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March 17, 2024

Vintage Photographs of Bronze Traffic Signal Towers in New York City From the 1920s

In the early 20th century, street congestion along New York’s Fifth Avenue was so bad that it might take 40 minutes to get from 57th to 34th Street. Horses, carriages, pedestrians, street cars, bicycles, and automobiles all competed for limited space along the city’s grand boulevard. Collisions were commonplace, especially as cars began to rule the road, and for the high-end department stores that dotted the thoroughfare, bad traffic meant bad business.

It was thanks to a generous gift from millionaire physician and New York commissioner of traffic, Dr. John A. Harriss, that the city’s traffic problem finally got a reprieve. His 1920 design for a simple, two-light signal, which consisted of a wooden shed housing light bulbs and supported by a steel base frame, was nothing to look at, but it quickly helped to solve the problem of endless gridlock.

Dr. John A. Harriss, in charge of traffic, had originally introduced traffic towers along Fifth Avenue on February 16, 1920. Harriss paid for the traffic towers’ construction and maintenance out of his own pocket. These first traffic towers were sheds, housed twelve feet off the ground in the center of the intersections, manned by a traffic officer who controlled hand-operated green, yellow and red signals. The other traffic officers stationed along Fifth Avenue would take their cues from these signals in regards to the flow of traffic.

On May 16, 1921 the New York City Board of Estimate approved five new traffic towers to replace these original towers along Fifth Avenue at 34th, 38th, 42nd, 50th and 57th Streets. Two more towers were eventually added to the plan and placed at 14th and 26th Streets, making a total of seven towers running up and down Fifth Avenue. The towers would be a gift from The Fifth Avenue Association, but would then be maintained by the city. They were designed by Joseph H. Freedlander and cast by John A. Polachek Bronze and Iron Co. of Long Island City. Each tower was about 24 feet tall, weighed five tons and was built of solid cast bronze on a heavy steel frame.

The towers had electronically synchronized clocks on their north and south faces and 350 pound bronze bells which would toll the hours. The first new tower was put into service at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street on December 14, 1922  at 2 pm amid much fanfare. The rest of the towers were opened in the following days.

On April 27, 1925 the new city law went into effect, and amber or yellow lights were eliminated to signal that northbound and southbound traffic had the right to proceed. From that day on, red would forever mean “stop” and only green would indicate “go.”


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