Our Lecture Notes: A Physical History of the Garment District

fashion avenue sign
Jenni Avins

When we went to a talk last night at the Museum of the City of New York, we had a basic idea about the physical history of New York City’s Garment District: We knew it originally started in the tenements of the Lower East Side, and then moved up Broadway to loftier spaces like the Asch Building, near Washington Square, where the famed Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place almost exactly one hundred years ago. Soon after, the move continued uptown to the area between 34th and 40th Streets, Broadway and 9th Avenue that we still know as the New York City Garment District. But as Andrew Dolkart, the director of Columbia’s Historical Preservation Program pointed out as he began his lecture last night, we knew very little about those buildings. (Guilty!)

Here are a handful of the interesting facts we learned:

  • It wasn’t because of the labor movement or zoning laws that factory owners moved their workspaces uptown, but because the era’s luxury store owners – think Saks, Tiffany’s, Macy’s – complained that the lunchtime crowds of working-class men on the street were “a menace, a nuisance, and a blight” to their businesses.
  • In 1916 store-owners calling themselves the “Save New York Committee” took out newspaper ads telling citizens of the “menace to trade on Fifth Avenue,” and, in an anti-“buy local” twist, organized a boycott of clothing made near their stores. So, the factory owners moved to what we now know as the Garment District.
  • Many developers responsible for the massive brick loft buildings (Dolkart admits they’re somewhat non-descript) we see in the Garment District were also factory owners, so designs were driven by their needs: flexible floor space, good light, freight elevators, and wide driveways connecting one street to the next were all top priorities. If you’ve ever visited Mood Fabrics in the Bricken Arcade building, some of this may sound familiar.
  • Some of those factory owners also had a hand in developing the Upper West Side, where they lived, which is why many of the buildings there have a similar style.
  • The buildings at 498 and 500 Seventh Avenue (at 37th Street) were once called “The Garment Center Capitol.” The lower floors housed manufacturing spaces designed for efficiency (some still do), but the top floor had a fancy club for factory owners, complete with a 750-seat neoclassical style restaurant, a squash court, and a lounge.
  • At the time it was built, in 1921, the Garment Center Capitol was the largest garment-manufacturing center in the world.
  • Dolkart couldn’t think of another industry in New York that has had such a great effect on the physical design of the city – and yet, not one building in the Garment District has historical Landmark designation.

But the Garment District isn't just history. Dolkart recommends taking a walk around the neighborhood at dusk, when you can still see factory lights through windows from the street. We recommend the same – though we’ll also keep you in the loop with more Dispatches from the Garment District to come.

Contact Us