Monday, March 25, 2013

The Lost Franklin Savings Bank -- 42nd St and 8th Avenue

The Inland Architect and News Record published a photograph of the newly-completed building in 1901.  A bronze bust of Franklin would soon grace the square granite block above the doors.  (copyright expired)
The Franklin Savings Bank was doing well as 1897 drew to a close.  The institution boasted a surplus of $912,000 and the devastating depression, known later as the Panic of 1893, had finally abated.

On January 19, 1898 The New York Times reported that “The building occupied by the Franklin Savings Bank, at Eighth Avenue and Forty-second Street, will soon be replaced by one of much more modern construction.”  Bank directors estimated the cost of the new building at $200,000—over $4.5 million by today’s standards.  The Times remarked that “although it will be only one story in height, it will be devoted entirely to the bank, and will, it is promised, be an ornament to the neighborhood.”

To design this new ornament the trustees called upon architects York & Sawyer.   With the depression fresh in the minds of depositors, the firm was charged with producing a bank that would instill a sense of permanency and confidence.  And they did.

The first of many bank buildings York & Sawyer would design, it was nothing if not solid-looking.  Constructed of granite it drew its inspiration from the Roman temple.  The heavy, rusticated façade was broken by three enormous arched openings on the 42nd Street side.  A matching arched window above the massive bronze doors continued the design to the recessed entrance.  Two monumental columns upheld the entablature below the cornice that was surmounted by a classical triangular pediment.
The oversized bronze bust of Benjamin Franklin (left) would find a place above the entrance doors -- American Architect and Building News, July 13, 1901 (copyright expired)
The new bank, completed in 1901, sat on the southeast corner.   Above the magnificent bronze entrance doors which weighed several tons sat a bronze bust of Benjamin Franklin.  Inside the architects carried on the classical theme.  Roman-inspired railings (quite similar to those that would be found in McKim, Mead and White’s monumental Roman-style Pennsylvania Station a few years later); soaring arched ceilings; and a host of materials—Caen stone, colored marbles, bronze and brass—created one of the city’s grand internal spaces.

Materials like marble wainscoting, bronze doors and brass railings were used -- American Architect and Building News, July 13, 1901 (copyright expired)
The somber bank building brought little attention to itself, other than merely by its own colossal appearance, over the decades.  Rare publicity did come in the form of a corrupt police officer in 1912, however.  Lieutenant Charles Becker was the head of the NYPD’s Vice Squad.  He augmented his salary by accepting hefty bribes from illegal gambling clubs.  When the owner of a Broadway gambling house, gangster Herman Rosenthal, known as “the Black Ace,” got in his way, Becker had him murdered.

The sensational trial made front-page headlines for months and introduced readers to colorful witnesses like Lillian Rosenberg, called by The Evening World “the ‘baby-doll’ wife of Lefty Louie,” and Jack Rose who personally collected Becker’s graft.
The corrupt Lt. Becker deposited his ill-gotten gains in the Franklin Savings Bank.  He was later sentenced to death for murder.  photo UPI (copyright expired)
The corrupt cop chose the Franklin Savings Bank to stash his gains, so the prosecution called bank employee Daniel A. Bentien to the stand to testify about Becker’s unusually large deposits.  According to The World on August 14 of that year, he had banked "$38,115 in the last nine months.”   That figure would translate to over half a million dollars today—an unusually high income for a civil servant.

By 1903 Benjamin Franklin had found his perch.
In 1926 the architects were called back to enlarge the bank, continuing the rusticated façade and copying the arched openings southward on 8th Avenue.  At the same time illustrator N. C. Wyeth was hired to execute a mural of Benjamin Franklin standing before Independence Hall.

N. C. Wyeth executed "The Apotheosis of Franklin" for the building's extension. --

The extension nears completion in 1926 -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Half a century later the bank commissioned architects Poor and Swanke and Partners to design a new, up-to-date headquarters across the street.    In stark contrast with its classical predecessor it was a modern linear building that accentuated clean lines and angles.

The city was shocked on August 5, 1974 when, with its new headquarters completed, the bank’s executive vice president, Edward Rollins, announced the decision to demolish the old building.  The New York Times reported “The bank plans to replace the old building with either a parking lot or a one-story retail building, believing that the cleared site would be more attractive to potential developers.”
photo NYPL Collection
Rollins called the granite landmark a “dump the city would be better off without,” and another executive vice president, Adam J. Zaun chimed in saying, “A building like that is an eyesore if it isn’t being used for its legitimate purpose.  We don’t want to contribute to the Times Square neighborhood going downhill any further.”

The New York Times lashed out at the bank’s directors in an editorial nine days later.  “The ‘dump’ has sculptured bronze doors valued at $35,000 and fixtures that will go to the Brooklyn Museum, arched windows, vaulted ceilings and solid cut-stone facades.  It also has something increasingly rare in this and other cities: quality of structure and validity of style.

“’More attractive,’ in Franklin’s curiously inverted reasoning, means a parking lot…Bulldozing the good old building immediately will be the bank’s contribution to upgrading the neighborhood.”

Unmoved by the outrage of newspapers, preservationists and city officials (Richard Lam, director of the city’s Office of Midtown Planning said “I don’t believe the building is an eyesore—I have more serious questions about the advisability of using that site for a parking lot.”), the bank forged ahead with the destruction of its granite Roman temple to finance.

The Wyeth mural was saved at the last minute and eventually was donated to the University of Pennsylvania.  The bronze bust of Benjamin Franklin was donated to the Brooklyn Museum.  Sadly, despite The Times' hopes, the museum could not accept the mammoth bronze doors because of their size and weight.  It appears they were sold for scrap metal.

On January 12, 1976 New York Magazine had the last word.  It editorially awarded the management of the Frankling Savings Bank “one massive withdrawal slip…for demolishing its elegant, neoclassical monument…and then constructing a Laundromat-type branch diagonally across the way, and topping it off with a trompe l’oeil mural of a Uris-type façade.”
Ironically, the 1976 building did not last long, replaced by the above structure -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. What a solid old banking institution should look like. Sad how the fate of so many wonderful buildings are eventually decided by a few arrogant, self-serving and short-sighted individuals. The structures life was short, unfortunately the vice president's stupidity is forever. Nyarch

  2. I don't believe the caption of the last photo - the building presently on the site - now called 11 Times Square - is correct. This building is on the site of the Franklin Bank building the article is about - not the site of Franklin's successor building across the street (though that too certainly is gone).