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
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.
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.”
On 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.
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.