Monday, July 11, 2016

The Lost Pulitzer Building -- Nos. 53-63 Park Row

from the collection of the Library of Congress
The New York World was founded in 1860 by Manton Marble.  The publisher quickly discovered that fighting for readers against successful newspapers like The New York Times, the New-York Tribune, and The New York Post was a formidable challenge.  The World limped along until 1883 when it was purchased by Joseph Pulitzer who had no intentions of running a second-rate paper.

The aggressive publisher’s innovations included hiring investigative journalist Nellie Bly.  Pulitzer sent her on the trail of sensational stories, often undercover.  One publicity exploit, inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, had Bly circumventing the globe in 72 days beginning in 1889.

A reformist liberal and a champion of the tenement-class, his newspaper spoke out more than any other against the conditions of the poor.  An immigrant and  Jew, Pulitzer dealt not only with reviving a struggling newspaper, but with anti-Semitism.  Leander Richardson, editor of The Journalist, referred to him as “Jewseph Pulitzer,” for instance

The World’s popularity with the immigrant classes swelled circulation, making it a threat to the other newspapers.  Their publishers charged Pulitzer with sensationalism when he routinely ran stories about tenement abuses.  But The New York World simply grew bigger and more successful.

On April 10, 1888 Pulitzer purchased the old French’s Hotel, built in 1849, at Nos. 53 through 63 Park Row for $630,000.  On October 10, 1889 he claimed his spot as a major force in New York publishing when his four-year old son, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., laid the cornerstone for the newspaper’s new headquarters on Printing House Square at Nos. 53 through 63 Park Row—directly in the midst of “Newspaper Row.”  The New York Times took the opportunity to take a shot at its rival, carefully selecting to print only Governor Hill’s surprisingly derisive comments during the ceremony.

“The peculiarly inventive genius of our reporters cannot be surpassed anywhere.  They publish all the news and more too.  When they lack any news they manufacture it.  One word of a public man is sufficient basis for a column interview.”

Joseph Pulitzer had commissioned esteemed architect George Browne Post (who had earlier designed The New York Times building) to design his skyscraper which would outdo anything yet erected.  Using a steel cage frame, Post was able to design a structure that soared an unheard of 26 stories—the first building to surpass the 284-foot spire of Trinity Church.  (The 26 stories claimed by The World engulfed every level, apparently including even the lantern, and modern historians place the true floor count at around 18.)  When it was completed the following year it topped out at 309 feet to the tip of the lantern on the building’s dome.

Artist Charles Graham drew the building nearly a year before its completion.  It dwarfed the surrounding structures.  Harper's Weekly, January 1890 (copyright expired)

Designed decades before Manhattan’s “set-back” laws, the Pulitzer Building rose straight up as a rather chunky mass supporting a massive gilded dome.  George B. Post’s design was a formidable mixture of Renaissance Revival and Romanesque Revival—its heavy rough-cut stone entrance arch at ground level countered by a refined Roman temple front at the top floors.

Pulitizer’s building symbolized his success at outselling the city’s greatest newspapers.  When its doors opened on the evening of December 10, 1890, The World’s daily circulation was 185,672.  The New York Herald had a circulation of 80,000, the New-York Tribune 50,000, and The New York Times 40,000.  While the structure was popularly called The World Building, its official name was the Pulitzer Building; a reminder that Joseph Pulitzer personally paid for and retained ownership of it.

The building was opened with a glittering afternoon reception and tour.  Dignitaries from Washington DC, New York and other cities inspected the edifice before being escorted to the “supper-room” on the 10th floor where Sherry catered luncheon for 4,000.  Cappa’s orchestra played selections, including the “World March,” composed by Carlo Alberto Cappa for the occasion.

The following day The World noted “One of the most noticed things in the city department was a reproduction in solid silver of the Pulitzer Building.  It was twenty-one inches high and every detail was worked out with the most scrupulous care and in the most artistic fashion.  Some of the most skilled workmen in silver in the country have been engaged for a long time in executing this piece, which is a gift to Mr. Pulitzer from his employees.  All the silver in it originally came over the counters of The World office in the shape of small coin.”

At exactly noon, 1,000 carrier pigeons were released from the dome.  Each carried a sketch of the roof and dome illuminated against the night sky “to cities and towns hundreds of miles away.”

The World called it “The greatest newspaper building in the world.”  The New York Times was less impressed.

