Lincoln Square BID

History of Lincoln Square, 1700 – 2000

History of Lincoln Square, 1700 – 2000


The name “Lincoln Square” has defined the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenue since the early 1800’s.  Although in the beginning the name was given only to the small triangle of land now known as Richard Tucker Park, it came to represent the entire district by the turn of the century.  It has held ever since, even providing a name for the giant arts complex that would radically transform the area in the 1960’s.  In a great touch of irony, the name does not refer to Abraham Lincoln, in the manner of Washington and Madison Squares, but is instead that of a long-forgotten local landowner.  That the name has been carried across generations, expanding from its humble origin to ultimately define one of the world’s great cultural districts, would surely have been a surprise to its original owner. 

EARLY YEARS – “Vale of Flowers”

In 1703, the Dutch colonists created the “Bloomingdale Road”, along a former Indian trading route, to ease the transfer of goods between New Amsterdam and the Bloomingdale region (an adaptation of the Dutch for “Vale of Flowers”).  The area was indeed pastoral, and several small hamlets had been established in the area that would become the Upper West Side.  Little Bloomingdale, stretching from what would become 59th to 69th Streets, was the horse breeding estate of Etienne De Lancy, a wealthy merchant.  An arcadian residential village was nearby, known as Harsenville after Jacob Harsen.  Harsen founded the Bloomingdale Dutch Reform Church, which served the quiet agrarian community.  The church was located on the Bloomingdale Road near today’s 68th Street.


By the early 1800’s, New York City was experiencing explosive physical development.  In 1811, the City Commissioners created the extraordinary grid plan, which extended to 155th Street.  The design incorporated the meandering path of the Bloomingdale Road, which further south was now called Broadway.  The crossings of this organic path with the rational grid created accidental spaces, which would develop as centers of activity.  The “Bowtie” intersection became an urban form unique to Manhattan.  Unlike formal urban squares, bowties created strange leftover shapes, narrow triangles with no economic value.  Typically these became miniature parks.

The once agrarian villages of Bloomingdale were overrun with land speculators, city engineers, tax assessors, and the tent villages of squatters.  The old families moved out and eventually dissipated to quieter regions.  The Commissioners’ grid plan was rapidly surveyed across the area, and large estate properties were subdivided, although the streets themselves took much longer to construct. 

In the 1850’s, this capitalist zeal and rapid development would be tempered by a movement to create civic amenities, and to improve the quality of urban life.  In 1856, the City purchased the entire area that it would reserve for Central Park, then being planned by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux.  The creation of the Park caused nearby urban districts to be rethought with a sense of civic beauty.  Andrew Haswell Green, head of the Central Park Commission, reconceived the Bloomingdale Road as a great urban boulevard, stemming from an impressive traffic circle in the French style.  He modeled it after the monumental boulevards being cut through Paris by Baron Hausmann around the same time.  The Bloomingdale Road was renamed the “Grand Boulevard”, widened to 150 feet, and redesigned with landscaped central islands and four rows of elms. 

In 1871, Fernando Wood addressed the West Side Association, a civic group formed to promote the development of the area.  He expressed his vision for the future of the Upper West Side, now a clearly defined area between the park and the river.  He accurately predicted the future of spaces such as Lincoln Square;

“The Grand Boulevard will run through the avenues and divide them, making a series of open squares at frequent points, thus creating many prominent business centers like Union Square, Madison Square, Sixth Avenue and Broadway Square, &tc.  These will be continued all the way up from the circle to Manhattanville, and then onward to King’s Bridge.  The frequency of these spots, together with the numerous parks, Boulevards, drives, statues, monuments, natural scenery, river and landscape, will make a grand total of attractions which will command the best class of population, and hold it continuously thereafter.”


Lincoln Square would be the first of these business centers as one moved up the Grand Boulevard from the Grand Circle.  The civic visions of these early boosters would be undermined, however, by the intractable problem of urban blight.  Poverty stricken squatter villages occupied much of the area between 59th and 72nd Streets, cutting off the rest of the Upper West Side and stunting the development of the magnificent apartment buildings envisioned by speculators.  The growth of the area wavered, and new residents of buildings like the famous Dakota were forced to coexist with mischievous and threatening criminals and gangs.  The vast influx of immigrants brought the rapid development of high-density tenements, which filled whole blocks in close proximity to the tenuous realm of the pioneering upper class.

