.H. Macy’s remnants, uptown and downtown

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Rowland Hussey Macy (1822-1877) was a Nantucket seaman aboard the Emily Morgan whaling ship at age 15, and while serving there he picked up at a port of call a red, five-pointed star tattoo. After a period of apprenticeship he opened four dry goods stores in the 1850s, all of which failed; undeterred, he moved to the Big Apple in 1858 and opened yet another on Sixth Avenue and West 14th Street, where sales on the first day of business came to $11.06. Obviously business has picked up since.

After a couple of decades on 6th Avenue and 14th and later, 18th Street, in 1902 Macy’s moved to a magnificent building that after several additions and acquisitions takes up nearly the entire block between Broadway, 7th Avenue, and West 34th and 35th Streets designed by architects De Lemos & Cordes.

Macy’s has grown to a retail empire consisting of seven divisions with store locations in 45 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam. There are now nearly 100,000 Macy’s employees!

14th Street, now a cacophony of cheap, ah, affordable mom and pop shops (and I really shouldn’t complain about a rare street in Manhattan that hasn’t yet been corporatized) retains just a few traces of its old era as the beginning of Sixth Avenue’s Ladies’ Mile, recently revived with the additions of Bed, Bath and Beyond and Old Navy stores in the grand old buildings that housed department stores in the early 20th Century.

Some of the old Macy building is still there, on the south side of 14th Street just east of 6th. Above the formerly imposing main entrance — now the home of a camera store — you can see the word MACY’S…that is if you squint and use your imagination somewhat. Trust me, it’s there, though tweaking the contrast in Photoshop didn’t bring it out very well.

There’s a rather more visible remnant around the corner, on West 13th on the north side, in a building now occupied by The New School’s Arnhold Hall. This, too, was part of the old Macy’s building, a fact made clear by the presence of eight ornamental friezes that still, after over a century, sport the Macy symbol: a red star — Rowland Hussey Macy’s tattoo. 

 

 

 

Macy’s remnants or old painted ads are hard to find in Manhattan; in fact I’ve found only an old warehouse emblazoned with the word MACY’S in Sunnyside, Queens — and this painted wall ad on West 148th Street just east of Douglass Boulevard. It’s at least 125 years old and depicts Macy’s uptown stables, where you could order goods from downtown, probably via telegraph. Note the ever-present red star, which has been part of Macy’s iconography from the start.

By 2009, most of this ancient ad had been razed

I worked for the World’s Biggest Store from 2000-2004, during which the company celebrated 100 years on 34th Street. I was proud to be part of the organization at this time, but working in midtown disagreed with me: what a madhouse. 

8/22/07

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