Monday, February 17, 2014

The Lost Equitable Building -- Broadway and Pine St.

In 1899 artist C. Graham captured the Equitable Building in a charming watercolor -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Sixteen-year old Henry Baldwin Hyde arrived in New York City in 1850 from Boston.  His father, Henry H. Hyde was, according to The New York Times, “one of the most conspicuous and successful life assurance men of his day.”  Young Henry Hyde began working for the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York in 1852 and seven years later the ambitious and audacious 25-year old announced to Frederick S. Winston, President of the firm, that he had decided to form his own life assurance company “organized along new lines.”

In March he resigned and on July 26, 1859 the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States was incorporated.  Hyde was described at the time as “tall in statue and strong of limb.  Handsome in feature and singularly bright in expression.  His mouth was peculiarly expressive, but his eyes, which were dark and gleamed from beneath heavy eyebrows, arrested instant attention.  They were keen, alert, and it is scarcely a figure of speech to say that they pierced like a sword.  The young man impressed his individuality upon the world around him, and the charm to persuade men, which is the precursor of the power to direct them, already asserted itself in his daily walk and conversation.”

On the Equitable Society’s first day of business on July 28 fourteen policies were written totaling $100,500.  Despite the outbreak of the Civil War—or partly because of it—the Equitable prospered.  The offices were enlarged several times and on December 16, 1865 the Board of Directors discussed the construction of its own building.  “That Mr. Hyde should have been willing to advise this step at a time when the assets amounted to only $1,500,000 and the income to only $971,000 illustrates the confidence with which he looked forward to the future growth and prosperity of the society,” said The Times.

The plot of land at the southwest corner of Broadway and Cedar Street was purchased in the fall of 1867.  The first architectural competition for a New York structure was held but, as reported in the Real Estate and Builders’ Record, “A number of architects and the board was unable to decide between the plans of Guilman & Kendall and those submitted by George B. Post, then a young man.”

George B. Post had just emerged as an architect and a compromise was formulated.  The older firm would be responsible for the  building’s design while Post was put in charge of the ironwork, vaults and elevators.

Post’s would be a daunting task.  The I-beam had recently been perfected by Peter Cooper and at the time there were only five other buildings in Manhattan that contained ironwork—Cooper Union, the Herald Building, the Times Building, the Ball & Black store on Broadway and the American Exchange Bank.  A more formidable challenge for Hyde and Post, however, was convincing the Board to install new-fangled elevators.  No building in New York City had passenger elevators.

“Approval of this revolutionary innovation was not easy to obtain,” said the Real Estate Record.  “A prominent real estate firm was asked to appraise the rents in such a building, and when their report was read to the directors Mr. Post, who was present, offered to take the topmost Broadway suite at the appraised rental.  ‘No,’ declared Mr. Hyde, ‘you will take the suite at twice that figure,’ to which Mr. Post agreed.”

Post’s confidence won over the Board and the Real Estate Record and Guide noted that “they were the first commercial elevators used in America.”

In the meantime, Edward H. Kendall and his staff worked on the four-story design.  Completed in the fall of 1867 it was an explosion of French Second Empire grandeur.  The rusticated basement and main floor supported two stories of pilasters, cornices, and gently-arched openings.  The four floor, where Post’s offices would be, was an ornate mansard bursting with dormers and oculi, and crowned with ornate cast iron cresting.

The original building was completed in 1867 -- Booth's History of New York (copyright expired)
Inside the opulence continued.  While other high-end buildings boasted expensive woodwork of black walnut, mahogany or cherry; the Equitable Building was outfitted in imported rosewood.  Including the land, the cost of the completed structure was a jaw-dropping $1.5 million—about $23 million today.

Among the early tenants in the building was the Mercantile Loan and Warehouse Company which took space early in 1870.  In May that year The New York Times noted that their “elegant offices” were being fitted up.  “The safes, vaults and other appliances are expected to be ready for occupancy about the 15th of June next.  They are being built on a scale which for extent, strength and security surpasses anything of a similar character in the world.”

Three years later the Equitable Building was no longer sufficient to house the firm and its growing list of would-be tenants.  Despite the Financial Panic of 1873 that crippled much of the nation, land was purchased on Broadway and in May 1874 construction began on an addition.

The original architectural firm was brought back.  Theodore Weston later testified “that he was architect of the Equitable building” although “preliminary plans were drawn by Mr. Kendall.”  Completed within the year, the $1 million addition melded seamlessly with the original structure.