As early as the 1840’s, gangs ruled the area around Lincoln Square, having been herded out of Hell’s Kitchen.  Lincoln Square became the territory of the One-Armed Gang and the Parlor Mob in this fashion.  The typical new resident could expect “impudent tramps and sneak-thieves, and ruffians of every stamp”.  The gangs were notorious for terrorizing the public and the police alike with booby traps.  They would knock out streetlamps and string wires across streets, or remove manhole covers, trapping local residents and stripping them of their possessions.  Similar tricks would be used to harass the police force, with which the gangs waged an ongoing street war. 

Ethnic divisions heightened the tension and created new fronts of conflict.  Starting around the 1870’s a growing African-American population moved into the area.  62nd Street just south of Lincoln Square became the boundary between the preexisting Irish and the new black populations, and the location of frequent skirmishes.  The entire area surrounding Lincoln Square became known as San Juan Hill, commonly thought to be in honor of the Tenth Negro Cavalry which fought in the Spanish-American War.

The dark and dangerous nature of the San Juan Hill/Lincoln Square area was greatly reduced in 1914, after a comprehensive police crackdown on gang activity.  The sweep, a final stand after years of streetfighting, led to the arrest of 100 gangsters.  After that, the gangs never quite regained their former dominance.  This opened the way for a revitalized social scene which was coming into being around the same time.            


max mongel drawing
Lincoln Square, Early 1900s / Print by Max Mongel
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York
Gift of Works Project Administration, New York City Art Project

Lincoln Square at the turn of the century was not only known for its street crime; a dynamic and colorful art and theater community grew up around the square starting around 1900.  An incredible array of actors, comedians, artists, musicians, and writers moved into the area to take advantage of low rents and camaraderie.  A thriving bohemian atmosphere developed, supporting numerous smoky taverns where ideas were exchanged in a decidedly downscale environment.  It was not the sophisticated arts scene of Europe or even of the theater district of nearby 42nd Street.  The combination of streetwise artists and dramatic personalities with the surrounding intense poverty, gangs, and ethnic diversity surely gave Lincoln Square an atmosphere of teeming intensity.

By 1880 the Ninth Avenue El had been extended into the Upper West Side, greatly increasing access to the area and spurring a rush of development.  The newfound connectivity made the establishment of businesses, theaters, and hotels around Lincoln Square a more viable prospect.  The El station was located at 66th Street, its iron stairways alighting on the east edge of what is now Richard Tucker Park.  The mammoth structure of the El radically transformed the physical character of the space, effectively splitting it in two, separating the two triangular parks.  By 1902, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company was excavating for the subway under Broadway. When it was finished, the subway station entrances were also located at 66th Street, opposite the El.  The small plaza (now Richard Tucker Park) became the hub of transportation for the entire district, and still retains this function.

With the El and the IRT came new developments.  Two grand hotels, the Marie Antoinette and the Empire, framed the square on the north and south ends, respectively.  The hotels boasted opulent interiors and fancy restaurants, giving the area a sense of sophistication.  The Empire claimed to host “polite, exclusive diners”.  Adding to the local color, William H. Flattan had a miniature model of the Statue of Liberty shipped from France and installed on the roof of his warehouse overlooking the square at 64th Street.  In 1921 the south triangle, then called Empire Park, was renamed Dante Park and became home to the statue of the great poet.  This was the result of a campaign by newspaperman Carlo Barsotti to dedicate Upper West Side squares to famous Italians.  He was also responsible for the statues of Columbus and Verdi at the Circle and 72nd Street.

A vibrant theater scene developed around Lincoln Square from the turn of the century onward, focusing on Vaudeville and ‘popular’ entertainment.  Three theaters were just off the square; the Lincoln Square theater was built fronting on the “actual” Lincoln Square (now Richard Tucker Park), the Colonial Theater was just south of the Empire Hotel on Broadway (today the David Rubenstein Atrium), and the Sixty-Third Street Theater was nearby.  Many of these were “combination” houses, which played vaudeville but also featured moving pictures. 

