Same building, 105 years apart: Use the slider to look between left, Times Square in 1908, and right, Times Square in 2013. Created using JuxtaposeJS. Photos: Stuff Nobody Cares About, Nantucket Preservation Trust

Located in the center of the city, with the intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue creating a bowtie-shaped public plaza, is Times Square, the beating heart of New York City. Take one walk through Times Square, and you’ll know why people proclaim it to be “the center of the universe.” It’s a feeling you can’t shake as you stand amongst the buzz of hundreds of thousands of people passing through every day (around 380,000 was the last count), awestruck by the brilliantly lit billboards advertising just about every product, service, or experience. If you haven’t been, you’ve seen perhaps the most famous event in the world on T.V., the ball drop in Times Square, signifying the start of a fresh new year. But less well known is the fascinating story hiding beneath the flashing advertisements of the “billion-watt neon circus.”

Longacre Square, circa 1900. Credit: Viewing NYC

Times Square was not always known as Times Square. It began as the home of the horse-carriage industry of the city, thus named Longacre Square in 1872, after London’s horse-carriage thoroughfare, Long Acre. The area started to fill up as savvy land prospectors snatched up the land surrounding Longacre Square during New York’s rapid northward expansion. Unfortunately, the sketchiness of neighboring Hell’s Kitchen to the west and the Tenderloin District (around Penn Station today) to the south also began to spill over to Longacre Square. The area’s reputation as a shady entertainment district was born.

In 1895, German businessman Oscar Hammerstein I opened the Olympia, the first theatre in the area, sparking the development of the Theatre District. His son, Willie Hammerstein, managed his theaters, and his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, would see his Broadway career take off in these theaters (among his success, producing The Sound of Music).

Times Tower under construction in 1903

In anticipation of the construction of the first IRT subway line, forward-thinking New York Times publisher and owner, Adolph Ochs, moved his newspaper from its longtime headquarters downtown to a brand new skyscraper in Midtown. He wanted to build in an area that would have a high volume of foot traffic, therefore giving the Times high visibility, and Longacre Square was the perfect location. The subway station, located beneath the Times Tower, needed a name. Other stations were named based off of the street they were located on (ex. Bleecker St., 23rd St., 72nd St., 96th St., etc), but because Grand Central was also on 42nd Street and was the previous stop on the line, this station couldn’t be named 42nd Street. Nor could it be named Broadway Station, since there were many other stations on Broadway as well. So the station and area were named “Times Square,” in honor of the New York Times. 

The Times Tower was an immediate icon. A thin, triangular building similar to the Flatiron, it was “the first successful effort in New York to give architectural beauty to a skyscraper,” said Ochs. It was also the second-tallest skyscraper in Manhattan (the Times claimed it was the tallest, with an asterisk) To celebrate the New York Times’ move into its new building and Times Square, Ochs hosted a spectacular show of fireworks from the Times Tower at midnight to bring in the New Year of 1905. 200,000 spectators enjoyed the show, overshadowing the previous New Year’s tradition of listening to the ringing bells of Trinity Church. But Ochs was in a pickle. The city wasn’t too happy with the ashes coming down from the fireworks and banned it for the 1908 celebration. He needed a show-stopping replacement.

The inspiration came from the “time ball” of the Western Union Building. The time ball itself has a rather interesting history (here is a New Yorker story chronicling its full history). The Western Union’s time ball was raised 315 feet above the street five minutes before noon, once getting a telegraph signal from the Naval Observatory in D.C., the moment the ball started its drop signified noon, allowing the city to set its clocks accurately while captivating audiences from the streets.

Ochs put his own twist on the time ball, commissioning Jacob Starr, a young immigrant electrician/metalworker to create the first ball. The 700-pound ball, decorated with 100 lightbulbs, was slowly lowered down the Times Tower’s flagpole as the crowd counted down. Once reaching the bottom, the crowd erupted in a “wild human hullabaloo of noise,” as the year 1908 flashed on top of the building, proclaimed the New York Times. A New Year’s tradition for the ages was born. 

Though the New York Times soon outgrew its centerpiece building of Times Square, moving their headquarters to a larger nearby building, it retained ownership of the Times Tower and the tradition of the ball drop. Meanwhile, Times Square became a trendy location. The Hotel Astor and Knickerbocker Hotel came around the same time, the former in 1904, the latter in 1906, quickly becoming high society fixtures.

Times Square became a place of celebration, not just on New Year’s Eve, but for every big occasion. The area flourished through the 1910s and 20s as a construction boom of buildings and subway lines made Times Square the indisputable hub of the city. Multiple subways headed toward every part of the city all came to Times Square, making it the busiest of the system.

The Great Depression, however, hit Times Square harder than any other part of New York. Construction halted, theaters struggled, and the area literally descended into the dark. Seedy businesses operated in the shadows of the bright lights, though those lights were later shut down as part of the blackout during World War II. Even the ball drop was on hold for 1942 and 1943. The end of the war, however, brought a boisterous celebration, drawing the largest crowd in Times Square history. 

That celebration was not enough to rid Times Square of its befallen reputation; though there were serious efforts to clean up the area of its dirty businesses, the area descended even further. In the early 1960s, the New York Times called its namesake square, the “worst block in town.” It was a symbol of the city’s decline, overtaken by drugs, prostitution, and gang violence. Even the police learned to avoid the trouble of Times Square. 

The “sleaziest block in America” in 1981 saw cleanup efforts begin in earnest in the late 1980s. Mayor Rudy Giuliani eradicated Times Square of every undesirable business during his reign in the 1990s, leading to the “Disneyfication” of the area. Tourists came back to Times Square. In 2009, under the Bloomberg administration, parts of the plaza were closed off to vehicular traffic. Hiring famous Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, the redesigned Times Square was finished before the end of 2016. 

The Times Tower had its ornate decorations covered by stark white slabs of marble when converted into the Allied Chemical Building in the 1960s.

Through it all, the Times Tower, now renamed One Times Square, has remained the focal point of Times Square. The ball, in its 7th iteration, is still dropped off of that building annually. But the building itself has changed with the times. Covering the magnificent facade of the Times Tower began in 1928 when the first electronic sign was placed on the building. Aptly named the “zipper,” it was a technological marvel, flashing all the important news of the day. It joined the other bright lights of Times Square. In 1963, the New York Times sold the building to Allied Chemical, who hid the ornate decorations of the Times Tower with stark slabs of white marble. Only the “zipper” remained, though inconsistently used. By 1992, the building was bankrupt. Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers bought up the building in 1995. Deciding that renovating the interior, with limited floor space due to its narrow design, was not cost-effective, the firm instead capitalized on its exterior. The entire exterior was framed to hold electronic billboards for advertisements, and by 1997, the building was completely concealed. Lehman Brothers sold the building that year for $117 million, nearly five times what it purchased the building in 1995, giving us the shell we see today. Iconic advertisements, like Nissin Foods Cup Noodles billboard with smoke effects, have graced the building, as have large video art installments featuring a “whale ballet.”

It’s hard to see past the lights and excitement of Times Square today and imagine its lively past. But it’s easy to feel the balled up energy of a century worth of excitement. Through thick and thin, it has reflected the ever-changing nature of New York City, and Times Square is sure to remain a timeless symbol of a restless city.

Kai Oishi

Evolution of NYC