Monday, May 23, 2016

The Lost Assay Office -- No. 30 Wall Street

In 1893, when this postcard was published, the Assay Office (right) sat in the soul of the Financial District.

In 1761 Samuel Verplanck returned to New York from Holland where he had not only completed his education, but married a wealthy wife.  He constructed a lavish, 40-foot wide home on Wall Street.  To the west, his garden abutted the old City Hall.  The upscale neighborhood, which included the home of Alexander Hamilton, would greatly change by the early 1820s.

According to descendant William Edward Verplanck in his 1921 The Site of the Assay Office on Wall Street, “In 1822 Daniel C. Verplanck, only son and heir of Samuel, reluctantly sold the Wall Street front of the property to the Bank of the United States.  The price, $40,000, was deemed a large one at that time.”

Construction of the Branch Bank of the United States began on the site of the Verplanck mansion the following year.  The cornerstone was laid on April 17, 1823.  The two-story structure faced in gleaming white marble was designed by William Strickland.  Both grand and dignified, it was described by architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler nearly a century later, in 1911.  “The general scheme of the front is of that modernized Roman which, in England, is known as Georgian, and in this country, as Colonial.” The completed building looked as much like an English country house as a bank building.

The New York Mirror, Vol VII 1830 (copyright expired)

In 1836 the charter of the Branch Bank of the United States expired.  Although a new charter was obtained; the branch was closed in 1837 “in the widespread crash of that year, and not long after, the bank was wound up with a total loss to its shareholders,” as explained by William Verplanck.

In 1848 flakes of gold were found in Sutter’s Mill, triggering the California Gold Rush the following year.  Five years later, on January 30, 1853, the New York Herald reported that Senator Hunter “proposes to establish an assay office in New York, at which the gold from California or elsewhere may be assayed, and its real value ascertained.  He further proposes that the gold thus assayed shall be cast into bars or ingots of various sizes, and stamped with its value, for which, to the amount any individual may possess, a certificate shall be issued as for a deposit.”

By March $100,000 had been appropriated for the establishment of an Assay Office.  A search for the location seemed to be settled on April 5 when the New York Herald reported Congress had ordered it “be set up in the basement of the Custom House, as soon as possible.”  The Herald was apparently not totally confident on the seemingly temporary conditions.  “So let it be—for it will be a great convenience to Wall street, as well as to returned Californians.  ‘A half a loaf is better than nothing.’ Let the law be carried out.”

Not long afterward, however, the Bank of the United States building (recently being used by the Bank of the State of New York) was deemed a better solution.   The bank sold it to the United States Government for $530,000 according to The New York Times (a staggering $16.8 million today and five times more than the appropriated funds).  Before the year was out, the new Assay Office had moved into the marble building.

Well dressed clients--both male and female--brought their precious metals to the Assay Office.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 7, 1861 (copyright expired)
For more than half a century the Assay Office provided its services, described by Samuel Armstrong Nelson in 1900 in his The A B C of Wall Street.  “The building is employed in assaying, parting and refining crude bullion, coin, jewelry, old bars and the precious metals in such other forms as they may be presented.  All this metal is turned out in the form of bars of various weight, stamped by the Government with letters and figures which certify to the weight and quality of the metal.  Most of this work is done for private persons, who pay a charge which defrays the cost of the labor.”

Perhaps the most unusual job of melting down gold scrap was required of the Assay Office in November 1901.   In 1891 the great Chicago Exposition opened and among its exhibits was a life-size statue of actress Maude Adams cast in pure gold to represent the State of Nevada.  (Maude would later earn her greatest fame when she created the role of Peter Pan on stage.)

Following the close of the fair, the statue was sent from city to city as an exhibit.  But, reported the New-York Tribune on November 17, 1901, “Its days of usefulness in that guise being ended, it was decided to melt it and get the gold.”  The statue reached the Assay Office on Wednesday, November 13 and “on Thursday workmen armed with sledgehammers attacked the statue and pounded it until it was reduced to a number of battered lumps, each small enough to go into a melting pot.”

