Book Review: Painting a Picture of One Times Square

Book Review
One Times Square: A Century of Change at the Crossroads of the World
Written and Illustrated by Joe McKendry

When the Chicago Club released its now famous Chicago Plan in 1909, it was the watercolor drawings of intersecting boulevards and an elevated Wacker Drive that best transmitted Daniel Burnham's vision of a city beautiful to an engaged public.

Regional Plan Association's first plan, released in 1929, also used striking watercolors to convey the group's vision of graceful bridges, robust commuter rail and a revived public realm.

In the last century, other media, from television to computerized graphics to flash animation, have replaced the simple watercolor drawing as the go-to means of telling a story or sharing information.

But as Joe McKendry shows in his new book, "One Times Square," the watercolor drawing, when well done, is still an enormously effective way to highlight both small details and the big picture.

Watercolor Illustration by Joe McKendry

McKendry's focus is the evolution of Times Square over the last two centuries, with particular emphasis on the parcel at its center, One Times Square. This was the home of the New York Times in the early 20th century.

It was the opening of the Times building in 1904 that gave occasion for then-Mayor George B. McClellan to rename the intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue, bounded by 42nd and 47th streets, as Times Square. The building allowed the Times publisher a relatively unobstructed view eight blocks south to a rival at Herald Square, the New York Herald, later merged to become the now-departed New York Herald Tribune.

As originally constructed, One Times Square was a wedge-shaped skyscraper clad in brick and limestone, the second tallest building in the city. It was similar in shape and size to the Flatiron Building that had opened two years earlier a mile south on Broadway.

In a mere decade, the New York Times outgrew its new headquarters and moved around the corner to 43rd Street, and then eventually to its contemporary building on Eighth Avenue. The square continued its own evolution, from its emergence as the city's theater district, to its descent into post-war seediness, to its transformation in the last 15 years as a destination for global media and family-oriented tourism.

McKendry tell this story through drawings. He shows workers laboring on the open streets for the new subway line that also opened in 1904, the Times building rising behind them. He depicts the square in 1926, well-dressed men and women walking in the rain, illuminated by theater signs. Another set of watercolors, of the inner workings of the Times Square "zipper" that transmitted news bulletins to pedestrians, is a reminder of the central role the crossroads played in daily life.

A series of drawings hone in on the modernization of One Times Square in the early 1960s, when workers stripped down the building to its steel frame and then reclad it in white marble. By the late 1970s, the building would be on its way to being what it is today, covered in signs, its interior barely used save for a Walgreens pharmacy on the bottom floors.

McKendry, an illustrator whose work has appeared in everything from The London Times to Vanity Fair, said via email from his Boston home that he relied on site visits, old photographs and magazine illustrations as a guide for his watercolors. Since old photographs were in black and white, he typically consulted written descriptions to get the colors right.

The book is only marred by one gap, when McKendry links the square's revitalization to Disney's decision to renovate the Amsterdam Theater in the early 1990s. While Disney's role was important, it took place within the context of the redevelopment plan sponsored by the city, which depended on Prudential Insurance and others buying up the property in the area as part of a broader redevelopment plan. Columbia professor Lynne Sagalyn tells this story well in her book "Times Square Roulette," which McKendry cites as a source.

But that is a small complaint. Overall, McKendry's book elegantly fuses watercolors and words to tell the story of one of America's most iconic addresses.