Following the Civil War the nation saw an enormous increase in manufacturing. It was an time of increased industrial output, growth of the railroad industry and independence from European imports. Conditions could not have looked better.
But then, in 1892, construction slowed, coal production dropped off and stock prices and business incorporations began falling off. The resulting recession hit the poorer classes hardest. With no money coming in and no collateral for loans, indigent New Yorkers took their possessions to unscrupulous pawn brokers to obtain cash for food and rent. It was a situation that did not go unnoticed by some of those more fortunate.
A special committee of the Charity Organization Society recommended on May 9, 1892 that an institution be formed “to lend money at reasonable rates to the poor upon pledge of personal property.” The committee was, in fact, suggesting a government-approved pawn shop for the poor.
Nothing came of the idea for a year, when the Financial Panic of 1893 swept the nation. It would last nearly a decade and would be the worst depression the nation would endure until the Great Depression of 1929. Attention to the idea was renewed by the increased suffering of New York’s poor. Seth Low, who was Chairman of the Mayor’s Relief Committee, encouraged the passage by the legislature that incorporated the Provident Loan Society of New York on May 21, 1894.
New York’s wealthiest citizens donated a total of $100,000 to kick-start the institution. Among them were J. Pierpont Morgan, William E. Dodge, August Belmont and Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Society’s 1919 25th Anniversary pamphlet stressed that “The original contributors did not expect that interest would be paid upon their contributions, certainly not at the start.”
A “practical pawnbroker” was hired as the first manager. That seemed only sensible. Starting out in a rented room, the Loan Society made 14,234 loans the first year—the average being $16. Borrowers brought in whatever they owned that might serve as collateral and were charged one percent interest. Of the $299,155.50 in loans that first year, $84,174.50 was repaid. It was a shaky start.
The severity of the depression brought not just the poor to the Society’s door. On December 4, 1895 the first auction of unredeemed collateral was held. Among more expected household items were a Tiffany watch, A Jules Jurgensen watch said to have cost $300 originally (it sold for $120), “a handsome pair of opera glasses,” a set of silver-plated tableware, a pair of diamond earrings that sold for $132 and a diamond bar pin.
As the decade progressed and the depression finally ended, The Provident Loan Society firmly gained its footing. President James Spreyer told The Churchman magazine “During 1898 we have granted loans to about 40,090 persons, making a total since organization of about 135,000 persons…The results achieved by our society since its organization justify the statement that it has now passed the experimental period and that its usefulness ought to be expanded wisely and conservatively.”
And expanded it was.
By 1907 the Society was leasing several buildings throughout the city. The board felt the money spent on rents should be funneled, instead, into society-owned structures. On August 27, 1907 The American Architect and Building News hinted at things to come. “It is reported that Architects Renwick, Aspinwall & Tucker, 320 Fifth Avenue, are preparing plans for the new office building which the Provident Loan Society contemplates erecting at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street.”
J. Lawrence Aspinwall took over the project, according to the 1915 convention of the American Institute of Architects. His design would be the first of several the firm would produce for the Society. Construction began in 1908 with occupancy projected for March 1, 1909. Replacing the two existing buildings would be what Pearson’s Magazine would deem “a marble palace for their business.”
On April 19, 1908 The New York Times described the planned headquarters. “In style this structure will be a dignified example of the Italian Renaissance, adapted to modern requirements…will be four stories in height, although from the exterior it will show but three stories, as the fourth will be concealed behind a high balustrade. The exterior will be of white marble, with a high base of pink Milford granite. The facades will show dignified entrances, with ornamental trims and pediments. At the level of the second story there will be an ornamented belt course. The entrance doors will be of bronze, with richly designed grills.”
The Times had it right. The building, which Bridgemen’s Magazine reported cost $100,000 to build, was a marble-clad Renaissance palazzo. Inside, the main floor was divided into departments for men and women. The second floor held the society’s offices and the remaining two floors were leased out, “until the growth of the society requires their use,” according to Charities and the Commons.
The year that the society moved into the new building, it loaned $10.6 million.
Frank Marshall White, writing in Munsey’s Magazine in April 1910, called The Provident Loan Society the “biggest private pawnbroking institution in the world.” The society now had five other buildings throughout the city and were fighting to “relieve pawnbroking of the stigma that unscrupulous followers of that vocation have brought upon it.”
|The building in 1919 -- Provident Loan Society of New York Annual Report 1919|
Tucker explained that one of the objects of the Society was “to create conditions whereby self-respecting men and women in time of need, may take advantage of the opportunities offered by the society’s offices.”
Eventually The Provident Loan Society gave up most of its branch buildings. But the 1908 marble headquarters at Park Avenue South (it is no longer Fourth Avenue) and 25th Street is still home to what the AIA Guide to New York City calls “an English club dispensing credit.”
Aspinwall’s beautiful, dignified structure is astonishingly intact and as handsome today as it was a century ago.
non-credited photographs taken by the author
non-credited photographs taken by the author