Union Square Pavilion Springs Back

By Arthur Schwartz

ENGULFED IN FLAMES: The Pavilion moments before firefighters arrived. Photo by Arthur Schwartz.

On January 1, I did my usual Sunday run to Petco. As I walked to the store, I saw flames. It started as a leaf fire but soon the entire northwest side of the Pavilion on the north side of the Union Square Park, was engulfed in flames. I pulled out my phone and snapped away as firefighters showed up and put out the flames.

Turning the Pavilion into a restaurant had been a contentious matter back in 2008 and was stopped by the Courts until 2014. In 2008, the Parks Department decided to restore the most recent iteration of the Pavilion which was built in 1930. The project included the restoration of the existing historic limestone structure. A new maintenance and operations facility located in an expanded basement space, carved from solid bedrock, included space for a restaurant concession’s kitchen. The restaurant opened in 2014. Then there was a fire and it looked pretty bad. But in May 2023 a new eatery sprang to life!

The fire led me to look back at the history of the Pavilion, its restaurant and Union Square itself. I wonder what we might see next.

The Early Years

Rally at Union Square around 100. Image from Library of Congress.

For nearly 170 years Union Square has been a gathering place—for commerce, for entertainment, for labor and political events and for recreation. The park owes its name to its location at the intersection—or union—of two major roads in New York City, Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) and Bowery Road (now Fourth Avenue). When the Commissioner’s Plan, the famous gridiron of Manhattan streets and avenues, was projected in 1807, the former potter’s field at this intersection was designated as Union Place. The site was authorized by the State Legislature as a public place in 1831 and acquired by the City of New York in 1833.

On July 19, 1839 Union Square opened to the public. Its paths, situated among lushly planted grounds, were inspired by the fashionable residential squares of London. The design emphasized the park’s oval shape (enclosed by an iron picket fence) and focused on a large central fountain which was installed for the opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842. As New York City’s downtown expanded northward, Union Square became an important commercial and residential center. Around its borders sprang up houses, hotels, stores, banks, offices, manufacturing establishments, Tammany Hall and a variety of cultural facilities, including music auditoria, theaters and lecture halls. The grounds of Union Square have frequently served as a choice location for public meetings, including parades, labor protests, political rallies and official celebrations. Parks Engineer M.A. Kellogg and Acting Landscape Gardener E.A. Pollard collaborated on a new plan for Union Square. A year later, the park was redesigned by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. They removed the enclosing fence and hedge, planted a variety of hardy trees, widened the sidewalks and created a muster ground and reviewing stand “to meet the public requirement of mass-meetings.”

Quite lost to history is the former Union Square Pavilion (also known as the Women’s and Children’s Pavilion) located on the north end of the park became a de-facto stage for protests and demonstrations. It, too, was  designed by park architects Olmsted and Vaux to accommodate a requirement for mass meetings. Ten years later, Union Square played a central role in the first Labor Day (then on May 1) celebration. On September 5, 1882, a crowd of at least 10,000 workers paraded up Broadway and filed past the reviewing stand at Union Square. According to Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, author of Design for the Crowd: Patriotism and Protest in Union Square, “When thousands of working-class New Yorkers marched around Union Square in triumphant assembly in 1882, they claimed one of the city’s premiere public spaces as their own. For the next 50 years, unions and political groups used the square as a stage for elaborately choreographed presentations of working-class power and solidarity designed for both internal and external audiences.”

Pandemonium in the Park

Aftermath of 1908 Bombing. Image from Library of Congress.

One rally turned deadly, thanks to a police-hating anarchist who brought a crude homemade bomb to the park in March 1908. Selig Silverstein, a Russian-born cloak maker, was attending the Socialist Conference of the Unemployed. The gathering attracted 7,000 participants. But the city had refused the group’s permit to hold a public demonstration. So, hundreds of policemen were called in to help disperse the crowds, reported the New York Times.

At about 3 p.m., just as the crowds had mostly been cleared out of the park, Silverstein, standing by the fountain, raised his arm to toss the bomb at a policeman. Instead, it exploded in his hands, blowing his face and fingers off and mortally wounding him.

“In a moment all was pandemonium,” wrote the Times, adding that windows a block away rattled and shook and pedestrians were “thrown to their knees.” An innocent bystander lay dead and parkgoers were driven to the surrounding streets by mounted officers. Cops used their billy clubs on the crowd and “the fleeing throng started in to sing the ‘Marseillaise’ and jeer at the police.”

