Friday, January 18, 2013

The 1910 Liberty Tower Buildling -- No. 55 Liberty St.

photo by Alice Lum
Steel-framed construction and elevators changed the complexion of the Lower Manhattan as the 20th century dawned.   A pioneer of the steel skeleton process was Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb who designed the 1889 Ownes building.   In 1902 he moved to New York City, firmly making his mark with his 21-story No. 42 Broadway.   Architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler commented about Cobb that he worked “in styles” and for this building he included “Jacobean” influences.

In 1907 Francis Kimball outdid him with his 25-story No. 37 Wall Street--and the race was on.   The following year the 47-story Singer Building was erected at Liberty Street and Broadway—the tallest building in the world.   In 1908, like Cobb, Napoleon LeBrun returned to historic style in his design of the Metropolitan Life Tower which he based on the bell tower of Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica.   Within only a few years the southern tip of Manhattan had begun sprouting the tall office buildings that would give the city its iconic mountain peaked skyline.

As the Metropolitan Life Tower rose, Henry Ives Cobb would be back.

On November 19, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported on the sale of two familiar nearby properties.     The seven-story Bryant Building, on the corner of Liberty and Nassau Streets, stood on the site of the New York Evening Post building and had been named for its editor, William Cullen Bryant.  Adjoining the Bryan Building on Nassau Street was David B. Freedman’s Freedman Building.    The article said that the purchasers intended to erect “an office building to cost $2,500,000."

The group of purchasers, from St. Louis, commissioned Cobb to design their 33-story building.   The New-York Tribune on January 31, 1909 reported “it is said [he] will produce one of the most attractive structures in the financial district.”

Cobb had several factors to consider.  The footprint of the plot was small and irregular with no sides parallel.  The architect was understandably concerned about the great height of the proposed building and the wind resistance of the slender structure.  Cobb, who was trained both as an architect and an engineer, overcompensated by driving pneumatic caissons 95 feet down into the bedrock.

A century later the overcompensation would pay off.

True to Montgomery Schuyler’s assessment, Henry Ives Cobb worked in styles and neo-Gothic was among his specialties.    He would sheath the entire building, with the exception of a half-story granite base, in gleaming white Gothic-styled terra cotta.

photo by Alice Lum
Cobb’s published plans excited the building industry.  Carpentry and Building said in May 1909 “One of the latest additions to the colony of towering skyscrapers which thickly dot the lower end of the Island of Manhattan, and which are such conspicuous features of the architecture of the metropolis at the present day, is an imposing 30-story office building just planned for the financial district.”  (The magazine did not include in the floor count the three-story, copper-clad pyramidal roof where “tanks and machinery” were to be housed.)

“The ornamentation has been derived from the English Gothic style of architecture, while the color scheme is white throughout, with the roof of copper, which after exposure to the elements for a time will turn a dull green.”

Tongue-in-cheek Gothic ornaments, many essentially unseen from street level, covered the building -- photo by Alice Lum
The magazine noted that “It will be known as the Bryant Building, taking its name it is said, from William Cullen Bryant, from whose estate the site was formerly purchased.”

Adjoining the new building to the east was what the New-York Tribune called “the palatial home of the Chamber of Commerce,” built in 1902.  There was little threat that the grand building would be razed so Cobb was able to treat his Bryant Building nearly as a free-standing structure with windows on three sides.   Architecture and Building noted that “The design, English Gothic, is worked out to give all the light possible in the interior.“

The Chamber of Commerce building allowed Cobb to design his skyscraper as nearly free-standing -- photo by Alice Lum
A year after the plans were filed the building was nearly completed and already the name had been changed.  On February 27, 1910 the New-York Tribune reported that “The flagstaff was placed on the New Liberty Tower Building…marking the moment of the completion of the steel work on the building.  The mason work is now so far completed that the building shows final form.”

Cobb released a sketch of the proposed buildling -- Architecture and Building, May 1910 (copyright expired)
Already the tenant list was growing.  The variety of firms included People’s Surety Company, Johnston & Collins, Standard Salt Company, C. L. Gray Construction Company and the George La Mont & Sons Company.  The Liberty-Nassau Building Company restricted its tenants to “stockbrokers, financial institutions, large corporations, and layers,” and offered to divide the floors to the tenants’ needs.

photo by Alice Lum
Opened on May 1, 1910, Henry Ives Cobb’s building was striking.   The terra cotta finials, gargoyles, tracery and Tudor-styled entrances foreshadowed the magnificent Woolworth Building which would soon steal the spotlight.   Two large murals, depicting Autumn and Spring with William Cullen Bryant as the focal figure, flanked the lobby staircase. 