The Colonial, opened in 1905, became the most renowned.  It was created by the same entrepreneurs who had built the Hippodrome and Luna Park at Coney Island.  The New York Times review of the theater slyly suggested that the Colonial “promises to be a popular place of amusement for persons who enjoy frothy entertainment”.  The Colonial featured the American debuts of, among others, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, George Burns, and Buster Keaton.  Lesser performers would risk the wrath of the balcony regulars, who would send a hail of pennies at the stage to signal their disapproval.

The Sixty-Third Street Theater broke with social convention even further.  In 1921, it featured the first all-black Broadway show, Shuffle Along, starring Josephine Baker, after which it continued to feature the work of African-American artists.  In 1927, it ran a show titled Sex, starring Mae West, who turned out later to have written it as well.  The show scandalized audiences, but the sharpest reaction was that of Mayor Walker, who had the theater raided and padlocked.

In addition to the Vaudeville scene, a community of painters and artists took up residence.  The 1902 Lincoln Arcade Building, on the site of the current Juilliard School of Music, attracted artists to its well-lit studio space.  In 1906, George Bellows was the first to move in, sharing space with playwright Eugene O’Neill to save on rent.  In 1909, Bellows’ former teacher Robert Henri joined him in the building, and brought with him a group of current students who included Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and Rockwell Kent.  The artists became attached to the building, which contained theaters, bowling alleys, and shops; at some point they began referring to it as “The Dog Kennel”.  Although it burned to the ground in 1931, it was immediately rebuilt to the original plans.  For another 20 years new generations of artists lived there.  In the 40’s and 50’s, Alexander Archipenko, Thomas Hart Benton, and Raphael Soyer had studios in the building.  Downstairs were theaters, bowling alleys, and shops.  Shopgirls would come upstairs after hours to pose for Soyer and others.

In 1940, having coexisted with the subway for 35 years, the Ninth Avenue El was demolished.  This again transformed the space, opening it up and yielding it to the modern image of a sea of automobile traffic, which has endured ever since.


The bohemian exuberance that characterized Lincoln Square for so many years was virtually wiped clean in the early 1960’s.  The giant urban renewal effort that created Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts ironically replaced the popular, underground art scene with the legitimized high culture of musical arts from Europe and America.  Although the area would be filled with musicians and artists drawn by the new complex, the economic revival would also force the earlier, more flamboyant group of artists to disperse. 

The Federal Housing Act of 1949 contained a provision known as “Title I”.  This policy gave cities broad new powers to seize property.  According to Robert Caro, the new policy;

“extended the power of eminent domain, traditionally used in America only for government-built projects, so drastically that governments could now condemn land and turn it over to individuals – for them to build projects agreeable to government.  Under Title I, whole sections of cities could be condemned, their residents evicted, the buildings demolished – and the land turned over to private individuals.  Here was power new in the annals of democracy.  And in New York, that power would be exercised by Robert Moses.”

Moses had in fact helped to draft the new Federal policy he would soon be implementing.    He became the Chairman of the City Slum Clearance Committee, and was actively ripping down entire neighborhoods of New York City for massive redevelopment projects.  By 1955, he had completed several major projects near Lincoln Square, including New York Coliseum.  He had a “vision of a reborn West Side, marching north from Columbus Circle, and eventually spreading over the entire dismal and decayed West Side”.  Thus, he was already thinking about Lincoln Square when several separate influences came together to form a grand vision for the area; both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic were in need of new facilities (Moses expected Carnegie Hall to be torn down shortly), and he was being urged by the president of Fordham University to find a centralized site for an urban campus.

