Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The 1888 Corbin Building -- Broadway and John Street

By the second half of the 20th Century, modernization had obliterated Kimball's design at street level -- photo Library of Congress
By 1888 Francis Kimball had established a reputation as one of the most talented architects of his time.  His work encompassed a variety of structures—mansions, churches and commercial buildings.  But this year he would go a step further.  He would design a skyscraper.

At the northeast corner of Broadway and John Street sat the headquarters of the Corbin Banking Company.   Austin Corbin, president not only of the bank, but of the New-York and New-England Railroad, commissioned Stephen D. Hatch to design a new building for the site.  Something went wrong, apparently, and quickly Francis Hatch Kimball took over.
The architect was faced with a potentially problematic building site.  Only 20 feet wide on Broadway—the width of an average townhouse—the property stretched back 161 feet along John Street.  When completed the Corbin Building was striking in its proportions and exquisite detailing.  In relation to its neighboring buildings, the Corbin Building soared.   It rose a full eight stories above the pavement with a pavilion on the Broadway end; a pioneering skyscraper.

Broadway bustled around the Corbin Building (center) in 1899 -- photo NYPL Collection

Kimball made full use of his far-reaching experience with terra cotta as ornamentation.   Nearly 400 terra cotta panels embellished the fa├žade.   He distinguished the upper five stories from the lower three by use of materials—buff brick and muddy terra cotta for the former and dark brownstone below.  Rows of arches along John Street emphasized the verticality of the structure which ranked among the tallest in the city.

Montgomery Schuyler commented that “at the Broadway end, the pavilion works out naturally and effectively into a tower, and the tall arcade is a very impressive feature.”

Kimball lavished terra cotta ornamentation on the facade -- photo Library of Congress
Corbin’s bank moved into the ground floors while the upper stories were leased.   In 1890 the newly-organized Palliard Non-Magnetic Watch Company opened its offices here.  Electrical Engineer magazine noted that the firm “has fitted up very handsome offices in the Corbin Building.”

Inside were highly-unusual cast iron staircase railings -- photo Library of Congress
The Clark Electric company had its offices here at the same time.  That year the company won a medal at the American Institute Fair for its innovative arc lamp run from an incandescent circuit.  Western Electrician magazine reported that “This lamp was beautifully mounted in an ornamental fixture and was much admired by the visitors at the fair.”

The attractive electric lighting fixture would be marketed for use in “stores, theaters, public halls, etc.” and one of the lamps was in operation in the Corbin Building.  The magazine praised the head of the firm.  “Mr. Clark, the electrician of the company, is an indefatigable worker, and is constantly inventing new and useful electrical apparatus.”

The offices of M. J. Drummond & Company were in the Corbin Building at the time and would remain here into the 20th century.  The company mainly manufactured industrial cast iron pipe, but also made lamp posts and fire hydrants.   A very different product was being offered in 1892 by Kirby, Mowry & Co., importers of diamonds and manufacturers of gold jewelry.  The Providence-based firm made “diamond jewelry of every description.”

That particular year was not a good one for Austin Corbin.   In March 1892 he was “crowded out” from the directorate of the New-York and New-England Railroad in what The New York Times described as “a blaze of epistolary indignation.”  Although his successor, named Parsons, removed the railroad’s headquarters to his own offices at 6 Wall Street, Corbin did not appear to accept his dismissal without an intended fight.

When asked if the gold lettering “New-York and New-England R.R.” should be removed from the glass of the suite of offices on the third floor, Corbin replied “Oh, no; don’t be in a hurry.”  The Times noted “Mr. Corbin is apparently in quest of satisfaction.  He is a good fighter, and his friends say that he is desirous of obtaining control of the New-England property again in order to punish those persons who crowded him out.”

While Corbin was still occupied with purchasing up the railroad stock in revenge, Ferdinand C. Ewer was hatching a plan.  Ewer had worked in the Corbin Banking Company for a full decade.   While he was a trusted employee earning about $2,000 a year, the bank was concerned about his “fondness for betting on the races.”   The Times would later report that “It is said that his employers objected to this form of amusement and told him that it would have to stop, but that the warning was not heeded implicitly.”

