Broadway,” wrote the British journalist Stephen Graham a year or so after the picture below was taken looking south from Fortysixth Street, “is the mother of Broadways all over the world, mother of the lights of Piccadilly Circus and of the Place Pigalle.…The Great White Way is the greatest white way.…” The buildings were not marble, of course; the white was all lights, great sheets of them put up in the dawn of electric signs and codified by a 1916 zoning law that made specific allowance for the blazing acreage above Times Square.
The advertisers wanted their signs here because no place in Manhattan drew bigger crowds more regularly. Every night, when the shows broke, “pirouetting, pushing half-dazed men and women,” said Graham, would pour into the streets, where “their concentrated footlight stare melts to the grandeur of a vaster better-lit stage.”
The theaters had begun to move north of Forty-second Street by the mid-1890s, when Oscar Hammerstein, never a cautious impresario, opened his block-long Olympia on a deserted stretch of mud between Forty-fourth and Forty-fifth streets in what was then known as Long Acre. A decade would pass before the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue gained its present name. When, at the turn of the century, the city started pushing its first subway west from Grand Central Terminal and up Broadway, Adolph S. Ochs moved fast; the publisher of The New York Times built a fine tower at Forty-second and Broadway and, in 1904, managed to get the stop there named Times Square.
Ochs’s tower presided over the growth of the area as a theatrical center, although by the time this scene was made, the movie palaces had come to dominate Broadway; then, as now, the legitimate theaters flourished on the side streets throughout the West Forties. The famous Motogram started unspooling its 5-foot-high, 360-foot-long electrical messages around the tower in time to bring fascinated crowds the results of the 1928 presidential election. Long dark, the Motogram was recently reactivated, but its 14,800 lamps are spelling out the news from a sadly changed tower.
Twenty years ago, in an act of civic vandalism second only to the destruction of Penn Station ten blocks to the south, the architectural firm of Smith, Smith, Haines, Lundberg & Waehler, at the behest of the now defunct Allied Chemical Company, stripped away the Times Tower’s splendid terra cotta and replaced it with the deeply dispiriting blank marble facade of what today is One Times Square. Much else has gone too — the Hotel Astor, across from the Times Tower, with the lights of its roof garden visible in the 1920s view, was torn down in 1969 — but Seventh Avenue still cuts the same brave swath southward, the 1926 Paramount Building to the right maintains a touch of twenties zip, the area is still the theatrical capital of the nation, and, with ambitious redevelopment plans both threatening and promising, the Crossroads of the World remains as raffish, seedy, maddening, and grand as ever.