In 1753, Robert Murray, who owned an importing business and Murray’s Wharf on lower Wall Street, and his wife, Mary Lindley Murray, purchased a tract of land for a country estate from what is now Madison Avenue east to Lexington Avenue and from 33rd to 39th Streets. After their deaths, the land was purchased by Robert’s younger brother, John, who divided the lots equally among his children. In 1847, the eleven descendants of John Murray registered with the City Surveyor what became known as the Murray Hill Restriction, banning the use of land for commercial real estate development, with the exception of churches and the private stables and carriage houses located between Lexington and Third Avenues.
This restriction assured a private and exclusive neighborhood and appealed to some of the city’s wealthiest families, including Mrs. Astor whose mansion was on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street. The Murray Hill Restriction, however, did not apply to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, offering Benjamin Altman in the opportunity to build his dream of the finest and largest New York department store. In deference to the exclusive enclave, Mr. Altman had the building designed to replicate a Florentine palace and when it opened in 1906, his business name did not appear on the outside of the building, and it remained that way until the 1950s.