On the Square

Shoppers at S. Klein

Shoppers in the diamond department of S. Klein in 1953. Via Life images.

As we enter the final phase of the holiday shopping season we thought we would continue our look at some of the historic retail establishments in our area. Last week we looked at Wanamaker’s huge store and annex near Astor Place. Farther north at Union Square, a major retail presence for decades was the S. Klein department store.

The S. Klein complex of buildings at the southeast corner of Union Square (now the Zeckendorf Towers). Image via NYPL.)

Samuel Klein open a small women’s dress shop in a second floor loft on Union Square in 1906. Within twenty years, that small store, which had begun with only 36 dresses on the racks, grew into a major shopping destination downtown.

Company owners gradually purchased more buildings and connected them internally on the southeastern corner of Union Square. An annex building a block north on Union Square East was also opened. With uneven floors because of the internal connections and sometimes cramped spaces, Klein’s was known as a department store for bargain hunters and sold everything from clothing to jewelry to furniture to pet supplies. The store’s merchandise was considered a slight step up from discount retailers but at a class below establishments like Macy’s and Saks.

S. Klein

The S. Klein annex on Union Square East in 1936. Image via NYPL.

Major discount sales were frequent, and though many consider the phenomenon of massive crowds and queuing up hours in advance an unfortunate feature of today’s retail landscape, reports in the New York Times from 1960 note that on big sale days as many as 4,500 people had lined up before the store opened. Customers could expect  deals like wrist watches for 99 cents and three pairs of nylons for 50 cents (and there were no accounts of pepper-spraying customers).

By the mid 1960s the store had expanded to new locations along the eastern seaboard, but the chain was beginning to run yearly deficits. By the 1970s the satellite locations were shuttered and the flagship store and annex on Union Square were closed in 1975.

It may be hard to imagine today, but at this time Union Square had become quite seedy and desolate, and the massive, dilapidated, boarded up and abandoned S. Klein’s blockfront became, in many ways, the symbol of the steep and disturbing decline of this area (for more about the urban decay in this area in the 1970′s, see our post “It Happened Here: Taxi Driver“).

After years of abandonment, the entire block between 14th Street and 15th Street and 4th Avenue and Irving Place was razed for a massive condo project completed in 1987. Zeckendorf Towers consists of four 26-story residential  towers, retail space and an out-patient medical center.

(l.) S. Klein shuttered in the late 1970s; (r.) The entire S. Klein block was replaced by Zeckendorf Towers in 1987.


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avatar Drew is GVSHP's Director of Administration