In 1887 the neighborhood around Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street was far different from the high-toned Fifth Avenue three blocks to the east. Part of the notorious Hell’s Kitchen district, industrial firms like tanneries still operated closer to the river and poverty and squalor filled the tenement-lined streets. But already, commerce and development were pushing as far eastward as Eighth Avenue.
James and Mary O’Reilly lived in a three-story wooden house at No. 303 42nd Street. St. Patrick’s Day 1887 for the O’Reilly’s would be a happy one.
Steps away from the O’Reilly’s frame home, at the southeast corner of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, the Home Bank had been doing business since 1883. Now bank officers looked to expand and improve with a new building. In February 1887 the Home Bank purchased the O’Reilly property for $10,000—approximately $237,000 in today’s dollars.
Later that year, in August, the bank announced its plans to build a one-story bank building, rising to two-stories in the rear. For its $26,000 building the bank had chosen the architectural firm of Thom & Wilson. Although the architects would go on to design a few prominent structures—the Centre Street Criminal Courts Building, the impressive Nevada Apartments, and the Harlem Court House among them—they would be most well-known for their innumerable rows of speculative cookie-cutter rowhouses they cranked out for developers.
There would be nothing cookie-cutter about the new Home Bank building, however. Completed in 1888, the granite clad structure pretended hard to be three stories rather than one. The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide took note of the gamble the bank made in the marginal neighborhood. “Just beyond 8th avenue there is an experiment which seems to be safe enough, whatever may be the fate of the quarter, in the shape of 'The Home Bank,’ though the title indicates the belief of the bankers that its neighbors will continue to be dwelling houses.”
Thom & Wilson took the liberty of melding styles, invoking some displeasure on the part of the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide.
“It is a modest attempt in one way, being a building of one story, though the transoms of the openings may represent either a floor or a gallery, and it occupies one lot,” reported The Guide. “There is nothing bashful or retiring in its architecture, which is, on the contrary of a pretentious and stentorious kind. The material is granite, with a steep slated mansard ridge with copper. The entrance is a projecting porch, a round arch carried upon columns with Roman Ionic capitals, and the shafts rusticated like those of the Post-office, though here also they are monoliths. The dropped keystone of the arch which these columns support is decorated with a Renaissance grotesque, and the spandrels are filled with ineffectual ornament, and the feature completed by a round pediment filled with a fan-like shell.”
The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide was never shy about lavishing praise or exacting ruthless criticism. After describing the facade in detail, the critic returned to panning the design. “The party walls are shown on each side of the roof coped with granite, and resting at the cornice line upon corbels in the form of Renaissance beasts. This is the most effective feature in the building, though the detail is not good. For the rest the bank is distinctly of what everybody recognizes as the soda-fountain style. It is heavy and clumsy without looking really massive, mainly because its solidity is greatest at the top, and is not a specimen of architecture so much as of ‘fancy stone cutting.’”
Despite the Record and Guide’s assessment, the new Home Bank building represented a step up for the still tenuous block. Two years later real estate developer S. J. Jayne would point to the building as proof of positive development. “The House Bank on 42d street, west of 8th avenue, shows that the overflow from the 8th avenue corners has betaken itself to the street.”
Since 1882 the head cashier had been Howard L. Bain who earned a satisfying salary of $3,500 a year in 1893—around $87,500 today. That year The New York Times described him as “about thirty-five years old. He has a wife and two little children, and for some time his invalid mother and two of his sisters have been with him, it is said.”
Bain lived in a four-story frame house with a large front yard on the north side of 83rd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. Perhaps in an effort to better support the seven family members in that home, he took to playing the stock market. But, as reported in newspapers later, “he bought stocks low, they went lower.”