Three days later Maude Adams was reduced to tidy gold bricks.  The Assay Office estimated their value at $97,000 before being precisely assayed—about $2.8 million in 2016.

In 1892 the Assay Office was surrounded by towering structures.  Within two decades beams would be installed in the alleyway (left) to keep the western wall from collapsing.  King's Views of New York 1892 (copyright expired)

Before long the aged building had not only outlived its usefulness, but showed serious structural problems.  Beams were installed in the alley separating it from the Sub-Treasury Building to shore up the western wall.  A new assay refinery was constructed behind it on Pine Street in 1911 and the Wall Street building was vacated. 

On December 1, 1912 The New York Times noted “For several years the ancient structure…has practically been condemned as useless.”  Henry Clews, who had rented offices in the old structure, added “Last year the Wall Street front was vacated by the staff, and the artistic façade now presents a decidedly unattractive appearance.  Some of the panes of glass in the windows are broken and in places the walls show a tendency to bulge in a very dangerous manner.”

The Times reported that “Wall Street is about to lose its oldest building within the next few months when its old Assay Office, just below the historic Sub-Treasury Building, will be razed to the ground.”  Henry Clews lamented “The building is the best example of architecture in the city, except the City Hall, and I shall be sorry to see it go.”

Not long before the Assay Office was demolished, a picture postcard depicted it and the Sub-Treasury Building.  The latter was constructed on the site of the old City Hall, which abutted Samuel Verplanck's gardens. (Note the bootblack stand at the lower right corner.)
Henry Clews was not the only New Yorker sorry to see it go.  Mayor William Jay Gaynor proposed moving the building to another site.  But the logistics of relocating the 1823 masonry structure seemed insurmountable; and The Times opined “a landmark transported from the associations of its original site becomes virtually a museum relic, and loses the true elements that have rendered it attractive.”

Another proposal suggested what today is referred to as facadism—attaching the white marble front to the new Assay Office structure.  But architects dashed that hope.  “An examination showed that rain and frost had worked into the apertures between the marble slabs and had disintegrated the stones to such an extent that it would be difficult to remove them without breaking them,” advised The Times.  Too, the new Assay Office would be wider than the original; making the old façade unworkable.

On August 19, 1913, as scheduled demolition neared, The New York Times reported “Unless present plans are changed, the façade will be removed and broken up.”  Various historical organizations came to Wall Street “and admired the building, but so far no one has come forward with a request for it,” said the newspaper.

Demolition was, thankfully, delayed and on December 26, 1914 the Treasury Department tried one last attempt to salvage the exquisite façade.  Alfred Brooks Fry, Supervising Engineer for the Treasury Department, was notified that “the marble façade of the old Assay Office in Wall Street is now available for any society or individual that desires to preserve it.”

One far-thinking individual came to the rescue.  In March 1915 American Architect and Architecture predicted that the news that the façade “will be saved, and re-erected on another site will probably be received with satisfaction by every one taking an interest in the conservation of our fast disappearing land-marks.”

The New-York Tribune had recently reported on “excellent authority” that “the Government has presented this façade to Robert W. DeForest, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that it will be re-erected to form the front of a new building soon to be built by the Museum to house Americana.”

The superb Georgian façade was carefully stripped away from the building where it had stood since 1823, its pieces catalogued and stored away for seven years.   In 1922 it was moved to the Metropolitan Museum to become part of the American Wing under construction; then being called The Early American Art Wing.

On June 16, 1923, exactly 100 years after William Strickland’s beautiful bank building was completed, The New York Times reported on the progress of the American Wing.  The article mentioned “The steel girders for the roof are up the sides and front, and the old façade of the old Assay Office, which was purchased by Mr. De Forest at the time the building was demolished, which is to be used for the front of this new wing, makes a fine appearance.”

The replacement Assay Office.  Report of the Director of the Mint, 1920 (copyright expired)
The American Wing was completed two years later with the old Assay Office façade as its entrance.   Not only a remarkable example of early 19th century architecture, but an astounding example of early 20th century historic preservation; it remains the impressive focal point of the American Wing’s courtyard.

photo The Real Deal, November 22, 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment