Friday, July 4, 2014

Henry Bacon's 1907 Union Square Savings Bank

photo by Alice Lum
In 1905 wealthy lumber dealer David J. Dannat was among the last residential holdouts on Union Square.  The 55-year old lived at No. 20 Union Square East and was deemed by The New York Times to be “one of the most widely known lumber dealers in New York.”

Once lined with elegant brick or brownstone homes, the park had seen the incursion of commerce in the years since the end of the Civil War, and the arrival of large business buildings in the past decade.  Now Dannat’s brownstone home was among the last relics of a more tranquil time on the Square.

Next door, at No. 22, was the old Greek Revival row house which had been taken over in 1867 by the Institution for the Savings of Merchants’ Clerks.  After nearly four decades in the old mansion, in 1904 the bank changed its name to the Union Square Savings Bank. 

In May 1905 David J. Dannat died in his old Union Square mansion.  It would be only a matter of months before the house came down.  On December 9, 1905 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported the Union Square Savings Bank planned a brick and stone “bank and apartments” on the site of Nos. 20 and 22 Union Square East.  The $275,000 building would be designed by architect Henry Bacon.  The day before the Record & Guide made the announcement, the New-York Tribune described the plans filed by Bacon.

“It is to front 52 feet in Union Square and 125 feet in the street, with a façade of Troy white granite in the classic Greek style, adorned with an ornamental portico with four Corinthian columns.”  The main bank building was to be a single, grand story tall; while the rear would be four stories.  The bank would use this section in part for an ingenious and innovative purpose.  The Tribune pointed out that it would be “furnished as a dwelling for employes of the bank.”

Following the Financial Panic of 1893 architects strove to give bank structures the appearance of stability—as though they had existed for centuries.  The Architecture Record emphasized “The effect of the structure must be one of great importance and simplicity.  It must make on the depositors the impression of being a perfectly safe place to leave their money and valuables.”  In addition, the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago had popularized grandeur in architecture as a means to enforce “order, clarity and sobriety”—hallmarks of the City Beautiful Movement.

Greek and Roman temple architecture fit snugly into the mold and by the time Bacon sat down at his drafting table there were numerous temple-inspired banking buildings in Manhattan.  But the Union Square Savings Bank would stand apart.  The architect, who dealt mostly with public commissions (he would design some 50 monuments during his career) would bring that sense of monumental grandeur to Union Square.
 
The 1910 book How to Know Architecture cleverly removed the surrounding buildings in this photograph (copyright expired)
The granite-faced building, completed in 1907, was distinguished by four soaring fluted Corinthian columns that upheld the entablature and parapet.  Along 15th Street they were mimicked by matching pilasters.  Inside, Bacon’s “absolutely fire-proof” building featured a cavernous banking room outfitted in marble and bronze and lit by stained glass skylights 60 feet above.  Bacon floored the banking room with black-and-white mosaic tiles—an expected feature of Edwardian business space.  It was the composition of the tiles that was out of the ordinary.  The interlocking tiles, manufactured by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., were made of rubber.  The company boasted that its flooring tiles were “among the materials used to make this building superior and modern in every respect.” 
A Goodyear advertisement in a 1908 issue of Architecture depicted the banking room interior.  The ad called the rubber tiles "resilient, non-slippery, noiseless, long-wearing, and superior."  The pilasters reflect the classical facade outside.  (copyright expired)

A decade after the building opened its doors, in April 1917, the United States was drawn into World War I.  The Union Square Savings Bank joined nearly all other Manhattan banks in selling Liberty Bonds to aid in the war effort.  But one clerk in the bank, Halliday S. Smith wanted to do more.

The Union Square Savings Bank was listed among the institutions where Liberty Bonds could be purchased -- The Evening World, October 17, 1918 (copyright expired)

Smith tried to enlist, but was, according to the New-York Tribune, “disqualified for military service on account of a dislocation of the shoulder.”  Undeterred, the enthusiastically patriotic young man enlisted as a Y. M. C. A. hut secretary in November 1917.  Smith was sent to France where he was working among the wounded in the trenches during a heavy bombardment on May 25, 1918.  The Germans initiated a gas attack on the troops but Smith remained at his post “regardless of personal peril.” 

On Sunday June 2, 1918 word arrived in New York that the Union Square Savings Bank clerk had died in the trenches, overcome by the lethal fumes.
 
The patriotic and idealistic bank clerk Halliday Smith, became a victim of war -- The New York Tribune, June 2, 1918 (copyright expired)
By now work was well underway in Washington D.C. on Henry Bacon’s most well-known structure—the Lincoln Memorial.  Because of the massive classical columns of both buildings, it is tempting to compare the Parthenon-inspired memorial to the architect’s Union Square Savings Bank.  The similarities, however, essentially end there.

Just months before the Stock Market Crash, prosperous New Yorkers bustle around the Union Square Savings Bank in 1929 photograph by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWQOKD2P&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

Although the Union Square Savings Bank extended its presence across the city with branch banks beginning in 1923; it retained No. 20 Union Square East as its headquarters.  Twice, in 1937 and in 1961, the interiors were updated and during the last renovation a new entrance designed by B. L. Smith was installed.  In 1968 the bank became the United Mutual Savings Bank after a merger with the Kings County Savings Bank; and in 1982 it was acquired by the American Savings Bank.  The end of the line was near for the Roman temple as a financial institution, however.  In 1992 the New York State banking regulators closed the bank after a series of bad real estate loans.

Carved within the wreaths are beehives--the symbol of thrift.  Behind the banner announcing the current play the bank's name can be seen.  photo by Alice Lum
The building sat empty and neglected for a year until on August 2, 1993 the House of Blues from Cambridge, Massachusetts, purchased it for $2.06 million.  The New York Times announced that the new owner “plans to convert the building into one in a national chain of restaurants a blues bars.”

Preservationists were not overly-excited by the purchase.  Henry Bacon’s temple to finance did not have landmark protection, which meant that just about any alterations could be made to the classical façade.  House of Blues founder Isaac Tigrett partially put the fears to rest.  “We don’t have any plans to change it at this time,” he told David W. Dunlap of The Times regarding the exterior.

As for interior renovations necessary to convert the banking floor to a dining room and performance space, he simply said “We’re going to surprise everybody.”

In fact, The House of Blues would not open.  The building continued to sit empty for three more years before being acquired in 1996 by producer Daryl Roth and converted to the Daryl Roth Theatre.  The live theater venue was home to the hit play De La Guarda which ran for seven years.


The same year that Roth purchased the property, it was designated a New York City landmark.  Henry Bacon’s monumental classical remains an important architectural presence not only on Union Square, but in Manhattan as a whole.

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