In a panic to buy more stocks to make up the losses, he stole $16,185 in bonds from the bank in 1893. By mere accident the President discovered the loss and Bain confessed. He resigned, but the bank refused to notify the police. Bank Director George Starr told reporters when the story leaked out, “I am sorry for Bain. Why I would trust that man with my pocketbook. He wouldn’t take a dollar out of your pocket.”
Mrs. Bain soon wondered why her husband was not going to work. “Last Saturday,” reported The New York Times on September 15, 1893, Mrs. Bain went to the Home Bank and asked what was the trouble with her husband. He had been home two weeks or more, she said, keeping close indoors and apparently brooding over some trouble, but had refused to divulge anything to her or his relatives.”
She was told of the theft and went home “astounded.” She said he was “a frugal man and rarely spent more than $30 for a suit of clothes.”
Not only did the bank officers sympathize with Bain and his circumstances, they had hoped to keep the loss, which was covered by insurance, from the public. But when the story leaked out, Bain was arrested and sent to The Tombs awaiting trial. The Home Bank immediately went into motion to have him released.
Judge Fitzgerald was handed a stack of resolutions asking that sentence be suspended. In his letter, bank President Stephenson noted that in the 23 years Bain had worked in banks he had never stolen money “which he could have taken if he intended to be dishonest.” Stephenson called him “an unfortunate young man” and pointed out the “wife and two children, a mother and two sisters dependent upon him for support.” He promised that he would secure a first-class bookkeeper job for Bain if he were released.
Stephenson then turned to the press to obtain public support. He told reporters “I know that he has no vices. He does not drink or smoke. He has lived in a quiet, modest manner with his family, and has been a dutiful husband, son, and brother. He has not got a dollar in the world, all he had and took having been swallowed up in his unfortunate speculation.”
Regardless of the stack of testimonies in his favor, however, Bain’s reputation in Victorian New York was dashed.
While the dramatic situation played out on 42nd Street, the Corn Exchange Bank was building its new headquarters downtown. Founded in 1853, the retail bank was now prosperous enough to hire Robert Henderson Robertson to design an 11-story skyscraper at Nos. 11 to 15 William Street. The new structure would be completed the following year, in 1894.
In 1899 the Corn Exchange Bank began gobbling up smaller banks in an astounding acquisition move. That year it absorbed the Astor Place Bank, the Hudson River Bank of the City of New York and the Queens County Bank. A year later it would have the Home Bank in its sights.
On February 16, 1900 the fate of the Home Bank was clearly evident. The Boston Evening Transcript reported “The absorption of the Home Bank, at 303 West Forty-second street, by the Corn Exchange Bank, has been practically completed.” Six days later The New York Times added “The Directors of the Corn Exchange Bank met yesterday and ratified the proposition to merge with the Home Bank of Forty-second Street and Eighth Avenue.”
Eight years later, on June 3, 1908, an eerie case of déjà vu occurred at No. 303 West 42nd Street. Like Howard L. Bain 15 years earlier, Charles T. Muir was one of the bank’s most trusted employees. But in 1903 he began embezzling funds. As a receiving teller, he was able to cover the shortages by substituting new deposits. Problems came on July 31, 1908 when, due to his exemplary service, Muir was promoted to paying teller. With the new position, he was no longer able to manipulate the funds.
On June 3 bank officers approached Muir about a discrepancy of $9,068 in his accounts. He asked to be excused “until he could obtain a deposit ticket to explain the matter,” reported the Spokane, Washington’s The Spokesman-Review that afternoon.
The newspaper recounted that Muir “went to the basement and, after writing a brief confession that his accounts were short, shot himself in the head. He died within an hour at the hospital.”
In 1927 the officers of the Corn Exchange Bank agreed to demolish its 39-year old 42nd Street branch building. A year later the bank’s new 12-story sliver building was completed. Before long the quirky little one-story bank building that so annoyed a Victorian architectural critic would be totally forgotten.
|The architects of the 1927 replacement sliver building no doubt expected it to eventually be surrounded by equally-tall structures. photograph by the author|