The pavilion, where much of the events took place, was a wooden structure designed in the Victorian Gothic style, akin to the buildings designed by Olmsted and Vaux, like The Dairy in Central Park. In front of the building was a porch with staircases rising up from the ground. In front of the porch were the stands. A platform close to the ground, but slightly elevated, delineated space from the public by elaborately ornamented columns and railings.

Make Way for the Subway

In 1928-29 Union Square was completely demolished to accommodate a new underground concourse for the subway. Alterations made in the 1920s and 1930s included the straightening of park paths and the construction of a colonnaded pavilion.

Beginning in 1976 the Union Square Greenmarket, cornucopia of fresh food and plants, anchored the Park on weekends, standing where a flower market flourished over a century ago.

Threatened by general misuse, deterioration and the presence of drug dealers in the 1970s, Union Square underwent a dramatic transformation. In 1985 major renovations began under Mayor Ed Koch including creation of a new plaza at the south end, relocating paths to make the park more accessible, planting a central lawn and installing new lighting and two subway kiosks. The Union Square Community Coalition pushed to expand the sidewalks on the west side into a plaza and limit traffic traveling on Union Square west.

Millennium Matters

In 2010 the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Union Square Partnership (a Business Improvement District) agreed on a comprehensive historic rehabilitation and renovation of the North Pavilion. It was to house new offices on a lower level for Parks Department as well as a new restaurant concession. The upper level was redesigned to accommodate a seasonal open-air restaurant, The Pavilion. Offseason, the space was used for community events. A new stair connects the building to the plaza. Damaged structural elements, including the limestone columns, were repaired and the clay tile roof was rebuilt. The plan also included redesign of two playgrounds on the north end and repaving of asphalt where the Greenmarket had been operating.

But some officials and community groups were split over a key element of the plan. The Parks Department’s proposal was to put a seasonal sit-down restaurant inside the pavilion, replacing a restaurant that sat in front. The Parks Department called it a “parks concession.” “I don’t think the city should be treating its parks as a revenue producer,” said former Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, whose district borders Union Square. “Besides,” he said, “there’s certainly no shortage of restaurants in the Union Square area.”

In 2010 a state judge has issued a temporary restraining order to stop the city’s $21 million overhaul of the north end of the park, including a new restaurant in the historic pavilion. A coalition of community groups and park advocates who brought the lawsuit said the city needs to get approval from the state legislature before privatizing part of the park. Shortly thereafter, the same judge lifted the injunction and allowed construction to proceed. He left the decision on the restaurant to a time when the City would finalize its Request for Proposals.

That plan was released in early 2012. In May of that year, New York State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron issued a temporary restraining order that prevented the City and Parks Department from moving forward without State legislative approval. “…defendants are hereby restrained from altering the Union Square Park Pavilion to accommodate a restaurant and/or bar, from granting any further approvals to do so… and from actually operating a restaurant and/or bar in the Pavilion.” On January 8, 2013 Engoron wrote a decision extending the injunction. In issuing his decision the judge ruled that the plaintiffs would likely prevail in its case because the proposed Pavilion bar and restaurant will not serve park purposes and therefore constitutes an illegal alienation of parkland. Here, plaintiffs have proved beyond a a doubt that a restaurant is not necessary to ensure that park participants do not go hungry or thirsty.”  “…on all the available evidence, plaintiffs’ claim that defendants are attempting to create a high-end destination restaurant, as opposed to a public amenity that will serve ordinary park visitors,’ rings true.  The Pavilion restaurant’s proposed prices would make broad swaths of the public think twice before entering.” [T]his Court finds that plaintiffs likely will succeed in proving that the proposed restaurant would be ‘in’ the park, but not ‘of’ the park, would be a ‘park restaurant’ in name only, and would not serve a ‘park purpose.’”

But in the summer of 2013, the New York State Appellate Division reversed Judge Engoron, opening the door once again for the City to move forward in the twilight of Bloomberg’s mayorship.

Interestingly, in the end, the restaurants which have used the space wound up being seasonal and not the high-priced venues which neighbors feared. In that vein, the new post-fire tenant, the Lower Manhattan brewery Torch & Crown, brought its brews to Union Square this summer with a pop-up on May 11 and running through November.

In this open-air, dog-friendly space, you can order a beer while people-watching and soaking up the warm weather. Plus, the brewery serves food made with local ingredients sourced from Union Square’s famous Green Market located right outside its doors.