Waldorf-Astoria and Knickerbocker Trust, New York City

Looking south along Fifth Avenue toward the intersection of 34th Street, around 1904, with the Knickerbocker Trust Company building in the foreground and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel beyond it. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

The two buildings in the first photo, the Waldorf-Astoria and the Knickerbocker Trust Company Building, have been discussed in further detail in earlier posts, but this photo here provides a particularly good view of the architecture of the Knickerbocker building, which had been completed around that time. It was designed by McKim, Mead & White, a prominent architectural firm whose other significant works of the era included the Boston Public Library and New York’s Penn Station. Unfortunately, although the bank building is technically still standing here, subsequent alterations have completely destroyed the original architecture, including the addition of 10 stories on top of it in 1921 and the replacement of the facade in 1958 with the bland exterior that it now has. As for the Waldorf-Astoria, it is obviously no longer standing; the famous hotel was demolished in 1929 and the Empire State Building was built in its place.

Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York City

The Waldorf-Astoria, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

The Waldorf-Astoria is one of the most famous hotels in New York City history, and it all began as a result of a feud within the Astor family, whose origins dated back to 1827, when William B. Astor, Sr. purchased a significant amount of property in present-day Midtown Manhattan, including a section of Fifth Avenue from 32nd Street to 35th Street. With a purchase price of $20,500 (about $433,000 today), this largely undeveloped land on the outskirts of the city turned out to be a wise investment, and Astor became the wealthiest man in America.

Here along Fifth Avenue, two of his sons split the block on the west side, with John Jacob Astor III and his wife Charlotte Augusta Gibbs living on the corner of 33rd Street, and William B. Astor, Jr. and his wife Charlotte Webster Schermerhorn at 34th Street. As explained in more detail on the Daytonian in Manhattan blog, a rivalry formed between their wives, which ultimately led to John’s son William Waldorf Astor demolishing his father’s house and building a large hotel, named the Waldorf Hotel, that overshadowed his aunt Charlotte’s house right next door. The noise and traffic generated by the hotel was, as desired, a significant nuisance in the previously residential neighborhood, and Charlotte soon moved out of the house.

When Charlotte moved out, her son, John Jacob Astor IV, announced plans to build a competing hotel on the property, named the Astoria Hotel. It was designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, the same architect responsible for the Waldorf, and by the time it was completed in 1897 the two sides of the family had agreed to consolidate the two into a single hotel, named the Waldorf-Astoria. The first photo here was taken soon after, and it shows the distinction between the earlier Waldorf Hotel on the left, with the significantly larger Astoria on the right. Together, they occupied much of the block, and with 1,300 rooms it was the largest hotel in the world at the time.

Although he started the hotel, William Waldorf Astor did not remain in the United States. He moved to England and became a British subject, earning the title of 1st Viscount Astor in 1917, two years before his death at the age of 71. As for John Jacob Astor IV, he is probably best known today for having been the richest man aboard the Titanic when it sank in 1912. He had a net worth of around $87 million at the time (around $2 billion today), and he and his second wife Madeline had been returning from their honeymoon aboard the ship. Madeline and their unborn son survived the sinking, but Astor did not. Coincidentally, the hearings for the U.S. Senate inquiry into the disaster were subsequently held here at the hotel.

In its heyday, the Waldorf-Astoria functioned not only as a high-end hotel, but also as a restaurant and event venue for the wealthy New Yorkers who lived nearby. However, by the 1920s the relatively new hotel was already showing its age. Its Victorian interior decor, while fashionable in the 1890s, was soon out of date. Making matters worse, most of New York’s upper class, including the Astor family themselves, had moved further uptown, to mansions in the vicinity of Central Park. This, combined with Prohibition’s ban on alcohol sales, hurt their dining rooms, which had once been one of the hotel’s most profitable business.

The hotel closed in 1929, and two years later reopened in a new building further uptown on Park Avenue, where it still stands today. The original building here on Fifth Avenue was then demolished to clear the space for the Empire State Building, which was completed in 1931 after just over a year of construction.

