Monday, May 11, 2015

The Lost John Wolfe Building -- 80-82 William Street

photo Architectural Studies May 1899 (copyright expired)

On March 17, 1894 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the old buildings on William Street, from Liberty Street to Maiden Lane would be demolished beginning May 1.   One of the buildings on the site was called the Wolfe Building; named for the family who had owned the land for a century and a half.

Now the estate of John Wolfe had commissioned respected architect Henry J. Hardenbergh, who had recently completed the hulking Waldorf Hotel, to design the new office building.   Hardenbergh was given the task of creating a 12-story structure on a rather thin plot of land—essentially what would later be termed a “sliver building.”  He drew his inspiration from the site—a section of what had once been New Amsterdam.

The Record and Guide reported “The materials to be used are Baltimore brick and terra cotta, and the style of architecture the ‘Dutch.’”  Hardenbergh had submitted a sketch to the Architectural League of New York three months earlier which depicted the skyscraper towering over the surrounding structures.

The thin brick and stone structure featured all the elements expected in an Amsterdam guild hall—ornate stepped gables and dormers, carved ornamentation and the stark contrast of red brick and white stone—stretched to towering proportions.  In January 1895 The Brickbuilder commented “here at the corner of Maiden Lane and William Street, on a lot only about twenty-five by seventy-five feet, at a guess, a really picturesque building, the John Wolfe Building, has been built…Twelve stories, all of red brick, and a great abundance of stone trimmings throughout, quoins, voussoirs, beltcourses, colonnettes, copings, towering upward with crownstepped gables and dormers, and balconies and bays; all most skillfully and logically worked out.”

Architectural Studies wrote “This building…has the merit, very unusual in a modern city building, of being picturesque in a thoroughly intelligent way.”  The critic added “It is interesting to see how this awkward shape of the ground was overcome and used to beautify the design.”

The John Wolfe Building was named in honor of the recently deceased hardware merchant.  The family’s wealth was reflected in son Christopher’s inheritance which included, according to The New York Times “his vast estates in the Thousand Islands” and Manhattan real estate. 

The Brickbuilder applauded Hardenbergh’s “successive retreating steps where the stories set back,” explaining that he successfully relieved the box-like appearance of such a tall structure.  “There is not a better studied piece of design in New York, nor one that shows better results.”

The John Wolfe Building sat squarely in the midst of the fire insurance district and, indeed, related firms moved in—like the Globe Fire Insurance Company which was here by 1897.  But a surprising number of construction-related companies took space here--like the Johnwhit Metal Company which moved from No. 62 William Street to the Wolfe Building in 1896.

In 1898 there were at least three cement and cement-related firms in the building.  The January 6 issue of Engineering News-Record ran advertisements for the Standard Silica Cement Co.; George M. Newcomer, Porland cement sales agent; and for F. L. Smidth & Co., “designers and builders of cement works” and “dealers in cement-manufacturing machinery.”   By 1901 at least two others would join them—Charles Warner Company, manufactures of lime products; and Curtin & Ver Valen, cement dealers.

Two of the building's cement-related firms were Standard Silica Cement and F. L. Smidth & Co.  (top, Real Estate Record & Guide, 1902; bottom, Directory of American Cement Industries, 1901 copyrights expired)
Both William and Liberty Streets ran downhill.  Loose wagons posed a potential problem for the brick façade of the John Wolfe Building.   On February 13, 1901 the City Council gave the John Wolfe estate permission “to erect at its own expense, on the line of the curb on the east side of William street, north of and near Liberty street, two iron posts to protect the John Wolfe Building from damage from vehicles in consequent of the steep incline of William and Liberty streets approaching that point.”  They would be an early example of the protective bollards that sprout throughout the city in front of major buildings today.

In 1904 the Wolfe family offered the building at auction.  The Real Estate Record & Guide noted “This is a very unusual opportunity, as the building is in the midst of the financial district, in one of the choicest business locations in the city.”

