Monday, January 18, 2016

The Lost Nat'l Park Bank -- Nos. 214-216 Broadway




King's Photographic Views of New York, 1895 (copyright expired)
In 1856 the Park Bank of New York City was chartered, opening its doors for business on March 31 that year in a building at Beekman Street and Theatre Alley.  The New-York Tribune would later remember “A number of merchants who were doing business in that part of the city saw the necessity for a new bank, and the fact that business was good from the opening day showed that their efforts were timely.”

The success of the bank was nearly pre-ordained.  It began with a capital of $2 million, and counted among its directors Stuyvesant Fish, August Belmont, and John Jacob Astor.  In 1865 it became a national bank, its name changing to the National Park Bank.  The Beekman Street building was quickly becoming too small and in 1866 the properties at Nos. 214 and 216 Broadway, stretching through the block to Anne Street, were acquired, .

The Broadway location directly across from St. Paul’s Chapel had for years been home to White’s, retailer of ladies’ furs.  Here well-heeled female shoppers could obtain “Siberian squirrel, river mink, mantillas, half capes, pelerines, muffs and cuffs,” for instance.  But White’s and the other businesses would now have to move on.

The bank commissioned architect Griffith Thomas to design its new building.  Looking back in 1908, the American Institute of Architects would call him “the most fashionable architect of his generation.”  He was given a handsome budget with which to work, and he did not disappoint.

In 1852 a new architectural vogue had overtaken Paris, beginning with additions to the Louvre Palace and sweeping down the Champs-Elysees.  Thomas now embraced the French Second Empire style for the National Park Bank.  

Nearly 60 feet wide, the five story building would rise 104 feet.  As it neared completion in April 1868, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide wrote “No building has ever yet been erected in New York which attracted—and justly—more attention and commendation than the Park Bank, now in progress.”

Next door to the bank building was Knox the Hatter, who used a bank wall for his advertisement.  Knox traditionally provided the hats for Presidential inaugurations.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The structure was clad entirely in gleaming white Tuckahoe marble.  The wide stone staircase that led to the entrance was flanked by projecting, freestanding columns on pedestals.  They were mimicked on the second floor, before becoming pilasters on the third and fourth.  The massive windows on the first floor were 15 feet high and 11 feet wide, matching in dimensions the “couplet windows of large and pleasing proportions” on the upper floors, as described by the Record & Guide.

The grand mansard roof was dominated by an over-sized dormer with four sculpted caryatids, and an arched hood containing a sunburst design and surmounted by a finial.   The cornice above the second floor included a massive broken pediment.  (The date “1867” was carved into the pediment although the building would not be completed for another year.)  Here, with mid-Victorian excess, Thomas placed five enormous sculptures—two standing figures at the ends, two reclining on the pediment, and one imposing seated figure.

The Record & Guide was most impressed with this aspect of the new structure.  “Unquestionably the distinguishing feature of this building is the bold and appropriate introduction of genuine sculpture as a handmaid to architecture.”  The journal noted that the ancients, as well as modern Europeans, all used sculpture to enhance their buildings.  “It is really astonishing that our architects should have so long neglected this important feature, squandering money upon the repetition of costly and unmeaning ornamentation that could have been far better concentrated upon two or three pleasing objects of genuine high art.”

The large tree-filled lot in the background would be the site of the monumental 1880 city Post Office. photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Inside, the Great Banking Room was 90 feet long and 58 feet wide under a 40 foot dome of iron and glass.   The Record & Guide promised “This room, with all its adjuncts, will be most sumptuously decorated, and in its complete shape will doubtless surpass anything of the kind ever erected among us.”   The New-York Tribune later described “The large rotunda of the bank, on the first floor, is decorated in white and gold, and afford ample working space for the force of 125 clerks employed in the bank.”  It was the largest staff of any bank in the city.

The bank took up the first floor and basement level; while the upper floors contained offices “adapted to Insurance and other business purposes.”  Below ground were the treasury vault (deemed the strongest in the world), and the safety deposit vaults.

When the new building opened in 1868, it was “considered the finest business edifice in New-York,” according to the New-York Tribune.  While most commented on the sculptures, the ornate mansard, and what the Tribune called “its dignified ornamentation and lofty banking room;” one depositor found Thomas’s bank building satisfyingly restrained.

“The bank building is like the bank—no spread eagle, no fuss and feathers, no grand display but honest, downright solidity and stability,” he told a reporter.

