It is an important and historic intersection, located where Broadway and the former Bowery Road – now Fourth Avenue – came together in the early 19th century; its name celebrates neither the Federal union of the United States nor labor unions but rather denotes that "here was the union of the two principal thoroughfares of the island". Today, it is bounded by 14th Street to the south, Union Square West on the west side, 17th Street on the north, and on the east Union Square East, which links together Broadway and Park Avenue South to Fourth Avenue and the continuation of Broadway.
The eastern side of the square is dominated by the four Zeckendorf Towers, on the former site of the bargain-priced department store, S. Klein, and the south side by the full-square block mixed-use One Union Square South (Davis Brody Bond, 1999). It features a kinetic wall sculpture and digital clock expelling bursts of steam, titled Metronome. Among the heterogeneous assortment of buildings along the west side is the Decker Building.
At the time that John Randel was surveying the island in preparation for the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, the Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) angled away from the Bowery at an acute angle that would have been so awkward to build on, that the Commissioners decided to form a square at the union. In 1815, by act of the state legislature, this former potter's field became a public commons for the city, at first named Union Place.
In 1832, when the space was surrounded by empty lots Samuel Ruggles, one of the founders of the Bank of Commerce and the developer of Gramercy Park to the northeast, convinced the corporation to name it Union Square and enlarge the commons to 17th Street on the north and extend the axis of University Place to form the square's west side. Ruggles obtained a fifty-year lease on most of the surrounding lots from 15th to 19th Streets, where he built sidewalks and curbs. In 1834 he convinced the Board of Aldermen to enclose and grade the square, then sold most of his leases and in 1839 built a four-storey house facing the east side of the Square.
A fountain was built in the center of Union Square to receive water from the Croton Aqueduct, completed in 1842. In 1845, as the square finally began to fill with affluent houses, $116,000 was spent in paving the surrounding streets and planting the square, in part owing to the continued encouragement of Ruggles. The sole survivors of this early phase, though they have been much adapted and rebuilt, are a series of three- and four-story brick rowhouses, 862–866 Broadway, at the turn where Broadway exits the square at 17th Street. The Everett House on the corner of 17th Street and Fourth Avenue (built 1848, demolished 1908) was for decades one of the city's most fashionable hotels.
In the early years of the park a fence surrounded the square's central oval planted with radiating walks lined with trees. In 1872 Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were called in to replant the park, as an open glade with clumps of trees.
At first the square, the last public space that functioned as the entrance to New York City, was largely residential – the Union League Club first occupied a house loaned for the purpose by Henry G. Marquand at the corner of 17th Street and Broadway – but after the Civil War the neighborhood became largely commercial, and the square began to lose social cachet at the turn of the twentieth century. Tiffany & Co., which had moved to the square from Broadway and Broome Street in 1870, left its premises on 15th Street to move uptown to 37th Street in 1905; the silversmiths Gorham Company moved up from 19th Street in 1906. The last of the neighborhood's free-standing private mansions, Peter Goelet's at the northeast corner of 19th Street, made way for a commercial building in 1897.
In March 2008, an eighteen-month renovation began on the northern end of the park. Proponents of the plan describe it as the completion of a renovation of Union Square Park that began in the mid-1980s that will improve the park by increasing the amount and quality of playground space, improving the quality and function of the public plaza, rehabilitating the badly deteriorating bandshell structure, improving the working conditions for park employees, and maintaining the "eyes on the street" presence of a restaurant at the heart of the park. Protests and political action in response to the original renovation plans resulted in a reduction in the degree to which the pavilion was to be renovated, a reduction in the total amount of space that the restaurant would occupy, and an increase in the amount of dedicated play space, but stiff opposition remains to the idea that any commercial uses might occupy the pavilion. Despite the fact that the overall amount of play space in the park will be increased as a result of the renovation, those critical of the plan claim that the bandshell pavilion itself ought to be converted to play space. The fate of the historic pavilion building is uncertain and has been brought before the State Supreme Court. On March 30, 2009, a judge dismissed the lawsuit against the renovation, paving the way for a seasonal restaurant in the pavilion.
One element of contention not related to the restaurant concession is the inclusion of a single line of street trees, spaced 30 feet (9.1 m) apart, along the north side of the plaza. Despite rumors to the contrary, the inclusion of trees was made possible without reducing the usable gathering space of the plaza by the simultaneous decision to remove a painted median strip that had separated eastbound and westbound traffic along 17th Street, thus increasing the northern limits of the plaza by several feet. Some critics feel that this line of trees will make the space less useful for large rallies although no barriers to free movement across 17th street are being introduced and the "temporary" metal rails, welded together to make a continuous fence along the north side of the site, will be removed as part of the renovation of the plaza. A double line of trees along 17th street had been planted years earlier as a monument to victims of the Armenian Genocide.
During the renovation the Green Market was temporarily relocated to the west side of the park, returning to the north end as of April 4, 2009.
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