High-end materials like marble and bronze were used inside -- photo by Alice Lum
The St. Louis-based Liberty-Nassau Building Company had spared no expense and quickly the firm would regret it.

Almost immediately after its completion the building was placed in the hands of a receiver and in March 1911 foreclosure was imminent.  A loan of $1.6 million stalled the inevitable.  The aggregate indebtedness at the time was over $8 million.

photo by Alice Lum
As war broke out in Europe, scandal visited the Liberty Tower Building in the form of German espionage.  Andrew D. Meloy was a promoter of Mexican enterprises doing business from here in 1915.   Among his achievements was the building of a short railroad line in Mexico.  He was also ardently pro-German.

That year Franz von Rintelen joined Meloy in his office, taking the pseudonym of E. V. Gates.  The two were involved in an ambitious German scheme to prevent American arms and ammunition from reaching the Allies.  The conspiracy vigorously aided a planned Mexican revolution lead by Victoriano Huerta by providing finances and arms.  Aware of President Wilson’s deep opposition to General Huerta, the conspirators realized that the U.S. would be obligated to enter Mexico to squelch the rebellion—thereby directing all military efforts away from the war overseas.

The plan unraveled, however, and von Rintelen was arrested in London, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and Meloy was placed under indictment for conspiracy to defraud the Government.
photo by Alice Lum
In September 1916 the Liberty-Nassau Building Company finally lost its building when it was sold in a foreclosure sale to the Garden City Company for $1.8 million.  Despite the ownership problems, the tenant list remained strong.  Not long afterward Doubleday, Page & Co. opened a book shop in the lobby.  “The new shop is in charge of men who ‘know books,’” said The Sun, “and every means is offered to the men of the downtown business district to facilitate book buying.  A feature of the shop is a special showing of war books.”
The Gothic terra cotta details foreshadowed the Woolworth Building -- photo by Alice Lum
In May 1919 the flamboyant Harry F. Sinclair, President of the Sinclair Oil and Refining Corporation, announced the firm’s purchase of the Liberty Tower Building for around $2.5 million.  It would be the first step towards yet another major scandal in the building.  In 1922 Senator Thomas J. Walsh began an investigation of leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming.  The sensational findings showed that Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall leased the oil production rights to Harry Sinclair without competitive bidding.  Kick-backs from Sinclair made the Secretary wealthy.  They also resulted in prison terms for both men.

The Teapot Dome Scandal was regarded as the most sensational in the history of American politics until Watergate.

While all of this was playing out, Fidelity and Surety Insurance had its New York headquarters here.  In 1921 it named as its Vice President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was simultaneously running on the Democratic ticket as for U.S. Vice President.  Roosevelt, who deemed himself “a hard boiled insurance man,” was guest of honor at a Fidelity dinner at Delmonico’s on January 7 of that year.  The Insurance Press promised “Many prominent persons will attend.”
photo by Alice Lum
Things were less dramatic in what was now called the Sinclair Oil Building towards the second half of the century.  When Harry F. Sinclair leased space in Rockefeller Center in 1935, the building became part of the Rockefeller interests.   In 1945 Leonard J. Beck, a major player in 6th Avenue real estate purchased the building for $1.3 million; about half of what Sinclair had paid two decades earlier.    A year later he turned a quick profit, selling it to the newly-formed Liberty-Nassau Corporation for $1.5 million.

By 1979 the downtown area had changed significantly.  The 33-story Liberty Tower Building sat in the shadows of newer, higher structures.  That year restoration architect Joseph Pell Lombardi purchased the old building, transforming it to one of the first residential conversions in the Financial District.

photo by Alice Lum
Lombardi reserved the former Sinclair Oil boardrooms for his own apartment, setting up his personal office in Harry F. Sinclair’s old study.

Henry Ives Cobb’s steel foundations, anchored five stories below ground, have been credited with the building's withstanding the impact of the collapsing World Trade Towers just 220 yards away on September 11, 2001.

The architect’s pioneering skyscraper still plays second-fiddle to the Woolworth Building; but its magnificent neo-Gothic design warrants a visit.
Warm golden light seeps through the stained glass of the Gothic styled entrance -- photo by Alice Lum

1 comment:

  1. Great post, very useful information, I think that the stairs inside the building need tile adhesive :)