The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide, which had found the sculptural elements of the building its greatest feature in 1868, had changed its mind a year later.  On June 26, 1869 it decided “We are of opinion that the sculpture work, however, has been over-wrought and much too crowded for the front of a building so narrow as the National Park Bank structure.”

Crowded statuary or not, the National Park Bank continued with its successful operation.   The nation was obsessed with the progress of the transcontinental railroad at the time.  On November 9, 1868 Turner Brothers, brokers, announced that the California Pacific Railroad “is now completed to Sacramento City” and that interest payments on mortgage bonds were “payable in gold, at the National Park Bank, New-York.”

The upper floors filled with business offices, including the Craftsmen’s Life Assurance Company, the brokerage firm Heidelberger & Co., and the Underwriters’ Hall.

Only a year after the bank opened in its new location it was challenged by its own success.  The New-York Tribune reported on October 13, 1869 “We understand that the National Park Bank has already let the original number of safes in its Safe Deposit Vault, and has been obliged to put in an additional number, which are now ready, in order to supply the demand.”

Victorian depositors could walk into their banks and take “bank checks” which were available in the lobby.  These could then filled out and used at retailers as cash.  It was a system that invited fraud on a grand scale.  National Park Bank, like all banks and business people, constantly dealt with deceit.

One example was Ed Revel who “engaged board and lodging” for a month at Annie J. Worcester’s boarding house at No. 170 Fifth Avenue.  Annie accepted his $420 National Park Bank check in advance.  It was not until he had run up a bill of $33 within the first two days, much of it for wine, that she discovered his check was worthless.  For his free stay he spent two and a half years in the State Prison.

Dishonesty did not always come from outside the bank.  In 1876 teller Thomas Ellis took $36,000 (around $820,000 in today’s dollars) of the bank’s money and escaped to Canada.   He was captured and tried and found guilty in St. John, New Brunswick courts.   After nearly two years in a Canadian prison he was released on March 2, 1879.

The scene was replayed a decade later when assistant cashier Charles De Baun disappeared with $95,000 in April 1888.   De Baun had been employed for the bank for 22 years, was well-to-do, and, according to the New-York Tribune, was “for many years a popular member of several Brooklyn clubs.”

Perhaps with the memory of Ellis’s flight vivid in their minds, the directors instructed police Inspector Byrnes to provide a description of De Baun to the Canadian officials. Bank director Eugene Kelly “sternly” told an Evening World reporter on May 1 “I hope we shall soon land De Baun in the Penitentiary.”

Charles De Baun had indeed gone to Canada as the bank suspected, arriving in Stanstead, Montreal in August using the name Frederick Foster.  Close on his trail was the bank’s private detective.  A tail was put on the crook’s brother, who was followed to the boarding house where he was living.  Charles De Baun was arrested on August 31.

The “absconding cashier” was extradited to New York in December.  On January 19, 1889 bank president V. Mumford Moore made its position clear.  He told a New-York Tribune reporter “We have spent $15,000 to arrest him and I personally requested the District-Attorney to get the bail fixed at so high a sum as would preclude possibility of his escape.”

De Baun’s sentence, delivered on June 24, 1889, seems surprisingly light—five years and six months in Sing Sing prison.  But the New-York Tribune reported the following day “He will serve between three and four years of imprisonment, if he earns the usual commutation for good behavior.”

In 1885 the Post Office, sharing many of the National Park Bank's architectural elements, dominated the area.  The roof of St. Paul's Chapel can be seen at lower left.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
By 1898 the National Park Bank had had the largest aggregate deposits, resources and business of any bank in the United States for several years.  Three years later, on November 24, 1901, The New York Times pointed out that the bank had “something less than a billion surplus.”

At the time of the article, the bank was demolishing the rear portion of its building “with the ultimate object, it is understood, of putting up the greatest and finest and highest office building in the City of New York.”

So as not to interrupt banking service, the Anne Street portion of the new building was erected, and the operation moved to that section in 1904.  On April 30 that year it was time for the remainder of the building to be razed.  The Record and Guide reported “On May 1st, tenants will have vacated the Broadway part of the National Park Bank building, and W. F. Seagrist, Jr…will proceed to demolish the structure preparatory to the completion of the new building.”

The new National Park Bank.  photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Griffith Thomas’s grand marble building gave way to Donn Barber’s equally ambitious National Park Bank. A robust example of French Classic Modernism, it survived until 1961 when it was replaced by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon's rather unexciting Western Electric Building.
photo by Jim Henderson

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