"At Fourteenth Street, Union Square, one of the handsomest of New York's minor parks,
is reached. The park itself is oval in form, about three and a half acres in extent . . . .
Its green turf is studded with trees, and the walks are well kept . . . .
It contains statues of Washington, Lincoln and Lafayette . . . .
In the early morning and late afternoon the park is a great resort of children and nursemaids wheeling baby-carriages . . . .
The surroundings abound in emporiums of commerce . . .
the sight-seer passes by many fine buildings --- hotels, theatres, jewelry and other stores --- and mixes in a varied stream of pedestrian life full of interest and movement.
The show-windows of the stores make a complete international exposition of industries . . . the fancy stores . . .
[and] the photographers, where pictures are sold of the last idol of the hour . . . . -Illustrated New York. The Metropolis of To-day (1888)
For nearly 170 years Union Square has been a gathering place-for commerce, for entertainment, for labor
and political events, and for recreation. The park owes its name to its location at the
intersection-or union of two major roads in New York City, Bloomingdale
Road (now Broadway) and Bowery Road (now Fourth Avenue and Park Avenue
South). When the Commissioner's Plan, the famous gridiron of Manhattan
streets and avenues, was projected in 1811, the former Potter's Field at
this intersection was designated as Union Place. The site was authorized
by the State Legislature as a public place in 1831 and acquired by the
City of New York in 1833.
In 1788 Henry Springler bought a 22 acre farm which included the greater part of what is now Union Square.
Until 1911 his heirs still owned major swaths of land in the area including the entire block from Fifth Avenue to Union Square from 14th to 15th Streets.
However it was another large land owner, Samuel Ruggles, who had the most influence on the land that through his influence would become known as Union Place.
On July 19, 1839 Union Square Park opened to the public. Its paths,
situated among lushly planted grounds, were inspired by the fashionable
residential squares of London. The design emphasized the park's oval
shape (enclosed by an iron picket fence) and focused on a large central
fountain, which was installed for the opening of the Croton Aqueduct in
In 1871 Parks Engineer in Chief M.A. Kellogg and Acting Landscape
Gardener E.A. Pollard collaborated on a new plan for Union Square. A
year later the park was redesigned by Central Park landscape architects
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. They removed the enclosing fence
and hedge, planted a variety of hardy trees, widened the sidewalks, and
created a muster ground and a pavilion, which served as a reviewing
stand "to meet the public requirement of mass-meetings." The Women and
Children's pavilion, as it would come to be known, was located on the
north end of the park and played a central role for the parks' social
and recreation activities.
As New York City's downtown expanded northward, Union Square
became an important commercial and residential center. Upscale
residences, restaurants, hotels, luxury shops, banks, offices,
manufacturing businesses, as well as the political headquarters for
Tammany Hall, all sprouted up around the park. A variety of cultural
facilities, including music auditoria, theatres, and lecture halls also
When Tiffany & Co. moved to Union Square on 15th St. in 1870 they built on the former Springler land then owned by the Van Beuren Estate. (The Van Beuren mansion was at 21 West 14th St.)
By the 1870's Union Square was well on its way to becoming
the entertainment capital of the country.
"Union-Square this season is probably the greatest theatrical centre in
the world," The New York Times wrote on June 11, 1882. That was also
the year Lüchow's opened and for a century thereafter was the most
celebrated restaurant in America.
Union Square had indeed become the heart of the theatre district with
more than a dozen theaters including Academy of Music (1854) , Steinway
Hall, Tony Pastor's Music Hall, and B.F. Keith's Union Square Theatre. It was Keith's Union Square, a vaudeville house located
at 50/58 E. 14th - directly across the street from the park - where the
Four Cohans, including 14-year old George M., made their Manhattan debut
On June 29, 1896, the Lumiere Cinematograph motion picture projector
made its New York debut at B.F. Keith's Union Square Theatre. (The
theatre was converted to a movie house in 1908.) By the early 20th
century the area around the park would become the headquarters for
the burgeoning film industry, America's first Hollywood. Movie studios
(Biograph -11 E. 14 St.), talent agencies (William Morris), publishing
houses (M. Witmark & Sons, Century Publishers, Century Magazine, and St.
Nicholas Magazine for Children in the current Barnes & Noble building)
all called Union Square home. By 1910 dozens of nickelodeons and movie
theatres dotted the area. Not surprisingly, Union Square itself also
became the setting for many early films. Long popular with artists,
the park was also included in many period photographs, photo etchings,
and in numerous lithographs.
"At Union-square, the scene of so many popular demonstrations during the last few years that people centre there by instinct on extraordinary occasions,..." - The New York Times - May 31, 1878
Union Square Park's North Plaza has frequently served as a location for
public meetings, including parades, labor protests, political rallies,
and official celebrations such as the Great Metropolitan Fair of the
U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1864.
On September 5, 1882, Union Square played a central role in the first
Labor Day celebration. A crowd of at least 10,000 workers paraded up
Broadway and filed past the pavilion's reviewing stand. As the
procession passed the stand, Robert Price of Lonaconing, Maryland, said
to Richard Griffiths, the General Worthy Foreman of the Knights of
Labor, "This is Labor Day in earnest, Uncle Dick." On June 28, 1894,
President Grover Cleveland signed the legislation which made Labor Day a
In 1928-29 Union Square Park was completely demolished to accommodate a
new underground concourse for the subway. Alterations made in the 1920s
and 1930s included the straightening of park paths, the construction of
a new colonnaded pavilion, and the dedication of the Independence
(Charles F. Murphy Memorial) Flagstaff (1926), sculpted by Anthony de
Francisci, that has the text of the Declaration of Independence at its
base. Earlier monuments in the park include George Washington (1856,
Henry Kirke Brown, the first statue to appear in the city since the statue of
King George III in Bowling Green was destroyed by patriots at the
beginning of the American Revolution), Abraham Lincoln (1868, also by
Brown), Marquis de Lafayette (1873, by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the
creator of the Statue of Liberty), and the James Fountain (1881,by Karl
Adolph Donndorf, familiarly known as the Mother and Children's Fountain
and originally a drinking fountain).
Square: A mixture of Chelsea, Liverpool, and Paris."
— Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)