"Union Square: A mixture of Chelsea, Liverpool, and Paris."
— Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)

Union Square Park History

Compiled by Geoffrey Croft edited by Jack Taylor

"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.

First Labor Day parade (May 11, 1882)

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 1842.

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 sprang up.

In 1997 Union Square Park was designated a National Historic Landmark. It was here that workers exercised their rights to free speech and assembly and on September 5, 1882, the first Labor Day in the country was observed. 

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 in 1893.

"Congress shall make no law respecting the right of the people to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Article I, United States Bill of Rights."

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 national holiday.

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).

Great Rallies and Buildings at Union Square