How an immigrant grocery clerk became one of the wealthiest men in America, and planted the seeds and cornerstones of Garden City
It was a time when great fortunes could be amassed. It was also an Age of Idealism, when a perfect planned Eden also seemed achievable. Stewart bought what was left of the vast Hempstead Plains and created Garden City. He was one of the earliest developers to envision a model city on the open fields of Long Island. 
At the time of his death, Alexander Turney Stewart was reportedly one of the three richest men in America, and was in the process of turning the treeless plains of Hempstead into a carefully planned “Garden City.” Unfortunately, grave robbing was common in the late 1870s and mystery surrounds Stewart’s final resting place (we’ll return to that later).
Stewart was born in County Antrim, Ireland and was raised by his grandfather after his farmer father’s death. As a teenager he worked for a grocer in Belfast.
Stewart ultimately followed his mother to America and opened a small dry-goods store at 283 Broadway in New York City in 1823. Later that year he married Cornelia Clinch, whom would be critical to the development of Garden City.
A true innovator, Stewart grew his small store into a giant wholesale and retail business.
. . . Stewart introduced New Yorkers to the shocking concept of not hassling customers the moment they walked through the door, a novel policy he called “free entrance”.
AT Stewart and Co was among the first stores to practise the now-ubiquitous “clearance sale”, periodically moving on old stock at knockdown prices to make room for new.
Stewart also offered no-quibble refunds. He made customers pay in cash, or settle their bills quickly. Traditionally, shoppers had strung out their lines of credit for up to a year.
He also recognised that not everybody liked to haggle, with many welcoming the simplicity of being quoted a fair price, and being told to take it or leave it.
Stewart made this “one-price” approach work by accepting unusually low mark-ups. “[I] put my goods on the market at the lowest price I can afford,” he said, “although I realise only a small profit on each sale, the enlarged area of business makes possible a large accumulation of capital”.
This idea wasn’t totally unprecedented, but it was certainly considered radical.
The first salesman Stewart hired was appalled to discover he’d not be allowed to apply his finely tuned skill of sizing up the customer’s apparent wealth and extracting as extravagant a price as possible. He resigned on the spot, telling the youthful Irish shopkeeper he’d be bankrupt within a month. . . 
Stewart was unusually successful and in 1846 opened the first section of a new kind of structure across Broadway, at the southeast corner of Reade Street. Instead of the plain, common brick of the typical retail building, Stewart’s new store was of bright, white Tuckahoe marble. This crisp, bright appearance alone was astonishing in a city otherwise dominated by earth tones, and gave the Stewart store a landmark identity that other establishments lacked.
The new Stewart store was four stories high. Stewart’s architects, Trench & Snook, designed a modular unit that could be (and soon was) expanded over most of a city block. The Anglo-Italianate design, fresh from use in men’s social clubs in London, was the height of educated swank.
James Gordon Bennett, writing in his New York Herald at the store’s opening in 1846, called it “exquisitely chaste, classic and tasteful” and “the most splendid dry goods store in the world.” 
During the Irish potato famine, Stewart sent a shipload of provisions to his Lisburn hometown, and brought back and employed 139 young people.
In 1862 A. T. Stewart’s Great Iron Store opened, occupying an entire city block from Broadway to Fourth Avenue, between 9th and 10th Streets. It was the largest retail store in the world at the time and employed 2,000 employees.
Stewart also recognized the potential of conducting sales by mail and by 1876 had hired 20 mail order clerks and realized more than $500,000 in sales by mail.
In 1869 work was completed on the Stewart’s mansion at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, the first of Fifth Avenue’s marble palazzos. The residence was designed by architect John Kellum and featured 18 foot high ceilings and a world class art collection.
Also in 1869 . . .
The Hempstead Plains was a flat, treeless 12-mile tract stretching from New Hyde Park to Farmingdale when Alexander Turney Stewart acquired the pasture from the Town of Hempstead in 1869 for $55 an acre. Aside from a small cemetery, it was a wasteland. For Stewart, an Irish immigrant who became a multimillionaire merchant and founded the modern department store, the barren land was a blank canvas upon which he could build a city.
During the next six years, roads crisscrossed the plain, trees were planted, houses were built and stores opened. A grand hotel surrounded by a large park was erected. Stewart’s ”city of the plains” included construction of a railroad, state-of-the-art water works and gas works. Garden City, one of the first planned cities in America, was a model suburban community designed and destined to be the best of Long Island. . .