Thursday, September 22, 2011

The 1914 Adams Express Buildling -- 61 Broadway

photo by Gryffindor
Alvin Adams started his business delivering packages between Boston and Worchester, Massachusetts in 1839 after his dry goods business was ruined by the Financial Panic of 1837.  Within 20 years he was shipping to points as far away as St. Louis by stagecoach and railroad.

Adams Express bicycle messenger boys pose in 1911 -- photo Library of Congress
 But by the turn of the new century package delivery was a secondary source of revenue as express companies like Adams Express turned to the financial industry.    By February 11, 1929 Time Magazine would note “When the ordinary U. S. citizen thinks of expressing a package or trunk, he may well be excused for thinking of Adams Express or American Express. Yet the arrival of a trunk at either the Adams offices (61 Broadway) or the American offices (65 Broadway) would probably be greeted with surprise rather than with interest. For both Adams and American are now holding companies.”

Both Adams Express and American Express operated out of relatively small buildings near one another on Broadway.  But in 1910 Adams started planning a new, modern New York headquarters building.

On July 11, Industrial World magazine announced that “The Adams Express Company filed plans in New York city last week, for a 10-story office building, with fa├žade of brick and limestone trimmings of handsome design, the construction being fireproof.”  The article named George K. Hooper as the architect.

The article was correct in only one detail:  The Adams Express Company would build a new building.

A year later in October The New York Times reported the story more accurately.  “Plans for the 32-story building being erected by the Adams Express Building Company on the northwest corner of Broadway and Exchange Alley, extending through to Trinity Place, have been completed by the architect, Francis H. Kimball.”  The building would be the seventh tallest building in Manhattan as the mania for taller and bigger skyscrapers washed over the city.

It was a trend that troubled some and, as the Adams Building rose higher, The Times questioned if there would come a day when no sunshine at all would fall on the streets of New York.

A pneumatic caisson foundation was constructed to support the giant structure.  Jones & Laughlin Steel Company provided 3,300 tons of steel and 1,210,000 square feet of terra cotta blocks would be used.

Kimball’s design straddled the fence between the modern sleek skyscraper and the more familiar ornamented structures that hugged the ground.  “Below the fifth story the building will be in the Florentine style,” said The Times, “from the fifth floor upward it will be severely simple, with no embellishments, and no projections except the cornice at the top.”  The architect used “richly colored marble” for the first four floors and white glazed brick for the shaft trimmed in terra cotta.

The building would rise 445 feet above Broadway at an estimated cost of around $2 million – approximately the same as the land upon which it was being built.  Two months before its opening, The Times said “It stands like a great tower overlooking the lower part of the city.”  As the building which would be known as 61 Broadway neared completion leases were signed as prospective tenants vied for space.  
Among the original tenants would be the United Gas & Electric Corporation and the United Gas & Engineering Corporation.  On the 24th Floor were the Cuban Telephone Company and Rojas-Niese & Company, while the Railway Improvement Company took space on the 22nd Floor.

Operators man the switchboard which was salvaged from the old building -- The Telephone Review August 1914
Most importantly, the Chase National Bank leased the entire ground floor and basement, signing a 20-year lease at $65,000 per year.

Irving Underhill shot The Adams Building in 1914, the year of completion.  An Edwardian-looking cornice tops the modern shaft.  -- photo Library of Congress.

Normal work routine in the building was shattered a few months after the building opened when W. B. Irvine who was an assistant shipping clerk at the Vacuum Oil Company on the 7th Floor was attacked in the hallway by another worker, John P. McLaughlin.  McLaughlin felt Irvine worked too slowly.  In the scuffle Irvine stabbed his attacked in the chest with a penknife, mortally wounding him.

Despite U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of non-intervention in World War I, Germany continued to attack U.S. merchant ships and conducted sabotage.  On July 29, 1916, German agents set fire to a complex of warehouses and ships in the New York Harbor that held munitions, explosives and fuel intended for the Allies.  The resulting blast, known as the Black Tom Explosion, caused damage for several city blocks, sent debris raining down in Manhattan and New Jersey and damaged the Statue of Liberty.

The Adams Building was heavily damaged with nearly 300 windows blown out.

In 1917 all 32 stories were occupied and A. L. Dean, who managed the building at the time, expressed his possible intentions “to build a pent house on the roof with a putting green beside it,” according to Buildings magazine.

The penthouse and putting green never came to fruition.
On September 16, 1931 the Adams Building still towered above its neighbors -- photo NYPL Collection
In February 1920 the offices of the International Agricultural Corporation on the 13th Floor were victims of safe crackers. Police asserted that the robber was “an expert of the ‘Jimmy Valentine’ type.”  The thief made off with nearly $15,000 in bonds and stocks.
The officers' room of J. Henry Schroder Banking Corp. in September 1949 -- Library of Congress
The 670,000-square foot office building was purchased by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company for $90 million in 1988.   Throughout most of the 20th Century, huge boilers in the basement provided heat for surrounding buildings.  A water table directly under the building cooled the soot from the boilers, creating a warm pool.

The year that Met Life bought the building an engineer spotted goldfish in the pool.  The fish had apparently been there for years breeding, and the engineer included feeding the goldfish through a trapdoor one of his daily duties.

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company spent $20 million on renovations and updating.  The building was purchased in 1998 by Crown Properties, Inc. for $58 million.

Renovation sympathetically melded the modern technology with vintage architectural details -- photo by Bill Miller
Today Francis Kimball’s transitional skyscraper is home to a diverse range of tenants – from law firms to financial institutions – with a 95% occupancy rate.   With the introduction of updated technology, lighting and amenities the nearly century-old building competes successfully with less interesting modern glass-and-steel monoliths.

1 comment:

  1. I admire how this buildings are preserved. This is a city's treasure. A walk through history.