The block that birthed much of the Great American Songbook may get landmark status: Five buildings in Manhattan's Tin Pan Alley are now up for consideration by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The LPC is reportedly considering landmarking the exteriors of 47 W. 28th Street, 49 W. 28th Street, 51 W. 28th Street, 53 W. 28th Street, and 55 W. 28th Street, addresses that—as Curbed notes—have lately been on shaky ground. In recent years, they have been advertised for sale for developers looking to build high rises, but the state has banned their current owner, Yair Levy, from renting apartments in New York City, due to what officials have described as "predatory" and fraudulent practices.
Kate Lemos McHale, the LPC's director of research, told amNY that the commission is "hopeful for his support," although in a statement to Gothamist, an LPC spokesperson acknowledged that designation "is not a given."
Regardless, the landmarking process began Tuesday, when the commission voted to calendar the buildings; next up, it will hold a public hearing and finally a public meeting to decide their fate.
Today, the Commission calendared 5 historic buildings on West 28th Street in what became known as "Tin Pan Alley," home to the most significant concentration of sheet music publishers in NYC at the turn of the 20th century. pic.twitter.com/ePRR0aqfOA
— Landmarks Commission (@nyclandmarks) March 12, 2019
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tin Pan Alley housed a sheet music industry that boomed in the Reconstruction era, when—according to Atlas Obscura—the country went on a kind of piano-buying spree. People were reportedly snapping up parlor pianos at the impressive rate of 25,000 per year in the 1880s, and they needed some guidance as to what to play, generating demand for fancily-bound songbooks.
Clustered along the stretch of 28th Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway, sheet music publishers (as many as 38 of them by 1907) employed composers and writers to put together songs you will surely recognize: "God Bless America" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band," all your faves. Entertainment types would then wander over from the then-adjacent theater district, thirsty for hits, which "pluggers" promoted in vaudeville halls and department stores.
Once people started buying phonographs and radios, however, the niche industry that fueled Tin Pan Alley began to die out. The block's Italianate row houses have mostly fallen into disrepair, taken over by wholesale retailers. Here's how the NY Times described a handful of the landmark candidates back in 2003:
The houses at 53 and 55 look like recently excavated ruins, the old wooden moldings at the entryways smothered in crackled paint. Above, the brownstone is flaking off in melon-sized gobs; in other places the brownstone blocks heave out irregularly, like a sidewalk pushed up by a tree root. In still other places the stone has weathered into a mini-Grand Canyon, leaving successive layers exposed. On a recent sunny day a couple of men in chairs were drinking beer on the third-floor fire escape of 53 West 28th, looking around like 19th-century tourists viewing a half-buried Pompeii.
Still, the street was a lively cacophony of warring pianos at its peak. Atlas Obscura attributes its moniker to contemporaneous journalist Monroe Rosenfeld, who reportedly compared the noise from the jumble of discordant tunes to "a bunch of tin pans clanging." From that chaos came classics by Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, and Scott Joplin, though, so do not judge the process.