That newspaper’s recounting of the celebration focused on a photographer whose over-zealous use of flash powder caused an explosion which broke several panes of glass and on the over-crowding.  “The building was so crowded that it was exceedingly difficult to get from one part to another,” it wrote.

The Times gleefully reported that the editor of the Troy Times and former Postmaster General Thomas L. James “found it impossible” to get into the Pulitzer Building elevators.  So “the two gentlemen came over the The Times office and asked to be allowed to inspect the only composing room deserving the name in the city.”

The dome of the Pulitzer Building included what today would be termed an observation deck.  On New Year’s Eve 1890 a tourist, Colonel L. J. Hurle of Augusta, Georgia commented to a World journalist “The stranger who comes to this city and goes away without visiting the Pulitzer Building misses one of the great sights of the world.”

In addition to The World’s publishing offices, other businesses leased space in the building.  A promotional pamphlet touted alluring features.  It was open seven days a week, was “absolutely fire-proof” and “its elevators never stop.”  But the skyscraper views were unmatched.  “No picture gallery on earth can compare with that which delights the eyes of those who have offices in the Pulitzer Building” promised an advertisement on December 11, 1890.

The structure was an urban microcosm.  An advertisement boasted “In the building you will find Shorthand and Typewriting experts, a Restaurant, Barber Shop, Turkish Bath, Bootblack, Telephone Pay Station, Dentist, Tailor, two Telegraph and Cable Companies, Steamship Ticket Office, with Express, Money Order, Drafts and Baggage Checking; and stores for the sale of Drugs, Soda Water, Cigars, Flowers and Fruit, Candy, Stationery and Magazines, Shoes, and Children’s Aeroplanes.”  There were also the Assembly Room, capable of seating 75, and the Assembly Hall with seating for 350, available for rent “day or night.”

The World lobbied hard to defeat the Tammany Administration prior to the elections of November 1894.  Pulitzer’s marketing genius was reflected in his announcement that election results would be signaled to citizens as far away as Staten Island and Jersey City by a system of lights at the tip of the building’s dome.

The Evening World November 6, 1894 (copyright expired)

On November 6 The Evening World exclaimed “Thousands upon thousands of emancipated American citizens, set free from the tyranny of Tammany and its thugs by the ballot!...They were told of the great tidings of the downfall of Tammany and the defeat of Hill by the red lights which flashed from the dome of the Pulitzer Building.”

The summer of 1900 brought a suffocating heat wave.  The Evening World sought the help of Professor G. R. Bishop of Tucson, Arizona, “one of the most noted rainmakers in the United States.”  Bishop went to the dome of the Pulitzer Building on July 17 and, according to the newspaper the following day, “exploded two dozen rain bombs in an endeavor to bring about a downpour which would cool off the parched earth and bring relief to the unfortunates whose strength has been slowly sapped away by the heat and awful humidity which have continued in New York for the past week.”

Professor Bishop’s “rain bombs” were, in fact, dynamite charges.  After six bombs were exploded over lower Manhattan without creating a rainstorm, “the Professor decided to make longer intervals between fires, and for the next hour discharged them once every five minutes.”

While the experiment did not produce rain, it did produce other results.  “The noise of the explosions of these dynamite bombs—they are the largest made by the Pain Fireworks Company—could be heard for miles around, and created intense interest and even excitement…City Hall Park was thronged with persons, all looking skyward.  The roofs of all the office buildings and the windows were filled with curious persons, while the Brooklyn Bridge was lined with thousands, all eyes focused on the scene of the experiment.”

Twenty-five thousand foreign dignitaries, tourists, and New Yorkers visited the dome of the Pulitzer Building each year.  But Pryce Lewis did not come here on December 6, 1911 for the view.  The 83-year old had the distinction of being the first Federal spy in the Civil War.  The Evening World said of him “Lewis in his services as a spy was twice captured and once condemned to death.  He lay for nineteen months in pestilent Southern prisons.  He was many times the personal guard of President Lincoln, who became his staunch friend.”

Following the war Lewis worked as an agent of the Pinkertons and once “raided a murderous gang of swindlers in northern Mexico, who had killed one of their number for the insurance they had put on his life.”

