Today, Broadway's location in midtown Manhattan feels set in stone. With many theatres landmarked as historically preserved buildings and facades, it is supremely unlikely that the epicenter of New York's commercial theatre scene will move any time soon.
But that wasn't always the case. And eagle-eyed viewers of HBO's The Gilded Age can see the foundations of today's Theatre District forming. The hit show, which was just renewed for a third season, takes place in the late 1800s—deriving inspiration from the historical figures and the institutions of the time.
This is most clear in the second season. Taking place in 1883, the end of season two shows a New York City on the precipice of cultural change, as the Metropolitan Opera House opens its doors to great success.
Located on 1411 Broadway, the first Metropolitan Opera house bucked the downtown preference of New York's old money set. On the TV show, the Academy of Music at Kimmel Cultural Campus in Philadelphia, is the location for the lobby and the stage of the Met (the much-fought-over boxes were actually set pieces built by the show).
At the time, much of New York's 19th-century culture was centered around Union Square—including the Met's biggest competitor, the Academy of Music. A scene earlier in season two of The Gilded Age takes place at the Union Square Theatre, and featured playwright Oscar Wilde.
It was also in these lower streets that New York's theatre district began to take shape, with Nassau Street, Chatham Street, and Prince Street serving as some of the early theatre thoroughfares.
But instead of going downtown, the Metropolitan Opera settled in the then relatively uncultured Midtown Manhattan neighborhood. The opening of the Met turned many of New York's movers and shakers to the north as they considered the previously neglected area. The timing could not have been more perfect; a few decades prior, Mayor Cornelius Lawrence had pushed for New Yorkers to move out of the increasingly overcrowded Lower Manhattan area to "move up town and enjoy the pure, clean air" of Midtown.
Soon, families were moving even further north, settling near Central Park, where the original Metropolitan Opera House was located. In The Gilded Age, this new neighborhood is host to the massive homes of the fictional Van Rhijn and Russell families (led on the show by Christine Baranski and Carrie Coon, respectively).
These opulent homes, built with increasing grandeur during the Gilded Age's mansion mania, were mostly located in the lower 60s of Manhattan's grid system. Within the context of the HBO show, the fictional Van Rhijn and Russell families live across from each other on the corner of 5th Avenue and 61st Street.
The Russell's opulent New Money home is based on Cornelius Vanderbilt II's home that occupied an entire block on 57th street. Standing at six stories tall, and complete with a full stable, an extensive garden, and remarkably saturated stained glass, the home was an architectural marvel at its time.
In 1883, Caroline "Lina" Astor (played on-screen by Tony winner Donna Murphy) and her infamous social set were still resisting the siren song of the Vanderbilt's new money splendor, but they wouldn't last for long. But in 1896, Astor moved her family "uptown," constructing a home on the corner of 65th Street that was beyond grandiose (this development may point to the future of character on The Gilded Age).
Astor's new mansion was so large that she lived in the northern wing of the home, while her son, famous Titanic victim John Jacob Astor, lived in the southern wing. The pair had different mailing addresses due to the sheer size of the home. The historical construction of Astor's home also coincided with Oscar Hammerstein I's building his Victoria Theatre, which was arguably the first legitimate Broadway theatre on 42nd Street.
In the decades that followed the opening of the first Metropolitan Opera, many "illegitimate theatres" (known to us today as vaudeville houses, the precursor to Broadway-style entertainment) began to creep uptown. They first settled in fthe Bryant Park area before journeying even further north to the then-infantile Times Square, where empty lots and building permits were plentiful. As rents rose in lower Manhattan, the playhouses were soon swept uptown, creating what we now know as the Theatre District.
The improvement of electrified trolley lines, as referenced in The Gilded Age's Brooklyn Bridge festivities, soon made it feasible for lower Manhattan's less-well-off residents to travel up to midtown Manhattan. By the end of the 19th century, the opening of the New York subway system made Times Square the central hub of Manhattan, allowing the Theatre District to thrive as a collision of art, commerce, and culture.
Many of the locations depicted and referenced in The Gilded Age no longer stand: Cornelius Vanderbilt's mansion was demolished in 1926 to make room for 5th Avenue's new shopping district, as was Mrs. Astor's dual-address mansion.
The original Metropolitan Opera house burned down, and was rebuilt and reconfigured several times before the company moved to the newly constructed Lincoln Center in 1966—only a few blocks away from what was left of the Gilded Age's mansion row.
Despite many of those mansions no longer existing, their impact can be observed and felt throughout the city today.
The brownstone exterior style of the Van Rhijn home can still be seen throughout the east 60s of Manhattan, with many (modest, non-mansion sized) homes constructed during the period having been converted into apartment buildings. The church in which the fictional Reverend Luke Forte (played by Robert Sean Leonard) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) are married in The Gilded Age, St. Thomas's Episcopal Church, still stands on 53rd Street and 5th Avenue. Though we should note that the interior scenes were filmed in Albany, New York at St. Peter's Church.
And one can continue to take a stroll through Central Park to settle the mind, as many characters throughout the series are wont to do.
Of course, Broadway's Theatre District continues to glimmer on, a shining beacon shaped by the complicated history that surrounded its construction. Perhaps The Gilded Age will dive into some of that drama in its recently announced third season: there are certainly enough colorful characters and opulent buildings to fill a script!