The addition doubled the size of the original building.  sketch New York and its Institutions 1609-1873 (copyright expired)
The Daily Mail, on May 1, 1875, commented on the speed of the construction.  “The activity of the company in constructing a building of such size, entirely of stone, iron, and brick, within so brief a period is unprecedented in architecture, but is only the expression in a new department of that well-directed energy which has made the Equitable Life Insurance Company what it is.”

The newspaper counted among the new tenants “many of our richest corporations and leading lawyers” and said that all the higher floors were already rented as were most of the rooms below.  “This is a great success in these dull times when many large buildings are standing half empty.”

The Equitable continued its tradition of innovations with a common Law Library for the use of its attorney tenants.  The basement was occupied by the Safe Deposit Company, the first floor was taken by the German American Bank, and the Equitable Life Insurance Company had the entire second floor.

A high-profile tenant was the Weather Bureau whose local forecaster maintained an “office” on the roof.  There a signal station and lighthouse used flags and colored lights to warn ships of weather conditions like gales, blizzards and rainstorms.  Air temperatures would be forecast from atop the Equitable Building for decades.

Always in the forefront of innovation, the Equitable Building made news again in November 1880 when the Exchange reported that “The United States Electric Lighting Company have introduced their arc and incandescent lights in the offices and vaults of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, in the basement of the Equitable Building.  This is said to be the first practical use that has been made of the incandescent mode of lighting, and is particularly interesting on that account.”

The newspaper made note at the same time that the firm “has enlarged its premises, adding a reading-room containing the leading newspapers of the world, a smoking-room, and largely increased accommodations in the way of security boxes and rooms for the examination of securities.”

Such growth of the Equitable itself as well as its tenants would soon tax even the enlarged structure.  In July 1885, when The New York Times noted that the building was “draped with simplicity and good taste” mourning the death of General Grant; discussions to enlarge once again were already underway.

On March 27, 1886 the newspaper reported that “the Equitable Life Assurance Society has filed plans for a building supposed to be big enough to accommodate a small army of professional men.  This building will extend from the southern side of the present structure to Pine-street…When it is finished the Equitable Building will occupy the entire block on Broadway, between Liberty and Pine streets.”

To enlarge the building once again, the Equitable Life Assurance Society purchased and demolished the beloved Delmonico’s restaurant and the Metropolitan Bank.  By summer construction had begun and soon the first of several tragedies occurred.

On August 7 around 11:00 in the morning a huge block of granite was being hoisted to the third floor by a large derrick. “John Dallas, a Scotchman, and brother of Foreman Dallas, stood on the block to steady it.  The big derrick creaked and the stout rope stretched as the mass of stone rose in the air,” reported The New York Times.

As the rope scraped the building's metal ornamentation it frayed.  “The stone was swaying when the strands separated,” said The Times, “It crashed against the building, knocked a hole in it, and plunged downward with frightful velocity.”  John Dallas was still on the block as it fell.

The man hit the ground on his back.  He looked up at the foreman and said “Good-bye, brother—good-bye, wife,” and fell unconscious.  An hour later at Chambers Street Hospital he died.

Six months later another disaster would occur.  At 10:50 a.m. on January 15, 1887, a scaffolding inside the building on the third floor collapsed “with a crash that was heard and felt in remote parts of the great building” said The Times.  Three men were pulled from the debris heap—35-year old electrician Dan Ford; 25-year old construction worker John Callaghan; and plumber Alexander Phillips who was just 17 years old.

When the doctor arrived, Callaghan was bleeding heavily from a head wound.  Phillips, too, was injured in the head; but “not apparently to any dangerous extent.”  Dan Ford, however, was dead at the scene.

The electrician had apparently died immediately.  He was married, with no children and his body was taken to his home in the afternoon.  “Nobody at the building could be found who blamed anybody,” said The Times.

As the building neared completion in April the decorating firm of Herter Brothers installed the largest mosaic in America within the arched entrance on Broadway.  Designed by artist Francis Lathrop, the Greek-inspired grouping was composed of stone, marble and glass tiles.  The glass pieces were used for the faces and were back-painted.  The innovative materials prompted a critic from The Times to say “Mr. Lathrop has hit the mean very well between the rudeness of the Roman pavement mosaics, together with those of later date preserved at Ravenna, and the modern demand for greater care in the drawing.”

The completed, block-engulfing structure was opened on May 1, 1887, deemed by The New York Times as “the finest and one of the largest commercial buildings in the world, as well as one of the most unique and complete.”

Seen from Trinity Churchyard, the arched main entrance was now on Broadway -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

While the façade carried on the twenty-year old original design; the building now rose to eight stories—three of them disguised by the hulking mansard.  The main entrance was on Broadway through a large arch.  Inside a 22-foot wide corridor led to the central court, “a novel and striking feature of the building, as well as one which will prove of use to such as are fortunate enough to be tenants in the building,” opined The Times.

