Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Little Building Under the Big Bag at Macy's

Thousands of pedestrians pass by the corner of 34th Street and Broadway every day, right past the little building hiding under the giant Macy's shopping bag.  Quite a few may wonder why that little building is there and why Macy's had to built around it.  The answer?  Rivalry and money.

The dry goods store established by Rowland H. Macy in 1858 at 14th Street and 6th Avenue was in the hub of the shopping district.  But by the 1870s and '80s large, impressive emporiums were establishing themselves further up 6th Avenue along what was to become The Ladies Mile.  Macy recognized that the northward movement would leave his store behind and as the century wound down, he schemed to jump ahead of the pack, secretly buying up the properties along Broadway from 34th to 35th Streets.  A handshake with Alfred Duane Pell cemented a $250,000 agreement for the 34th Street corner property.

Henry Siegel, owner of a major competitive dry goods concern, got wind of Macy's plan.  Through an agent he outbid Macy on the corner lot by $125,000 and Pell accepted.  Although Siegel's intentions cannot be completely certain, it appears he wanted Macy's 14th Street store.  He would hold the 34th Street corner hostage; the ransom being the 14th Street property.

Macy called Siegel's bluff.  In July of 1901 he announced that he would built a gigantic new store with over 1.5 million square feet, nine stories high, a commerical phenomenon.   The store would be built around the obstinate corner; perhaps the first instance of a real estate holdout in New York history.

Siegel's new 5-story building snuggled in the crook of Macy's -- photo NYPL Collection
Defeated, Siegel razed his little corner building and erected the 5-story structure that hides there today.  In the meantime, a spiteful Macy kept his 14th Street store vacant until 1903 when Siegel finally took it over.  Four years later Siegel sold his interest in the 34th Street building to Robert Smith who sold it in 1911 for $1 million -- $866.55 a square foot!

In the 1940's Macy's began using the little building as a backing for its advertising in what must have been an "if you can't beat it, use it" philosophy.  As the decades progressed, less and less of the little building, designed by William H. Hume, was visible.

advertising covering the little corner building in the 1940s -- NYPL Collection
Today just two floors of the Hume building can be seen under the huge red Macy's shopping bag that is so familiar to New Yorkers.  The David and the Goliath of the 34th Street corner have made peace, it would seem, after a century of irritating co-existence. 

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. No way 2 million pedestrians pass every day. That would be 83,000 every hour for 24 hours (including night).

  2. That number doesn't sound unbelievable. 2 million UNIQUE pedestrians seems less likely.