Tin Pan Alley

This section of West 28th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway was the home of American Music at the start of the 20th century. At that time, publishers hired piano players to demo songs for performers and other potential buyers. The comingled sound of the pianos coming from the open windows on this block earned it the nickname "Tin Pan Alley." Aside from launching the writing careers of Scott Joplin, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin and (possibly) George Gershwin (among many others), Tin Pan Alley also was the birthplace of the modern music industry, with music developed, categorized and marketed as a commodity for mass distribution - which then meant sheet music for the increasing number of home pianos.

After music activity on the block peaked around 1906 or so, music publishers continued the march to the midtown theatre district and were all gone by 1911. Proposals during the building boom of the 1920s to demolish 49-55 and build a loft building never came to fruition. The depression (and associated dearth of private redevelopment activity) helped preserve the buildings and the block was spared during the urban renewal craze of the 1950s and 1960s. The upper floors of the buildings ultimately became residential with a variety of different businesses inhabiting the first floor retail spaces.

In the fall of 2008, the owner of five of the remaining row houses (#47 - #55 on the north side of 28th Street - a nearly matched set) were listed for sale, presenting the possibility that this remnant of American Musical History might be erased to build yet another generic glass tower for the wealthy and powerful. The resulting press helped advance efforts to have the buildings landmarked.

Given that publicity, I decided to visit the block and see what all the fuss was about.

The exact origin of the name "Tin Pan Alley" is lost in time. Although commonly attributed to songwriter and New York Herald reporter Monroe Rosenfeld, the earliest citation for the name seems to be an article in the New York World from May 3, 1903 written by Roy L. McCardell (who almost certainly did not invent the term himself):

A Visit to "Tin Pan Alley," Where the Popular Songs Come From

"Tin Pan Alley?" - it's twenty-eighth street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, the centre of the song publishing business in this country, and it gets its name from the jangling of pianos that are banged and rattled there day and night as new songs are being "tried on." Every day you'll see noted people in the musical comedy world hunting in the "Alley" for sonts that will add to their fame - Paula Edwardes, Marie Cahill, Blanche Ring, Dan Daly, Marie Dressler and Lew Dockstader active in the hunt.

The row houses on the block themselves date from the 1850s through the 1870s. The beginning of music publishing on this block is commonly dated as 1893, when music publisher M. Witmark & Sons moved in to 49 West 28th Street. The 1894 NYC City Directory lists his business at 51 West 28th Street, but by 1898, Witmark had moved one block uptown to 8 West 29th Street. By 1905 Witmark had moved to 144 West 37th, where they seem to have remained for quite awhile. In 1925, the Arthur W. Tams Music Library and the Witmark Music Library merged to create Tams-Witmark, a organization that became very well known in amateur theatre circles as the licensing agency for many classic American musical theatre works. In 1929, Witmark was bought out by Warner Brothers following the death of Julius Witmark.

M. Witmark and Sons listing in the 1894 NYC City Directory
M. Witmark and Sons listing in the 1898 NYC City Directory

However, even as the Witmarks were moving uptown, other musical businesses were moving into the block. Although the 1902 NYC Business Directory does not have a separate category for "Music Publishers", there are a number of "Dramatic Agents" and "Music Printers" on the block:

Dramatic agents pp 1
Dramatic agents pp 2
Music printers

By 1905 there was a separate NYC Business Directory category for Music Publishers, perhaps indicating the increasing sophistication of the business. Of the 152 companies listed, 24 were on West 28th Street.

Music publishers pp 1
Music publishers pp 2

The party continued in 1906 with 36 publishers listed on the block. There were still a few "agents" there as well, although they seemed to be congregating on 42nd Street and in a handful of buildings further uptown on Broadway (1133, 1358, 1402, 1440, 1441, 1520, etc.).

Dramatic agents
Music publishers pp 1
Music publishers pp 2

Things were still going strong in 1907 with 38 publishers listed on West 28th St. Although when "Cut Rate Music Co." moves to your block, you can figure your best days are in the past.

Music publishers pp 1
Music publishers pp 2

Sometime between 1907 and 1911 most of the publishers on 28th Street went out of business or moved uptown. Unfortunately, the NYPL microfilms are missing pages from the NYC Business Directory during this period, but by 1911 and 1912 there only appear to be a handful of stragglers on West 28th Street in an office building that was on the east side of Broadway. By 1916, there were no music publishers listed on West 28th Street at all. It was Tin Pan Alley no more.

Music publishers
Music publishers pp 1
Music publishers pp 2
Music publishers pp 1
Music publishers pp 2

Jim Naureckas' New York Songlines site details some additional history of individual buildings, including the names of songs published in these buildings that are still remembered by some today.

On an prurient side note, 34 West 28th Street was originally a church, but became a the Everard Baths in 1888. By 1918 it was serving a primarily gay clientele and survived with the nickname "Ever-Hard Baths" until AIDS shut it down in 1985.

Everard Baths, 34 West 28th St.

Interestingly, I remembered photographing this block in 2006 while on a completely different quest. I had the sense that there was something special and majestic about these buildings, boldly representing a low-rise New York that had long been vanquished on surrounding blocks. Perhaps it was the ghost of one of the Whitmarks or Remicks, asking me to remember.

08/03/2006 18:58:47
53-49 West 28th St.
11/17/2008 15:41:41
Tin Pan Alley - North side of West 28th St.
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Tin Pan Alley - North side of West 28th St.
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41-43 West 28th St.
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41-49 West 28th St.
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45 West 28th St.
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Doorway to 45 West 28th St.
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45-47 West 28th St.
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45-47 West 28th St.
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47-53 West 28th St.
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Vintage doorway to 49 West 28th St.
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Not-so-vintage doorway to 47 West 28th St.
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49-51 West 28th St.
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51-57 West 28th St.
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53 West 28th St.
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55-53 West 28th St.
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South side: 24-48 West 28th St.
08/03/2006 18:58:23
53-49 West 28th St.

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