Moses announced the “Lincoln Square” project in 1956.  He declared that an 18 square block area west of Lincoln Square would be razed for the purpose of building facilities for 15 institutions and large new middle-class housing developments.  In the process, 7,000 low-income families would be evicted, along with 800 local businesses.  No serious efforts were made to find replacement housing for the dislocated residents.  In 1959, President Eisenhower broke ground for the project to great fanfare.  The abandoned tenements, slated for demolition, were used as an open-air set for the filming of the 1961 movie version of “West Side Story”.

A team of world-renowned architects led the effort to design Lincoln Center, led by Wallace K. Harrison, who had performed a similar role for both Rockefeller Center and the United Nations projects.  Harold Schonberg described the process; 

“Suppose six great pianists… all mighty executants, all overpowering personalities – were locked in a room and ordered not to come out until they had decided on the correct interpretation of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata.  How many eons would pass?  How many wounds would be inflicted?  How much blood would be shed?”

Eventually the architects settled on a plan, in the process agreeing to use white Roman travertine to unify the work of so many creative designers.  While accomplishing this, the material clashed dramatically with the dark, time-worn urban surroundings, emphasizing its difference from the surrounding neighborhood.  To relate Lincoln Center to Lincoln Square and the larger city, the central plaza was oriented towards Broadway, at the suggestion of the architect Marcel Breuer. The design team originally planned an enclosed plaza, isolated from the city.  Ironically, after adopting his brilliant idea, the team dropped Breuer and finished without him. 


All the same, it would take years for the center and the neighborhood to adapt to each other.  The sociologist Jane Jacobs, fiercely critical of the policies of planners such as Robert Moses, derided the idea that a cultural center could be created as a “planning island” concentrating arts facilities in a giant complex which had no relation to its surroundings.  This form of segregation could never support neighborhood life in its genuine form as she described in her famous 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  In 1962, Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic’s debut concert in its new home.  Lincoln Center was on its way to world renown as a cultural mecca. 

Although valid at the time, the criticisms of Jacobs and others did not anticipate the ability of Lincoln Square to adjust to new circumstances.  Gradually, the remarkable success of Lincoln Center spurred the economic development of the neighborhood.  By 1969, $110 million worth of projects were planned or in construction between Columbus Circle and 69th Street.  New apartment buildings brought an influx of affluent new residents.  The New York Times reported sightings of “fur-jacketed poodles, chauffeured limosines, and nursemaids with children”.   New shops and restaurants followed, and eventually Lincoln Square came to embody the diversity and vitality which Jane Jacobs valued so highly. 

Urban planners continued to focus on the neighborhood after the completion of Lincoln Center. In 1966, a grandiose tree-lined mall was proposed to connect Lincoln Center Plaza with Central Park.  It would have wiped out an entire block, containing the buildings of the YMCA and Society for Ethical Culture, described by critic Ada Louise Huxtable as “Two of the most stabilizing influences...” on a neighborhood “ a serious state of transition due to the human and economic dislocations of renewal”. 

After this final “grand plan” was abandoned, a more sensitive planning approach was established for Lincoln Square.  A special set of zoning guidelines was created in 1970, to ensure that new buildings surrounding the square would be designed to create a harmonious urban environment.  The guidelines called for mixed-use buildings, setbacks, and pedestrian arcades to shelter open-air cafes.  New buildings, including the ASCAP Building (1900 Broadway) and the Mormon Temple tower, would follow the guidelines, while at the same time gaining variances to be taller than the guidelines intended.  Such exceptions ultimately caused one city agency to sue another, for having granted such variances.  The buildings, however, were completed as planned.

In 1980 the original Lincoln Square was renamed Richard Tucker Park, in honor of the renowned tenor.  Recently, the Walt Disney Company headquarters complex, the Millennium towers, and various other developments have added to the vitality of the thriving neighborhood.  In 1999, TimeSculpture, by Philip Johnson, was installed in Dante Park. 

Having withstood waves of drastic physical and social change, Lincoln Square nonetheless retained its name for over 200 years, its basic shape for over 150 years, and its status as a center for culture and the arts for over 100 years. 

Prepared by: Neil Kittredge for the Lincoln Square Business Improvement District

Main Image: Columbus Circle, 1907
Image Courtesy of George  P. Hall & Son, Library of Congress cph.3c19641