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NYTimes: The Signs of the Times 1905

In 1905, the New York Times moved to midtown from its downtown location primarily because it needed more space. It chose 1475 Broadway at 42nd Street as its new home, partly to one-up its competitor, The New York Herald, located at Herald Square since 1895. But partly it wished to take advantage of the unique geometry of Broadway’s intersection of the midtown grid. It afforded the opportunity to design a building to fit the plot of land at that location. The Times Tower was modeled after Giotto’s 14th century Campanile in Florence.

Today you’d be hard put to notice any resemblance.

The Times Tower opened in Times Square on December 31, 1904, with fireworks at midnight. But less than ten years later, the Times needed even more space. In 1913, it moved some of its operations to the Times Annex at 229 West 43rd Street—which it then expanded. And then expanded again. By 1963, with the Times operating out of the Annex and its printing plant on West End Avenue, the building was sold.

It was renamed the Allied Chemical Tower, for its new owner. When the corporation stripped the building of its architectural detail, replacing it with a corrugated cement and marble cladding, Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic of the Times, cited it, along with the demolition of Penn Station, as another sign of an “impoverished society.” She called it the “lowest common denominator of non-design.” She may have spoken too soon.

When the tower was sold in 1995 to Lehman Brothers, instead of leasing the interior, they turned the exterior into a billboard. They sacrificed any vestigial resemblance to Giotto’s Campanile, but made a 300% profit in two years. Sherwood Outdoor and Jamestown One Times Square, who acquired the building in 1996, continued this business model. Today, despite leasing the first three floors to Walgreen’s, and some minimal use of space above that for storage, the building’s most viable commercial purpose is to support electronic and vinyl signs and the annual New Year’s Eve ball drop. The building yields revenues of $23 million a year.

The value of those signs to Times Square is more than just monetary, as New Yorkers discovered on the evening of November 7th, 1984. The Municipal Arts Society staged a protest called “Shut Off the Lights” during which all the commercial signage in Times Square went dark at the same time. In so doing, they helped defeat a proposed rezoning that could have turned Times Square into “just another Sixth Avenue” (see minutes 6:20 to 7:40). Subsequently, zoning for Times Square’s “Special Midtown District” made it mandatory for every building in Times Square to have a billboard. Today you’ll recognize Times Square by the signs all over it, but not by the buildings within it.

– Carol Cofone