Old New York In Photos #39 – 14th Street – Klein’s and Ohrbach’s

Union Square Looking East Along 14th Street From University Place – February 1954

The Story Of Department Store Titans Of Union Square, S. Klein and Ohrbach’s

14th st looking east Kleins February 1954

It is a brisk February morning in 1954 and on the left is Union Square Park. But dominating this view in the center of the photograph is what was a magnet for generations of bargain-hunting New Yorkers, the large department store of S. Klein On The Sqaure.

S. Klein’s emblem was a measuring square which can barely be seen under the “KLE” in the KLEIN sign in the photo. The “On The Square” tag line was a play on words in that S. Klein was not only located on Union Square,  but implied that they were fair and honest in their dealings – “on the square.”

I remember shopping at S. Klein which we called Klein’s, many times with my grandmother and my mother. Klein’s was similar to another bargain department store chain, Alexander’s, also known for their discounted prices. Klein’s had large flat top bins which held merchandise and when they put something on sale at a ridiculously low price, women would swarm the bin and practically fight over the merchandise!

To the left of S. Klein on Fourth Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets is the Klein Annex, which proclaims in its advertising on the building, “The Best For Less.”

Samuel Klein founded the company in 1906 and controlled it until his death in 1942. The business was sold in 1946, but the Klein family retained the real estate. Klein’s closed its Union Square store permanently on August 16, 1975 due to mounting operating deficits and the rough retail economy in New York. The store sat vacant for many years until it was demolished in 1986.  Zeckendorf Towers, a condominium complex was built in 1987 and now occupies the former Klein’s site.

Behind Klein’s is the 26 story Consolidated Edison Building with its clock tower and prominent beacon light crowning the pyramidal roof. Originally built for the Consolidated Gas Company in 1910 by architect Henry J. Hardenbergh (also designed the Plaza Hotel, Dakota Apartments etc.) the building was modified in 1926 when the distinctive tower portion was added in 1926 by Warren & Wetmore (architects who also built Grand Central Terminal, Vanderbilt Hotel, etc).

We see on the extreme right the signs for Kitty Kelly Shoes at 40 East 14th Street and the large sign for Ohrbach’s Department Store.

Ohrbach's on 14th Street in 1923 photo: Life Magazine

Ohrbach’s on 14th Street in 1923 photo: Life Magazine

On Oct. 4, 1923, Nathan Ohrbach and his partner, dress manufacturer, Max Wiesen opened their first store at Union Square in 1923 to sell irregular clothing, job lots and manufacturers overstocks. Wiesen sold his half of the business to Ohrbach a few years later because they were not getting along.

Advertising Age described how Ohrbach’s gained success “through smart advertising and merchandising. Ohrbach’s was transformed from an unfashionable odd-lots store to a ‘high fashion at low prices’ boutique. Ohrbach’s assortment of designer fashions and line-for-line copies of French couture fashions attracted bargain-hunters of all economic levels. Customers included movie stars Joan Crawford, Jane Russell and Lauren Bacall, as well as royalty.”

Ohrbach's ad 1940On August 26, 1954 Ohrbach’s opened a new main store on West 34th Street off Fifth Avenue. Their new location brought Ohrbach’s into direct competition with other department stores such as Macy’s, Gimbels, Lord & Taylor and B. Altman.

14th st looking east 2011 photo google maps

Union Square 14th Street looking East – photo Google Maps

Ohrbach’s was acquired by a Dutch concern, the Brenninkmeyer Company in 1962. Within a few years the store began a steady decline in the quality of their merchandise. Ohrbach’s finally closed in 1986.

This final photo to the left is from a similar vantage point from our original photo along 14th Street and show the changes that have taken place over the last 60 years.

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3 thoughts on “Old New York In Photos #39 – 14th Street – Klein’s and Ohrbach’s

  1. michael porrazzo

    14th street holds many memories for me as my father owned a liquor store, Leland’s, at 107 East 14th street. Telephone numberwas AL (for Algonquin) 4 – 0425,26,27. There were many businesses which thrived during the good years. Unfortunately,the local stores depended on Klein’s, which declined in the 70’s. Other notable attractions in the area which helped the stores survive included the Academy of Music//Palladium, the Automat (which we eventually moved our liquor store into, and Luchow’s. I would also point out that the Union Square/14th street subway station was the only one in which the IRT, BMT and IND trains all met. And what an amazing underground station it was. I will always remember the good times for business on East 14th street, which helped put me and others through school and beyond.

    Reply
  2. David

    No nitpicking intended, Michael, but your statement about the 14th Street-Union Square subway station is accurate except that the (then-) IND did not stop nor still stops at that station. The closest subway line on the (former) IND is the Sixth Avenue Line a few blocks west. Granted, a connection can be made from the L train (14th Street-Canarsie Line) to the Sixth and Eighth Avenue Subways at their respective stations on 14th Street, but the closest the NYC Subway ever got to what were then the IRT, BMT and IND converging at one station was the Atlantic Avenue (today’s Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center) station in downtown Brooklyn. (The Long Island Rail Road, as you probably know, converges with all three divisions of the subway at that station, as well.) Two of the subways that stop there-the B train and the D train are the former IND in both Manhattan and the Bronx (the latter during rush hours in case of the B train), but are the former BMT in Brooklyn.

    Reply
  3. Steve

    Do you know if/where I can purchase this photo? The one of the cab heading east on 14th street?

    Thanking you in advance,
    Steve

    Reply

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