Fifth Avenue from 33rd Street, New York City

Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 33rd Street, around 1905-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Fifth Avenue in 2016:

Notice the extremely wide sidewalks in the first photo. Fifth Avenue was originally designed to have a 40-foot roadway with 30-foot sidewalks on either side, but this changed in 1908, shortly after the first photo was taken. To accommodate the growing automobile traffic on the street, it was widened to 55 feet, and the wide sidewalks were trimmed down. Despite over a century of change, though, there are a remarkable number of buildings that have survived from the first photo, especially on the left side. When the first photo was taken, this section of Fifth Avenue had just recently become a major commercial area, and as a result most of the buildings were new at the time.

Perhaps most surprising from the first photo is that the Knickerbocker Trust Company Building – the short building with columns in the center of the photo – is technically still standing, although it has long since been altered way beyond recognition. It was built in 1904 at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street as the headquarters of one of the nation’s largest banks, but soon after the bank inadvertently played a major role in causing the Panic of 1907. This banking crisis occurred around the time that the first photo was taken, after the Knickerbocker president, Charles T. Barney, attempted to corner the market in copper using the bank’s money. The plan failed, and in the days before FDIC-insured deposits, account holders rushed to the bank to withdraw their money as other banks announced that they would no longer accept checks from Knickerbocker accounts. Ultimately, the bank survived, although Barney was forced to resign and he committed suicide soon after. As for the building, it was significantly changed in 1921 with the addition of ten stories on top of it, and in 1958 the facade was altered to its current appearance, removing any exterior elements from the original structure.

Despite the number of surviving buildings from the first photo, there are several notable ones that have since been demolished. In the distance, at the corner of 37th Street, is the steeple of Brick Presbyterian Church, which was built in 1858 when this area was still largely residential, and it stood there until 1937. Probably the most famous building from the first photo, though, is the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, on the left side in between 33rd and 34th Streets. This massive hotel is only partially visible in this view, and it stood here until 1929, when it was demolished to build the Empire State Building, which now stands on the site.

Looking North From The Empire State Building

The view looking north toward Central Park from the Empire State Building on September 11, 1933. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection.

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The view in 2011:


When the Empire State Building was completed in 1931, it stood far above any of its Midtown neighbors.  However, in the past 80 years the other buildings between the Empire State Building and Central Park have begun creeping upward.  The Empire State Building was still the tallest when the 2011 photo was taken, but the skyscrapers are noticeably taller.  The Rockefeller Center, which blocks out part of the view of Central Park in the 1933 photo, stands out in the first photo, but now the 70-story building seems to blend in with its surroundings.  Today, the Empire State Building is no longer the tallest in the city, or even in Midtown – it has since been displaced by 432 Park Avenue, with two even taller residential skyscrapers on West 57th Street in the works.

Looking South From the Empire State Building

The view looking south from the Empire State Building around 1931.  Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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The view in 2011:


For all of the changes that have taken place in New York City over the past 80 years, these two photos really don’t look all that different.  The buildings in lower Manhattan have certainly become taller, but even many of the skyscrapers from the 1931 photo are still there.  In the center foreground, many of the buildings along Fifth Avenue are still there, including the Flatiron Building, which was old even when the first photo was taken.  The Statue of Liberty is still there on the right in the distance, although the far left side has one major change: the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island.  Both views give an idea of the massive scale of the Empire State Building; the first was taken around the time the building was completed, and it towered over everything else in Midtown – even the 21-story Flatiron Building looks diminutive when viewed from here.  When the second photo was taken in 2011, the Empire State Building was still the tallest in the city, although it had been surpassed by both World Trade Center towers from 1972 to 2001, and in 2013 it would again be surpassed by the new World Trade Center building, which is visible under construction in this 2011 view.

Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 28th Street, New York City

The view looking north on Fifth Avenue from 28th Street, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The same view in 2014:


Despite it being over 100 years since the first photo was taken, many of the buildings along Fifth Avenue are still there. In particular, Marble Collegiate Church in the left-center of the photos appears almost unchanged; it was built in 1854, back when Fifth Avenue looked far different from either of these two photos, and it is home to the third oldest church congregations in the United States, having been founded in 1637. A few other buildings are also identifiable from both photos, including the tall building to the left of the church, although at some point in between someone added four stories to it, with little regard for making it match the rest of the building.  The most notable difference, of course, is the Empire State Building, which would not be completed until about 25 years after the first photo was taken.