Thursday, January 25, 2018

The 1902 Caledonian Insurance Bldg - 50-52 Pine Street



In 1894 the Caledonian Insurance Company, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, established its United States Branch at Nos. 27-30 Pine Street.  According to the firm's History of a Hundred Years, 1805-1905, "Such had been the growth of the business, that arrangements were made which resulted eventually in the purchase of a valuable property at 50-52 Pine Street."

Sitting on the site was the old Mercantile Exchange Building, which had been used as the home of the Down Town Club since around 1877.   On October 24, 1899 The New York Times announced that the insurance firm "will erect immediately a twelve or fifteen story office building.   The structure will embody all modern improvements with extra high ceilings, and much space devoted to courts for light and air."  The article projected that the new building would be ready for occupancy on January 1, 1901.

When the Caledonian Insurance Company purchased the property, this building was on the site.  sketch by Pettit & Field, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Something happened, however, and the deal fell through.  But the Caledonian Insurance Company kept its eye on the property and when it came up at auction in March 1901, three of the firm's trustees were in the crowd of bidders.  This time they were more successful, paying $175,000 for the old building.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported less than a month later, on April 13, that the firm had wasted no time in hiring an architect and planning a new building.  "Plans have been drawn by James B. Baker...for a 15-sty office building to be erected on the site."

Construction took less than a year and on May 3, 1902 the Record & Guide reported that "The Caledonian Building, at 52 Pine st., containing some one hundred and thirty offices, has been fully rented with the exception of seven small rooms.  Insurance companies, brokers and lawyers are the tenants."

sketch from
History of a Hundred Years, 1805-1905 (copyright expired)

Baker's handsome stone and brick building featured a two story Beaux-Arts style base with frothy carved decorations, including two exuberantly-framed oculi over the side entrance doors.  Stately Corinithian columns upheld the entablature which proudly announced the firm's name.

The midsection was faced in buff colored brick, each story separated by a crisp cornice.  Splayed lintels with paneled keystones distinguished the openings.  Fussy decoration reappeared at the top two floors which nestled below a deeply overhanging cornice.

One major tenant which did not fall into the categories of "insurance companies, brokers and lawyers" was Tams, Lemoine & Crane, yacht brokers, and naval architects and engineers.   The firm was well-known among the nation's yachting community, selling sleek vessels to millionaires.   It had scored a coup several years earlier at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.  The Sun reported "Tams & Lemoine supplied most of the yachts that were bought up by the Government."

Yacht architect Henry Barbey was a partner in Tams, Lemoine & Crane.  The well-to-do designer was an early automobile owner and was arrested for speeding along the west drive in Central Park in the fall of 1905.  He may have been momentarily relieved when he appeared in court on October 24 and saw that the judge was his long-time friend, Magistrate Barlow.  But there would be no partiality in this case.

"So you're here at last," said the judge.  "I thought the police would get you."  He fined his friend $5 (about $130 today).  The Evening World reported "Mr. Barbey paid the clerk and then joined the magistrate at the bench and laughed at the joke on himself."

Tams, Lemoine & Crane not only sold expensive vessels to wealthy sportsmen, it got rid of their old ones.  In 1906, for instance, the firm sold Edwin Gould's 154-foot steam-powered yacht the Aileen to the Cuban Government.

Tams, Lemoine & Crane designed and built a variety of crafts, like the houseboat shown above, and the streamlined yacht below Yachting magazine, October 1914 (copyright expired)

Ashton Lemoine never married and, despite his having made a million dollars in the stock market in one year alone, he shared rooms in a bachelor apartment on East 29th Street with two other wealthy businessmen.  On the cold evening of February 12, 1907 he dressed in evening clothes and told his roommates merely that he "was going to dine at Sherry's."  His plans were more extensive, however.

Later that night he entered the lobby of the Bijou Theatre with a woman.  He bought two orchestra seat tickets for All-of-a-Sudden Peggy.  Just as he turned away from the box office, he fell to the floor.  The Sun reported "His head struck the marble tiled floor and his opera hat bounded across the lobby."  Lemoine was dead.

When his female companion realized he was dead, she tried to bolt, but was stopped by a theater employee.  She refused to give her name and the mystery of her relationship with Lemoine and her identity seem to have never been solved.

On January 14, 1907 the Russo-Chinese Bank, headquartered in St. Petersburg, opened a branch office in New York on the second floor of the building.  The bank explained its purpose was "the furtherance of American trade with Russia and the Far East."  Three years later, its principals would be scrambling to do damage control.

The bank's agent, Gustav Gertz, left for Europe on vacation in July 1910.   Two weeks later headlines shocked newspaper readers across the country.  The Sun's headline on July 23 read "Strong Box Looted of $70,000 of Bonds / Agency of Russo-Chinese Bank in Pine Street Robbed Strangely / Manager is On a Vacation."

It was a major problem for the bank, the negotiable bonds equaling about $1.75 million today.   Spokespersons repeatedly assured the press that the bank was fully protected against loss; however The New York Times was skeptical.  'In spite of this statement," it said on July 26, "doubt was expressed that the Russo-Chinese Bank would be able to recover the stolen bonds, and Wall Street discussed this phase of the case all day."

