Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The 1898 Germania Bank Building - a 72-Room Private Home

The graffiti-covered Germania Bank building appears abandoned -- it isn't -- photo by Jim Henderson
Hundreds of pedestrians pass the old Germania Bank buildling on the Bowery at Spring Street every day.  Few, if any of them, have the slightest notion that it is not abandoned and forgotten.  Neither, it turns out, is the case.

In the period following the Civil War the area east of the Bowery filled with German immigrants, earning the neighborhood the nickname Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. By the 1880s there were more than 250,000 German-speaking residents and the Bowery was lined with restaurants and beer or music halls.

In December, 1896, the Germania Bank purchased three lots at the northwest corner of Bowery and Spring Streets where The Marks Arnheim merchant tailoring establishment stood. An immense custom-made men’s clothing manufacturer and salesroom, Arnheim’s was one of the largest markers of wool suits in America.

Founded in 1869, the bank had already outgrown one space and now needed to expand again. The board commissioned German-born architect Robert Maynicke to design the new headquarters. Builders Marc Eidlitz and Son, also German, broke ground on February 4, 1898.

In the wake of the Depression of 1893 and the subsequent recession in 1897, Maynicke produced a building the oozed stability and strength. Working in the popular Beaux Arts style, he eschewed the expected cartouches and scrolled brackets to create a masculine, refined stone brick fa├žade. The rusticated first floor of Maine granite featured a series of large, arched windows with fan-like stone voussoirs.

The architect chopped off the corner of the building, creating a chamfered entranceway with polished granite Tuscan pillars. A dentil cornice above the street level was nearly matched above the fifth, and above the paired, arched windows of the sixth floor an elaborate copper cheneau crowned it all.

On December 28, 1898 the bank threw its doors open for a private reception. Several hundred invitations went out to bankers and merchants who toured the new $200,000 building.

The banking room, 38 feet by 75 feet, boasted high marble wainscoting, Sienna marble counter fronts, bronze light fixtures and gilded detailing. The floor was marble mosaic and the furniture was of Mexican mahogany.

“The offices and rooms around the vault are fitted up handsomely;” said The New York Times, “all the woodwork is of polished rock maple, and the floors and walls are tiled. There are coupon and committee rooms and a ladies’ parlor.”

The secure nature of the bank and its below-ground vaults was attractive to more than one type of customer.  In 1912 Henry Vogel and his female accomplice who posed as his wife ran an ingenious jewelry theft operation by hiring girls and placing them as servants in the homes of wealthy New Yorkers.  Once inside the homes, the girls would rob the socialites of their jewels and disappear.

On November 18 of that year, both thieves were killed in a shoot-out with police in their rooms at the Elsmere Hotel.   Two months later, on January 29, 1913, detectives opened a safe deposit box in the bank's vaults where they discovered the couple's cache of stolen jewelery

With World War I and rampant anti-German sentiment raging, the bank filed to change its name, becoming the Commonwealth Bank on April 15, 1918. Just prior to the Great Depression, Manufacturers Trust Company acquired the bank and operated the branch at No. 190 Bowery until the mid-1960s when it shuttered the bank for good.

And then the story took a twist.

Entrance doors in 1976.  Photo by Roy Colmer, NYPL Collection
In 1966 when photographer Jay Maisel looked at the old Germania Bank building, it was “knee-deep in garbage and coated in soot,” as he put it.  By now the Bowery was a dead end for drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless and the once-proud building was swathed with graffiti.

Maisel raised the $102,000 to purchase the building – all 35,000 square feet and 72 rooms – and set about creating a monstrous single-family home in the middle of Manhattan.

The Maisels' Kitchen -- photo New York Magazine
Today Maisel still lives in the bank building with his wife and daughter. The kitchen is in the area where the cook staff once created meals for the bank officers' dining room. The original 1898 copper elevator cage, polished to its original gleam, has been restored and works again.

The original copper elevator cage -- working again.  Photo New York Magazine
The photographer uses the first three floors as his gallery (although the first floor has recently been advertised for retail space) and the main living area is on the top floor.

photo New York Magazine
The building was landmarked in 2005 and the exterior has remained essentially unaltered since it opened in 1898. The unexpected and unique single-family home was valued in 2008 at around $50 million.


  1. what a house!!!... would love to have gallery space there too...

  2. This house was featured on Mental Floss this week as a one time only gallery viewing before being turned into more lifeless condos. It has a small tour of the place, too. Here's the link:

  3. Honestly, I was in that building when the photographer owned it, and he didn't take very good care of it. In those photos you can see that the place is falling apart. What it doesn't show is how dusty everything is, how the wood on the windows was rotting, and how many rooms weren't even insulated (I was there in the winter). I also doubt that the elevator was working because when I was there we used the stairs and when I was poking around, I ran into the wife on the north stairwell and I highly doubt someone would go to floor 2 from 7 by stairs in a private residence unless the elevator didn't work. The guy was not a saint, a million dollars worth of photo and editing equipment on the ground floor with a cute little intern to accompany those things and couldn't put the money into keeping the place up to par.

  4. I do a search on Henry Vogel and find nothing like what is being described. I searched 1912 Vogel, thief etc...and nothing. It sounds so interesting; if anyone knows it's accurate and point me to any sources, that would be amazing!

    1. I'm quite sure you did not mean to be offensive by insinuating the story was not "accurate." Sadly, good intentions do not always work out. Here is one article to support that "it's accurate."