At noon on March 30 it was sold to Lorena R. Jones for $325,000 (about $8.75 million today).  The New York Times noted she “is said to have made the purchase in the interest of a syndicate which has also secured options on the remaining parcels in the block.”  If the group of investors intended to demolished the John Wolfe Building in order to erect a massive, block-encompassing structure, it was not to be.

In 1903 the building was still the tallest in the district - King's Photographic Views of New York City (copyright expired)

As a matter of fact, on March 11, 1906 The Times opined “The Wolfe Building…bought at auction by its present owners two years ago for $325,000, is said to be beyond the reach of any scheme for the improvement of the entire block.  Ten [sic] stories in height and built only twelve or fifteen years ago, it falls within the category of those structures which are not modern in the light of present-day standards, yet which are not old enough to be consigned to the scrap heap.”

In 1910 the syndicate of owners was in financial trouble and foreclosure resulted in another auction sale on April 20.  Shocking to the Wolfe family, no doubt, was the headline in The New York Times the following day.  “No Bids for Wolfe Building.”

The property was offered at auction again in May, and again on January 27, 1911.   Surprisingly, the Wolfe heirs purchased the building for $251,000; then resold it within the week to the Liverpool and London and Globe Insurance Company.  “The new owner, it is understood, pays a substantial advance,” said The Times.

The insurance company prepared plans for “extensive improvements” and issued evacuation orders to the tenants.  In October 1911 the firm announced it would take over all 12 floors and “the building will be renamed.”

George H. McFalls was one of the firm’s employees.  The wealthy broker was married with three children and lived in Brooklyn.  A member of the Gravesend Yacht Club, he took his 35-foot cruiser, the Vera onto the Great South Bay off Bellport, Long Island, on August 14, 1912.  With him were his 16-year old daughter Marion, and 4-year old Geraldine.  It was their last day of vacation.

While a few miles offshore from Amityville, the Vera broke down.  After trying for at least an hour to fix the engine, McFalls signaled a passing motorboat for a tow.  The 22-foot launch, the Pan, tossed a line and began towing the craft to land.

George McFalls went back below deck to continue fiddling with the engine.  Marion was standing up watching the approaching shoreline when a sudden jerk on the tow line caused her to lose her balance and fall overboard.  Her father heard her screams and hurriedly launched a small rowboat.  The attention of men in the motorboat was focused ahead and they did not notice the impending tragedy.

As McFalls desperately rowed toward Marion, she sank below the waves twice.  It was impossible to grab her and pull her into the boat, so he jumped into the water.  The Times reported “He reached her as she was sinking again.  She locked her arms about his neck in a death grip, making it almost impossible for him to swim.”

The motorboat had nearly reached shore when its occupants finally heard little Geraldine’s calls.  “Far behind them they saw the empty rowboat and the two figures struggling in the water.”  Although the boaters attempted to return in time to rescue the pair, they were too late.

“They circled round as rapidly as it could be done,” said the newspaper, “but while they were speeding back they saw that the father’s strength was gone, and while they were still a long distance away father and daughter, locked in each other’s arms, disappeared from sight.”

The men attempted to find the bodies for half an hour and finally gave up.  Geraldine’s uncle, S. J. McFalls, came by automobile from Brooklyn to take her home.

As the century progressed and the Wolfe Building was diminished by taller modern skyscrapers, it managed to survive.  The building continued to house insurance and banking offices well into the second half of the century.  Then on April 4, 1973 the massive World Trade Center towers were opened.  The event would signal the end of the line for the John Wolfe Building.

A project to widen the downtown streets to improve traffic flow to the towers meant the demolition of some structures—including the Wolfe Building.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission had been created in 1965; but its focus at the time was on more obvious structures.  Although protests were raised by certain groups and individuals, Hardenbergh’s remarkable Dutch skyscraper was demolished in 1974.

Today the Louise Nevelson Plaza sits on a section of the left-over land.

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