The 100 foot by 44 foot courtyard was encircled by highly polished, rose-colored marble pillars with capitals of white onyx.  The pillars upheld the arched ceiling of polished marble and “richly stained glass.”  The courtyard formed the base of a large interior air shaft that provided light and ventilation to the offices above.

The first floor contained shops and offices for the convenience of the tenants—a post office, newspaper store, stationery store, railroad and theater ticket agent, telegraph office, etc.   Off the courtyard were a restaurant and barbershop and baths.

Above the Equitable Life Assurance offices were floors of 60 to 80 rooms or suites for tenants.  As before, the legal profession was pursued and The Times noted “Not only will [the offices] be particularly desirable for an attorney’s office because of their interiors, finished in quartered oak, and their roomy book shelves and closets, but because the occupants will have the privilege of availing themselves of the Equitable Law Library.”  By now the library held over 7,000 volumes, as well as English and European court reports and digests, and all law periodicals “of consequence of this country and Europe.”  The Equitable Law Library was considered at the time to be the most complete and valuable in the country.

In January 1886 the building presented New Yorkers with yet another innovation.  The Café Savarin opened its doors--a French restaurant which was established by the Paris-based Societe Anonyme de Restaurants aux Etats Units.  Deemed by The Times as “unsurpassed in magnificence in any quarter of the globe,” it took up the full eight floors of the Pine Street side of the building and cost more than $1 million in furnishings.

Marble pillars, convenient tickertape machines, art glass chandeliers and a magnificent carved bar are features of the Savarin Cafe's barroom -- photograph by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The main restaurant, café and serving room were on the ground floor.  The restaurant could accommodate 200 diners and was paneled in white mahogany under a “richly decorated ceiling.”  The second floor held the ladies’ dining room “to which gentlemen are not to be admitted unless accompanied by ladies,” warned The New York Times.  A full staff of “ladies’ maids” was on hand in black dresses, white caps and aprons “to tender to the comfort of lady patrons.”  Also on this floor were another café, grill room, and restaurant, all paneled in old oak; and a reception room, library and private rooms in white mahogany.

A portion of the Savarin wait staff poses on the restaurant's marble staircase -- photograph by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The fifth and sixth floors were dedicated to the Lawyer’s Club—a private restaurant conceived of by Henry Hyde himself.  The seventh floor contained private dining rooms and the kitchen took up the top floor.  The wine cellar, in the basement, was supplied from the Café Voisin of Paris.  The glass and chinaware in the 8-story restaurant were valued at $50,000 and The Times assured “the silver and damask are in the most refined taste.”

1889 brought the Equitable Building into the national spotlight more than once.  On the morning of April 29 the new President, Benjamin Harrison, received his welcome to New York here.  The Times described the preparations for his arrival.

“Outside and inside bunting fluttered in artistic forms and boundless profusion.”  Soldiers from several different detachments lined the staircases on both sides of the hall.  “On the south staircase, velvet carpeted, the vested choir of Trinity Church, sixty voices strong, was grouped…Behind the military were massed crowds of ladies and gentlemen.  No coign of vantage was unoccupied.  Ladies stood on tables and clung to pillars at peril of their lives, bound to see a live president, no matter what might happen.”

Harrison was welcomed in the Lawyers Club taking elevators that were decked with roses, lilies, palms and ferns.  Then he was taken to the private dining room; but before the banquet began the Equitable Building would get to show off its novel and astonishing electric lights.

“Just before entering the hall the guests passed up a dark stairway, and its brilliant beauty suddenly burst upon them with all the added effect of striking contrast.  Gen. Harrison, who entered first arm in arm with Mr. Fish, uttered a cry of admiration, and the other guests also were enthusiastic.  Electric lights blazing from twenty chandeliers lighted up the room with dazzling brilliancy.”

On the tables, heaped with flowers, were more lights.  “Masses of the most exquisite roses covered all the table but the spaces for the plates and glasses. Among the roses were electric lights in pink globes.  In the very centre of the table was a spreading palm, from whose fronds orchids hung.  This, too, was hung with electric lights.  If ever there was a fairy scene it was this,” declared The Times.

The Lawyer’s Club and Savarin Café were the center of attention later that year when the entire Pan-American Conference stopped here for breakfast.

On March 31, 1890 a ground-breaking event took place in the Lawyers’ Club when the American Co-operative Building and Loan Association met.  General W. T. Sherman presided over the meeting of about 200 members during which a phonograph recording of William E. Gladstone was played.  Unable to attend the meeting, Gladstone had his message to the assembly recorded on wax.  “The words of the message were distinctly heard by all present,” said a newspaper.  It was the precursor of today’s teleconference.  Later, a member made a motion that “General Sherman be empowered to speak the thanks of the meeting into a phonograph for reproduction to Mr. Gladstone.”  The motion was approved.

