What was the Times Square Walgreens? For some, it was another corporate eyesore betwixt Bubba Gump Shrimp and Red Lobster. For others, it was a welcoming oasis — always there for you when you needed a late-night Gatorade or blister Band Aids. Gone now — for reasons unknown, but likely tied to the ever-choppy waves of the commercial real estate sea — both Walgreens and One Times Square sit hauntingly empty and unusually devoid of advertising. But beyond the scaffolding and now-empty aisles once stocked with travel-sized shampoo, there’s a deeper history. We gather here today to remember the many lives of the building at W42nd Street, Broadway and 7th Avenue.
A century before Michael Eisner rolled into Midtown, late-1800s New York and its busiest thoroughfare was known as Longacre Square, named after London’s carriage district, and an early site of William H Vanderbilt’s American Horse Exchange. At first a long, open space, mostly occupied by carriages and humble residences, an influx of new businesses, advertisers, theaters, and brothels led the area to be known as The Tenderloin, or Satan’s Circus (not yet re-adopted by today’s conservatives to describe our fair city, but there’s still time).
During this lively era of Midtown’s history (which wouldn’t be the last!), The Pabst Brewing Company of Milwaukee decided to join in on the fun and open a series of restaurants and hotels around town. Acquiring properties in Coney Island (a hotel that would eventually burn down), a Harlem music hall (the largest restaurant in the world before eventually becoming a department store), and a Columbus Circle hotel and restaurant (eventually torn down to become the Time Warner Center — now the Deutsche Bank Center), the company also set its sights on Longacre Square.
Leasing a building from wealthy florist Charles Thorley, the Pabst company occupied the triangular-shaped space until it was demolished in 1902 to make way for the first home of the New York Times. Alfred S Ochs, the ambitious owner and publisher of the Times, was eager to move his publication away from downtown’s “Newspaper Row” and into more prominent territory. Thorley only agreed to lease the land to the Times under the condition that they inscribe his name upon the building. Ochs took Thorley quite literally at his word — agreeing to inscribe the Thorley name in Old English letters high enough up on the building so that, according to the Times, “only a passing stilt-walker might notice it.” The Times building itself, however, was highly noticeable — then the second-tallest tower in Manhattan, the narrow, triangular structure closely resembled the Flatiron Building (constructed in 1902), and was designed in the detailed, Gothic style that would become architect Cyrus Lazelle Warner Eidlitz’s signature.
The impact of the New York Times on Midtown inspired the city’s then-mayor George McClellan to rename the neighborhood plaza Times Square on April 8, 1904. The neighborhood and its namesake tower would soon become an intrinsic element of Midtown itself. In its first year as Times Square, Ochs and the New York Times hosted the first-ever Midtown New Year’s Eve celebration, adding the famous glittering ball drop into the mix three years later. The first NYE ball was a 700-pound sphere made of iron, wood, and 100 25-watt lightbulbs, all lowered from the top of One Times Square. In what was seemingly the first display of NYE commercial merchandise, hordes of nearby diners at the “lobster palaces” of yore donned battery-powered hats with the year “1908” adorned in tiny light bulbs and timed their caps to illuminate at the stroke of midnight. In addition to the newly-minted New Year’s festivities, locals enjoyed regular Times Square movie nights, where films were projected off of the top of the newspaper’s tower.
And what of the tower’s reluctant landlord, Mr Thorley? He would eventually suffer a macabre New York death, succumbing to apoplexy on a Penn Station-bound train from the annual Harvard-Princeton football game in 1923. His obituary, covered in (where else) but the Times memorialized him as a “florist, capitalist, and sportsman”. His widow sold the Midtown plot to the New York Times, who at this point had moved their publishing headquarters to W43rd Street a decade prior. The company then leased the space to a variety of corporate and retail tenants over the next century, undergoing various renovations including a massive reconstruction in 1963 where its beloved Gothic facade was stripped and replaced with a modernist curtain rod designed by architecture firm Smith, Smith, Haines, Lundberg, & Waehler. And yes, Charles Thorley’s name was finally removed. Despite its pricey location, the building’s owners (currently the Jamestown Property Group) have been able to maintain the slick, steel-grated skyscraper in advertising revenue alone, until recently hosting nothing but digital billboards and our dear departed Walgreens.
While it’s unclear what will follow Walgreens in the long legacy of One Times Square, we can hold out hope for a new and exciting tenant worthy of its storied history. And if you are still looking for that Gatorade? There’s always Target.