Ewer worked in the mortgage department of the bank, handling much of the correspondence. On Saturday April 23 Assistant Treasurer George S. Edgell handed him $12,000 in cash received as payment on a note secured by a mortgage.  A snag in processing the deposit meant that the payment would have to wait until Monday morning so Ewell returned the money to Edgell who secured the cash in a drawer in the safe.

At noon on Monday, Ewell walked out of the bank for lunch and never came back.  Austin Corbin’s troubles were exacerbated later in the afternoon it was discovered that the $12,000 was gone as well.

In the meantime, the upper floors continued to attract a variety of tenants.  Attorney Fabius M. Clarke had his office here in 1893.  Wholesale watch dealer J. H. Noyes was also here and that year he began an effort to organize the New York watch jobbers with the intention to standardize the prices of American-made watches.

As the turn of the century approached, the main offices of The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review were here.  The industry publication described itself as “A journal devoted to the interests of jewelers, watchmakers, silversmiths, electro-plate manufacturers, and all engaged in kindred branches of industry.”

Austin Corbin died in 1896 leaving an estate of $4.9 million.  Immediately upon the release of the will Corbin’s daughter, Mrs. Anna Corbin Borrowe, began fighting the other family members over the settlement of the estate.  Repeatedly the courts decided against Mrs. Borrowe, but she was undeterred. 

An exhausting seven years later The Evening World reported “Since the will was offered for probate Mrs. Borrowe has fought it constantly and there is no indication of her letting up.  She appears to rather enjoy the situation.  As fast as the executors have obtained favorable rulings on the points raised by Mrs. Borrowe, she has taken appeals and unless she is conciliated there appears to be no way of getting the matter of out of the courts for a good many years to come.”

The years of legal battling between Mrs. Borrowe and the rest of the family decimated the estate.  On December 21, 1903 The Times placed the total amount left at $289,821.

The Corbin Banking Company was now headed by Corbin’s son Austin and his son-in-law George Edgell (whom we remember as having passed the $12,000 in cash to Ferdinand Ewer four years earlier).  In August 1907 the Corbin Banking Company failed, to be replaced on the first floor by The Chatham National Bank of New York.

The masculine "officers' quarters" of the Chatham National Bank of New York was wood-paneled -- Bankers Magazine 1911 (copyright expired)
The Chatham Bank was an independent, privately-owned bank.  The Bankers Magazine, in 1911, said of it, “The Chatham National stands alone.  Not being affiliated with any other institution, it has not the disadvantage of being the ‘unit of a series’ or a ‘link in a chain.’”  The bank would remain in the Corbin Building for decades.

The teller cages featured stained glass panels -- Bankers Magazine 1911 (copyright expired)
In 1937 the building was owned by the Collegiate Reformed Dutch Church.   In May of that year it leased the entire building to Herman A. Groen, a wholesale jeweler, for a term of 21 years with the privilege of renewal.  Groen announced his intentions to use part of the building for his wide-spread businesses, including the wholesale jewelry firm of H. A. Groen & Brother and the retail jewelry store of Walter & Co.

By the turn of the 21st century the adjoining buildings along Broadway had disappeared, causing the AIA Guide to New York City to call the Corbin Building “a slender book-end at the corner, with no books to hold up.”  Preservationists were concerned when, in 2003, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began plans for a $750 million transit hub to tie together a dozen subway lines.  The site would be at the corner of Broadway and John Street.

A New York Times editorial on July 29 said “It would be easy, in the spirit of wholesale renovation, simply to knock down the Corbin Building and build a transit center that looks more toward ground zero for inspiration than toward the old city of New York.  But the Corbin Building…is worth preserving.”

Indeed, the M.T.A. directed competing architects to consider the building rather than to assume it would be replaced.   But in the end the demolition of the building was announced, setting off a  highly publicized battle over the building’s fate—it was not protected by landmark status.  The Lower Manhattan Emergency Preservation Fund, composed of the World Monuments Fund, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Preservation League of New York State, the Municipal Art Society and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, took up the Corbin Building cause.

photo by Alice Lum
Through the efforts of the Fund, the building was listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places by 2004 and the MTA agreed to incorporate it into the transit hub.  In 2012 the Corbin Building is sheathed in scaffolding and netting as the structure is restored and rehabilitated.   The first floor will be restored to its 1917 appearance and original features such as the boiler will be visible to the passing subway passengers.

Many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for requesting this post.

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