New York City History | Fifth Avenue

When people speak of luxury shopping and grandiose historical homes, one street comes to mind: Fifth Avenue. Located in the heart of Manhattan, this once lackluster thoroughfare is now the focal point of one of the largest cities in the world.

New York City tourists scurry for a glimpse of the mansions along “Museum Mile,” and the Fifth Avenue shopping district is second to none for designer fashions and luxury home furnishings. Its now stellar reputation belies its somewhat humble beginnings.

Petersville Farm

Back in 1846, Fifth Avenue was located in the middle of a land parcel identified as “Farm Belonging to John R. Peters.” The locals dubbed the area “Petersville.” Petersville included many public roads that went on to become famous New York City streets, but at the time, Fifth Avenue was a private way.

Middle Road

Eventually, Fifth Avenue became a route for travelers from Petersville to Yorkville, though it was still considered a country road. In 1811, New York commissioners released a map featuring the proposed expansion of the city. Fifth Avenue was called “Middle Road” back then.

Image courtesy nypl.org
Image courtesy nypl.org

Still, city leaders and local residents strove for business expansion and residential developments along the avenue, even forming a committee to protect the area from businesses who were deemed unworthy.

Grand Expansion

By 1908, word had gotten out about Fifth Avenue. It was quickly becoming “the place to be,” and new buildings were popping up all along the way. The famous department store, B. Altman and Company, occupied an entire block front.

Image courtesy baltmancollection.mcny.org
Image courtesy baltmancollection.mcny.org

The adjacent area became the shopping district. The area expanded rapidly with new luxury shops lining the street, especially with the eventual addition of the flagship Lord & Taylor’s store.

Millionaire’s Row

Image courtesy 6sqft.com
Image courtesy 6sqft.com

As the area between 49th Street and 60th Street became designated for shopping, other parts of Fifth Avenue began filling up with residential homes for the wealthiest members of New York society. Most of these mansions are long gone, having been replaced by skyscrapers and hotels. At one point, however, they were the main feature of Fifth Avenue.

Image courtesy 6sqft.com
Image courtesy 6sqft.com

Modern Fifth Avenue

image courtesy foundtheworld.com
image courtesy foundtheworld.com
Though some of Fifth’s Avenue’s most famous buildings are lost, much of its history remains for the modern observer. Shoppers still delight in the wealth of luxury goods available on “the most expensive street in the world.” Tours are regularly conducted to offer visitors a peek at the historical mansions that remain standing along “Museum Mile,” and several key NYC landmarks drive tourists to this area. If the original commissioners could see Fifth Avenue today, they’d be delighted at how far their dream has come.