The identify of the culprit was discovered just three days after the loss was reported.  Erwin Wider was a cashier who made $25 a week.  But while his name was now known, his whereabouts were not.  On July 27 The Times noted "At Police Headquarters it was said last night that no trace of Wider had yet been found.  Detectives have been watching his house in the Bronx."

As it turned out, Wider had been spiriting bonds for months.  The New-York Tribune reported "Wider's downfall came as a result of the allurements of Wall Street, and it was stated positively by one of his intimates last night that the missing bonds were put up as margins for speculations."

The article continued "For the last few months, it was said, he had been living high, spending freely, and riding in taxicabs instead of streetcars.  His wife, who has disappeared for the present, is said to be broken own physically from the shock of their troubles."

Surprisingly, the German-born Wider was spotted by Detectives Thomas Hughes and Louis Hyams "walking carelessly through the downtown business district," according to The Times on July 30, just a few blocks from No. 50-52 Pine Street.  He was accompanied by his lawyer, Leon B. Ginsburg and a law clerk, Alexander Henshall.  Wider had shaved his mustache and his altered appearance almost worked.

"If that fellow had a mustache he might be our man," Hughes was reported to say.  Hyams took a closer look and answered "He's Wider, all right."

Wider was arrested and held in The Tombs.  His doctor told reporters he had developed "acute suicidal mania," and his lawyer added he "was very ill, being unable to eat or retain any food."  His jail keepers disagreed.  On August 1, 1910 The New York Times reported "Keepers in the Tombs, where Wider is confined, laughed when asked about Wider's reported refusal to eat to starve himself to death.  'He eats like a longshoreman,' said Head Keeper John Hanley."

Wider had confessed to the crime, but it was not until February 1911 that he was sentenced.  The District of Columbia Alexandria Gazette reported on February 9 that he was sentenced to "14 years imprisonment."

The Caledonian Insurance Company was notified in the summer of 1914 that their handsome Corinthian columns "encroached" on public property.  The city demanded that it get is sidewalk space back.  In response, the architectural firm of Nast & Springsteen was commissioned to redesign the two lower floors.  They replaced the columns with flush piers that terminated in huge scrolled brackets.



By 1913 W. S. Barstow & Co. had its headquarters in the building.  It advertised at the time as "Consulting and Construction Engineers."  But as the years progressed, the firm would greatly diversify.   The company exhibited its patriotism in 1916 after Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa attacked the border town of Columbus, New Mexico.  National Guard units were mobilized to find Villa and to guard the border.   On July 1, 1916 W. S. Barstow & Co. announced it would "continue the salaries of employes enlisted in the guard and hold their positions for the period of enlistment."

Tams, Lemoine & Crane were still in the building and would remain well into the 1920s.  Other tenants included attorneys Aron & Vanderveer, public accounts West & Flint, and insurance firm Alberti, Baird & Carleton, Inc.

In 1918 the National Surety Company leased the ground floor for its underwriting office.  The firm marketed itself as both "the World's Largest Surety Company" and "America's Largest Burglary Ins. Co."  That same year the investment firm of Case, Pomeroy & Co. took two floors, signing a lease totaling $75,000. 

Two years later real estate operators may have been surprised when, in March 1920, the Caledonian Insurance Company sold its building to its tenant, Alberti, Baird & Carleton, Inc.  The Caledonian Insurance now became a renter in the building it had erected as its headquarters.

In reporting on the sale, the Record & Guide called Alberti, Baird & Carleton, Inc, "one of the most prominent insurance brokerage firms in the district."  Saying that building was valued at about $1 million and had a rent roll of approximately $100,000 a year, the journal noted it "will be renamed the 'Alberti Building.'"

The new owners may have given No. 50-52 Pine Street a new name, but they allowed the Caledonian Insurance Company name to remain deeply carved into the entablature.

Among the major clients of Alberti, Baird & Carleton, Inc. was the White Star Line.  Both firms would be drawn into a world-wide controversy in 1925 when the White Star liner Homeric happened across the floundering Japanese freighter S. S. Raifuku Maru off Nova Scotia on April 21.

As that vessel slowly sank, its crew hoped for rescue by the luxury passenger ship.  Instead, all 38 members drowned.  When the Homeric steamed into New York harbor, its passengers were quick to express anger.  One, Amos R. E. Pinchot told The New York Times:

"We could see men climbing over the side of the Japanese ship.  Some were swept overboard, others tried to cling to the bottom of the overturned ship.  We could see them with our naked eyes.  People who had glasses could see them very plainly, as they were clinging to the rail.  Others--many others--drifted down to within 150 to 200 yards of the stern of our ship.  There were three or four in one group.  They gradually dropped out of sight.  We were standing still.  Almost immediately after the Japanese ship was capsized we continued on our way."

In the meantime, W. S. Barstow continued to increase his interests and his fortune.  That same year The New York Times announced "The Binghamton Light, Heat and Power Company, of which W. S. Barstow...is President, probably will be sold to the American Gas and Electric Company."