Amazingly, the distinguished veteran was now living “in a bare room” in Jersey City.  He applied three times for a pension and on December 6, 1911 received an official letter refusing his request again.   With no income and faced with inescapable poverty, Lewis crossed the river to Manhattan and went to the dome of the Pulitzer Building where he flung himself off “and was smashed to death in Park Row.”  The Evening World remarked “His death was no more reckless or spectacular than his adventurous life.”

The 1922 World Series was unique—not only was it what we would today call a “subway series” between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants; but both teams were housed at the Brooklyn Polo Grounds ballfield.   On October 2 The Evening World remarked “Thirty-eight thousand people can view the first game of the World Series at the Polo Grounds next Wednesday—thirty-eight thousand, no more.”  But, as the newspaper pointed out, that was a fraction of the number of fans for both teams.

To help solve the problem (and to boost publicity and sales) the newspaper installed “The Evening World’s Electric World Series Score Board” suspended on the front of the Pulitzer Building.  The ingenious device not only immediately updated the scores as telegraphed from the ballpark; but an electric baseball diamond displayed the players moving about the bases.

“The diamond is so accurately designed, with accompanying illustrative mechanisms, that it is possible to follow the ball during every moment of the game, whether it is in the hands of the pitcher, just leaving the bat, or speeding between the bases in the course of a double play or a run-up.”

The newspaper promised “The fans in City Hall Park—and there will be more room for them there than at the Polo Grounds—will be but a few seconds behind the fans in the grandstand seats.”

A color postcard showed the gilded dome, visible for miles. To the left is Old City Hall.

Joseph Pulitzer had died on October 19, 1911; but his newspaper carried on until 1931.  Five years later a study investigating means of improving the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge raised the possibility of razing the Pulitzer Building and other nearby structures.  The Depression Era plan gathered dust for two decades.

In 1951 the Pulitzer estate sold the building to Samuel B. Shankman who announced his plans to “renovate it for investment.”  But before he could act on those plans, the city announced “a new and modified plan for an early reconstruction of the street system at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge” on November 22, 1952.  Among the buildings in the way of the project, according to Borough President Robert F. Wagner, Jr., was the Pulitzer Building, which with city was prepared to acquire for $2 million.

The civic project was underway in 1954 and on July 23 Manhattan Borough President Hulan E. Jack updated journalists on its progress. The New York Times reported “Demolition for the larger $6,910,000 project will include the Pulitzer Building, where the World and The Evening World were published.  This demolition is expected to take place within six months.”

Ironically, the Pulitzer Building was being used as the temporary City Hall while that building underwent renovations.  On March 10, 1955 as workman removed “doors, chandeliers and other fixtures” from the otherwise vacant Pulitzer Building, Mayor Wagner and his staff were “firmly holding to his temporary offices on the building’s sixth floor” and planned to stay until May 1,” according to The New York Times.  The newspaper noted “The secret of the Mayor’s seeming tenacity was disclosed yesterday to lie with his staff.  His assistant, secretaries and other aides are loath to relinquish the spaciousness, light and air of the temporary quarters for what they consider the dark and dungeon-like recesses of old City Hall.”

Of course the Mayor and his staff were eventually forced out and the demolition of the impressive old building began.  City officials were irritated when workmen carelessly lost the 18 by 12 inch copper box which had been sealed in the cornerstone.  The box “unexpectedly fell out of a mass of brick and mortar as the final columns of brownstone facing were being torn down,” explained Hulan E. Jack.  The box was deemed “lost.”

Workers were ordered to carefully watch for evidence of the box in the rubble.  Three weeks later, on February 9, it was recovered.  The Times reported “Engraved ‘Pulitzer Building, October 10, 1889,’ the box contained mementos of the building’s cornerstone laying.”  The box was opened at a ceremony a few days later in Hulan Jack’s office and the contents were donated to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, “in accordance with the wishes of the late Joseph Pulitzer. 

The site of the striking 1890 skyscraper is a roadway today.  And what became of that nearly two-foot high solid silver replica is a mystery.


  1. This link shows the contents of the copper cornerstone box at Columbia. It has a fascinating audio recording on wax cylinder from 1889 which was placed in box, one of the earliest of human voices.

  2. They don't make them like Pulitzer or the building today. It's funny that people only really know him because of the Pulitzer Prize for achievements in journalism. He was also the first to introduce 'yellow journalism' way back in the 1880s. I wonder if he was alive, what he would think of journalists today? I believe he is probably turning in his grave.

    Refugia Stein @ Container Domes