On Sunday, October 22, 2017, preservationists and historians rallied to protect the cultural treasure known as Tin Pan Alley along 28th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue ~ with musical performances and a tour. It was a day to learn about the rich history of the historic one block, known as Tin Pan Alley, and the efforts to preserve its heritage, along with many of its 19th-century structures still in tact.
On Tuesday, December 10, 2019, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated five historic buildings on West 28th Street in Manhattan: 47 West 28th Street, 49 West 28th Street, 51 West 28th Street, 53 West 28th Street and 55 West 28th Street. These buildings are an intact part of a block known as Tin Pan Alley, home of the most significant concentration of sheet music publishers in New York City. While on this block — so named to describe the audible racket of piano music that made 28th St. sound “like a tin pan alley” — these firms revolutionized the music-publishing industry’s practices for the creation, promotion and consumption of popular music as we know it today.
“I am thrilled the Commission voted to designate these culturally and historically significant buildings,” said Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Sarah Carroll. “Tin Pan Alley was the birthplace of American popular music, was defined by achievements of songwriters and publishers of color, and paved the way for what would become ‘the Great American Songbook.’ Together, these five buildings represent one of the most important and diverse contributions to popular culture.”
Between 1893 and 1910, this section of West 28th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway became known as Tin Pan Alley, often cited as the birthplace of American popular music for making sheet music available to countless American households. Here, composers, arrangers, lyricists, performers, and printers came together as collaborative firms and revolutionized the music industry’s practices for the production and promotion of popular music. Such iconic songs as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “God Bless America” were published on 28th Street while the sheet music business boomed here at the turn of the 20th century.
The designation of this row of five buildings also represents the diverse history of Tin Pan Alley, acknowledging the harsh realities faced by African Americans at the turn of the 20th century, as well as their achievements. Tin Pan Alley’s music publishing brought ragtime to an international public, and Jewish and African-American artists and publishers were able to create new and unprecedented opportunities for themselves in mainstream American music. Many went on to gain acclaim and prominence, like Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Noble Sissle, J. Rosamond Johnson, and James Reese Europe, among others.
“Tin Pan Alley is the birthplace of American pop music and now we’re ensuring that it will be here for future generations,” saidCity Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “Like much of American history, the story of Tin Pan Alley is complex and controversial, but preventing its demolition will give future generations the opportunity to learn from it. I thank the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the many activists who made this possible. Saving Tin Pan Alley is preserving an important part of our City’s history.”
“I am pleased that these buildings will receive landmark status,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “Tin Pan Alley forms an indelible part of not only our City’s history, but also national identity. This designation ensures that this special place will be preserved and celebrated for generations to come.”
“From Irving Berlin to Scott Joplin, Fats Waller to Cole Porter, the composers and lyricists of Tin Pan Alley wrote the songs that defined American popular culture from the late-1880s to the mid-1950s,” said Paul Williams, Chairman of the Board and President of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). “Tin Pan Alley was home to the hearts and souls of the legendary composers and publishers who had a crucial role in creating ASCAP and spreading the great American Songbook around the world. The designation of these buildings will preserve these important structures for generations to come.”
“Tin Pan Alley was where classic American songs such as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” were either composed or first published,” said Clive Gillinson, Executive and Artistic Director of Carnegie Hall. “We at Carnegie Hall fully support the landmark designation of 47-55 West 28th Street to preserve the invaluable legacy of Tin Pan Alley.”
“I can’t think, within the world of American culture, of a more worthy designation of landmark status than these Tin Pan Alley buildings,” said Jack Viertel, Senior Vice President of Jujamcyn Theaters. “Their imprint is still felt today across the country, everywhere from the increasingly successful theaters and cabarets in major cities to the radio broadcasts that reach across the nation, to the Internet, where sites regularly provide downloads of songs that saw the first light of day within the walls of #47-55 West 28th Street. The Great American Songbook was invented here — one of America’s proudest inventions.”
“American popular music is recognized globally as a defining element of our culture and cultural history, so I am delighted that its origins in New York City will be known and preserved through the landmark designation of these Tin Pan Alley buildings,” saidGeorge Calderaro, Director of the Save Tin Pan Alley Initiative of the 29th Street Neighborhood Association.
“This long-sought designation is remarkable in strongly demonstrating that sites of cultural significance bring enormous value to our city and are deserving of official protection,” said Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council (HDC).
The five building are: 47 West 28th Street; 49 West 28th Street; 51 West 28th Street; 53 West 28th Street, and 55 West 28th Street. These buildings were home to the most significant concentration of sheet music publishers in New York City. Together, these five Italianate-style row houses from the 1850s, which retain much of their historic character, represent Tin Pan Alley’s indelible impact on American popular music.
“Tin Pan Alley represents important African-American musical history, and conveys ‘our true struggles, successes and evolving partnerships with other artists toward creating a broader and more inclusive American songbook,” said writer John T. Reddick, whose recent scholarship has focused on Harlem’s African-American and Jewish music culture. “The earliest engagement of Black and Jewish composers, lyricists and performers can be traced to Tin Pan Alley, where M. Witmark & Sons published songs from Clorindy, the first all-black musical on Broadway, composed by Will Marion Cook with lyrics by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and their musical In Dahomey starring Bert Williams and George Walker, had its music published here by Harry Von Tilzer.”
“I am so pleased that this designation has preserved the remnants of this cornerstone of New York business and history,” saidMelanie Edwards, granddaughter of legendary African-American composer J. Rosamond Johnson. “From the Brill building to the home-made studios of hip-hop, they all had their beginnings on Tin Pan Alley, and this history can now be shared with every music lover.”
“Tin Pan Alley made it possible for African-American composers like my grandfather to promote their talents to the broader public,” said James Reese Europe, III, grandson of famed African-American composer James Reese Europe. “My grandfather had many of his early compositions published by music publishers once located on this block.”
The Commission also received support letters from the descendants of Tin Pan Alley composers and musicians, including Duke Ellington’s grandchildren and Noble Sissle’s son.