Three years later the newspaper announced that Barstow, under his Central Gas and Electric Corporation at No. 50 Pine Street would be erecting "the largest dam in cubic content in America and possibly in the World."  Located ten miles outside of Columbia, South Carolina, the project would create a lake "twice the size of Lake George, 30 miles long and fourteen wide."  Barstow told reporters the "first expenditure" would be $20 million and would provide electricity to nearly the entire state.

The building continued to house mostly brokerage, attorney and insurance firms.  In the early Depression years the brokerage company A. W. Porter & Co. was here.   Arlington W. Porter had been connected with Wilson & Co. until 1924 when that firm declared bankruptcy.

Porter was sitting at his desk on June 28, 1935 when 57-year old Joseph Sullivan barged into his office, walked over to him and said "I've been looking for you for eleven years and now I've got you."  He drew a pistol from his pocket and added, "Now, give me my money back or I'll kill you."

Porter started to stand up, but was ordered "Sit down and write out a check for $7,000.  Do it quick and I'll call everything even."  The executive apparently looked puzzled, because Sullivan continued, "You remember how you took $1,200 from me when you were with Wilson & Co. and knew all the time the house was bankrupt."

Despite having a gun pointed at his head, Porter negotiated and the two agreed on a lesser amount.  He wrote out a check for $1,500 and sent an assistant along with Sullivan to cash the check.  Immediately after they left, Porter called the police, directing them to the Continental Bank and Trust Company at No. 30 Broad Street.

Sullivan was standing in line at the teller's window when he was arrested by detectives.  At the station house his story changed.  He now said that Porter "had accepted $4,800 from him for a brokerage account when the first was in bankruptcy."  He pleaded not guilty to robbery and Sullivan Law (gun possession) charges.   Following his indictment by a grand jury, the judge ordered him taken to the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital "for observation as to his sanity."

A colorful occupant of No. 50-52 at the time was mining engineer and promoter Charles V. Bob.   The millionaire had paid $108,000 towards Byrd's 1928 expedition to the Antarctic, resulting in a mountain range being named after him.   But his reputation became tarnished when he was tried in 1931 on charges that he defrauded the public in selling stock of Metal and Mining Shares, Inc., and Mineral Research Corporation, which failed after the Stock Market Crash with losses of $6 million.

That trial ended in a hung jury, as did the second in 1932 and the third in 1935.  After that trial, he demanded a Congressional investigation, saying he was being persecuted.   The U.S. Attorney's office dismissed the old indictment.  But he would not be out of hot water for long.

In May 1938 he was charged with new fraud charges.  On February 3, 1939 he was found guilty of five mail fraud counts and one of conspiracy and sentenced to five five-year sentences for the mail fraud and two years on the conspiracy count.

The indictment had said in part, "In furtherance of the fraud, the defendants operated 'boiler rooms' at 50 Pine Street."  The term "boiler room" referred to the sale of fake investments by telephone.

In the mid 1940s the building was purchased by the city.  Among the departments housed there was the office of the Investigation Commissioner.  John M. Murtagh was tasked with digging into a wide range of issues associated with possible government corruption.

In the summer of 1947, for instance, he delved into the possible collusion between Idelwild Airport officials and the Gulf Oil Corporation.  That same year he looked into gambling on Wall Street, parking bribes taken by policemen, questionable pier leases, police graft in Queens and the racketeering in the sale of fuel oil and kerosene during "storm distress."

A major investigation in 1948 involved the city's milk purchases.  The suspicion was that members of the La Guardia administration had conspired to fix prices with major dairies.  And in 1949 he took on a potentially dangerous adversary--the mafia and the longshoremen.  On May 4, 1949 he characterized dock workers as "mysterious."  He promised that his investigation was "the first step in eliminating irregularities and racketeering."

Murtagh's wide-spread investigations went so far as to include ticket scalping for the hit Broadway plays South Pacific and Kiss Me Kate in 1949.

The Red Scare of the 1950s and '60s showed up at city level in 1964 when the Department of Investigation, now under Commissioner Leon A. Fischel, subpoenaed members of the Mobilization for Youth to testify before its investigation of Communist infiltration.   Three of the seven refused to appear, sending letters instead that said the Mobilization for Youth was "beyond the jurisdiction of the Department of Investigation of the city" and added that the information sought was "irrelevant to the interests of the city."

Fischel fired back in asking the State Supreme Court to issue a show-cause order.  "This is no witch hunt.  I don't want to accuse people unfairly, but we'll keep subpoenaing until we get results."

After it sat vacant for six months, the city sold No. 50-52 Pine Street on November 10, 1966.  It was purchased by the Sylvan Lawrence Company for $500,000.    The firm announced it would "modernize the building, rent the office space, and hold the property as an investment."



Major change came in 1998 when a conversion of the upper floors to residential space was initiated.  Today there are two apartments per floor.   A franchise doughnut shop operates from the ground floor once home to insurance brokers.  Sadly the exquisite foliate carvings over one of the doors and surrounding its round window were for some reason stripped off at some point.

photographs by the author

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