After an illness of about a year, Henry Hyde died on May 2, 1899.  Two years later a bronze statue of Hyde was placed in the entrance hall of the Equitable Building.  Sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward, its unveiling was a lavish affair and the large crowd that pushed into the building included Senator Chauncey M. Depew, E. H. Harriman, Henry Marquand, Jacob Schiff, John Jacob Astor, Levi P. Morton, August Belmont, Adolph S. Ochs, Cornelius Bliss and C. Ledyard Blair to name only a few.

On July 1, 1908 the Equitable Life Insurance Company announced its plans to build a 909-foot skyscraper to replace its old headquarters.  President Paul Morton gave a statement that said “the plans for the new building to be erected on the site of the present Equitable Building have been worked out by Daniel H. Burnham & Co. of Chicago…It seems to be the consensus of opinion of those in authority at the Equitable that the lot on which the present building stands it too valuable to be without a modern structure.”

Although the architects had drawn up the plans; nothing happened for the next four years.  Then on January 9, 1912 the unthinkable occurred.  A small fire began in the kitchen and storeroom of the Savarin Café.  William Davis, the chief engineer of the building, felt that his crew could contain the fire.  The delay in reporting the blaze had disastrous consequences.

The flames made their way into the elevator shaft and quickly rose upward.  By the time firemen arrived flames were bursting through windows.  In the bitterly cold January morning the water from the fire hoses froze as quickly as it hit the granite façade.  Within the hour six inches of ice covered engines and trucks, hydrants and the pavement, hampering the work of the firefighters.

Firemen pause before the ice-covered ruins of the once-grand structure -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Three men working in the Savarin escaped onto the roof but fire ladders were too short to reach them.  As the heat and flames closed in, the men frantically lowered themselves over the roof’s edge.  Firemen rushed to the building next door and a “line-shooting gun” was used to fire a life line to the men.  As one of the men tried to secure the heavy cable rope to a steam funnel, a sheet of flame burst up from the floor below and burned the rope to ashes.

As the men clung on desperately, the roof collapsed and the flames and heat closed in.  “They were seen to jump together, not into the fire, but clear of the coping and down into ice-covered Cedar Street.”  The three Italian immigrants were dead on the frozen pavement when Father McGean, the Fire Chaplain found them.

In the meantime, William Giblin, President of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, heard of the blaze and rushed to the scene.  Despite objections by police, he barged into the Cedar Street entrance.  A watchman accompanied him.  The heavy steel door at the entrance to the vaults was fitted with a spring lock.  Giblin forgot to take his key out of the lock and when the two entered, the door swung closed and locked behind them.  For 15 minutes the two groped around in the darkness, finally finding and entering the big vault.  Outside a heavy safe crashed through the floor from above.  As the safe broke open through the ceiling, air rushed in and the entire floor was soon a mass of flames.  Giblin found the papers he was looking for and opened the vault to find himself surrounded by smoke and flames.  The watchman had disappeared and Giblin closed himself back in the vault, trapped.

“He knew then that his life, too, was only a matter of time, and he waited for that time,” said The New York Times the following day.

Fire Chief William J. Walsh heard that a well-dressed man and an aide had entered the building and initiated a search with a group of firemen.  Walsh was on a staircase when the floor overhead fell down on him.  When firefighters managed to bend the steel bars of the basement windows enough to admit a man, Father McGean insisted on going into the inferno.  In the rubble of the vaults they heard the plaintive cries of a man.  “For God’s sake, save me.”  It was Giblin.

In the end, nine men died in the catastrophic fire that destroyed the magnificent Equitable Building.  Below ground where Giblin had rushed in, $1 billion in securities were kept intact by the heavy vaults—making his foolhardy entrance into the burning building, which cost Chief Walsh his life, entirely pointless.

The granite walls still stand around a smoldering head of debris -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Lost in the ice-covered, smoldering ruins were the magnificent mosaic mural of Francis Lathrop, the bronze statue of Hyde by Ward, the incomparable Law Library, and the exquisite interior decorations of stained glass, marble and rosewood.

When the heap of charred granite was trucked away, the soaring new 38-story Equitable Building already planned arose.  The 1915 engineering marvel survives today.
Chicago-based architect Daniel Burnham designed the new Equitable Building.  He was already responsible for a New York City landmark, the Fuller Building, better known as the Flatiron Building, completed in 1902.

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