This station opened on August 19, 1933 with the opening of the IND Queens Boulevard Line to Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. Service was initially provided by E trains running via the IND Eighth Avenue Line. On December 15, 1940, the IND Sixth Avenue Line opened between West Fourth Street–Washington Square and 59th Street–Columbus Circle. On this date, F trains began using this station, diverging west of the station onto the Sixth Avenue Line.
In 1959, a project started to replace the four 2-foot-wide (0.61 m) escalators with new wider 4-foot-wide (1.2 m) escalators—two at the Madison Avenue end of the station, and two at the Fifth Avenue end. The new 94-foot (29 m) long escalators were intended to increase capacity, and could run at speeds of 90 or 120 feet (27 or 37 m) per minute. On September 8, 1959, the first of the four new 4-foot-wide escalators was put into place at the Madison Avenue entrance, replacing one of the 2-foot-wide escalators. The entire project cost $1,200,000. As part of the project, other improvements were made: the lighting at the station was replaced with fluorescent lighting, and the stairways at the station were moved.
A view of the displays added during the station renovation on the downtown platform
In 1981, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) listed the station among the 69 most deteriorated stations in the subway system. That same year, the MTA announced the creation of its Culture Stations program to install public art in the subway. The Culture Stations program was started to deter graffiti, and was inspired by legislation in the New York City Council that mandated that 1% of the cost of constructing public buildings be used for art. The program was modelled on the Louvre – Rivoli station on the Paris Métro, which featured reproductions of the artwork on display in the Louvre. Four stations, including this station, Astor Place, Eastern Parkway–Brooklyn Museum and 66th Street–Lincoln Center, were selected for the program due to their proximity to cultural institutions, and would be among the first stations part of the MTA's new station refurbishment program, which began in 1982. The Fifth Avenue station was chosen for its proximity to five museums, the New York Public Library Main Branch, and major corporations.
The stations part of the Culture Stations program were to be completed by making use of both private and public funding. This station was redesigned by Lee Harris Pomeroy Architects. The modernization project was opened to bidders on November 9, 1982, and was expected to cost between $4 and $6 million. Design work was completed in 1983. The renovation was originally scheduled to be complete in December 1984 but was pushed back by two years. As part of the renovation, 400-foot-long (120 m) rows of light boxes containing displays showing information about objects in nearby museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, as well as points of interest in the vicinity, were installed on each platform. The light boxes were designed by the project's graphic designers, Pentagram. In addition, to prevent water seepage and to reduce noise, double layered metal linings were installed in the station.
In 1996, Ralph Fasanella's 1950 painting "Subway Riders" was installed outside fare control in the full-time mezzanine. It was the first oil painting installed in a subway station in New York City. Fasanella had donated it to the American Folk Art Museum on the condition that it stay permanently displayed in the subway under the MTA Arts & Design program, saying, "I'd rather have people see this painting in the subway than any museum." In 2014, "Subway Riders" was temporarily removed and placed in a traveling exhibition called "Self Taught Genius: Treasures From the American Folk Art Museum".
Entrance to the station in 666 Fifth Avenue, between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue
As part of the rezoning of East Midtown, which was approved in 2017, developers were permitted to construct buildings at the maximum permitted floor area ratio if they transferred landmark development rights, rebuilt overbuilt floor area, or made pre-identified improvements to subway stations in the area. The six stations chosen for improvements (Grand Central–42nd Street, Lexington Avenue/51st Street, 42nd Street–Bryant Park/Fifth Avenue, 47th–50th Streets–Rockefeller Center, Lexington Avenue/59th Street, and Fifth Avenue/53rd Street) were prioritized due to high ridership. Improvement projects include making stations compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, improving circulation and wayfinding, and reducing congestion by constructing new entrances, or by installing escalators and wider staircases. A list of three levels of improvements were created by the MTA and the New York City Department of City Planning. Type 1 improvements would give a developer 40,000 square feet (3,700 m2) of additional floor area, Type 2 improvements would give them an additional 80,000 square feet (7,400 m2), and Type 3 improvements would give them an additional 120,000 square feet (11,000 m2).
Initially, in 2012, two improvements were considered for the Fifth Avenue station. These would entail adding or widening stairs between the upper and lower level platform at the east end of the station, and adding or widening the escalators between the upper level platform and the Madison Avenue mezzanine. The main reasoning for the first of the two improvements was because that staircase is over capacity, clearing in 75 seconds during the morning rush hour, greater than the 45 second guideline. The reasoning of the second was because the escalators are at capacity, and would become over capacity if the capacity of the staircase between the two levels was increased.
The approved East Midtown rezoning provides for one Type 1 improvement, and five Type 2 improvements at this station. The Type 1 improvement would be the construction of a new street entrance on 53rd Street west of Madison Avenue. One of the Type 2 improvements would be the construction of a new staircase between the upper level platform and the mezzanine, and a new staircase between the upper and lower level platforms. Developers could also elect to install an elevator between the mezzanine and the two platforms. Another potential improvement considered would be the installation of two escalators between the upper level platform and the mezzanine. One proposed project would construct a new mezzanine under 53rd Street with a new fare control area to accommodate the new entrance west of Madison Avenue and a new access core. This access core would be constructed in a separate project, and would provide access between the new entrance and the platforms, accommodating new staircases, an elevator and escalators.