Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Bank of the Metropolis -- No. 31 Union Square

photo by Alice Lum

As the mansions lining busy Union Square were one-by-one replaced by commercial buildings in the mid-19th century, The Bank of the Metropolis was established in 1871 to service the upscale merchants.  King’s Handbook of New York City would recall in 1892 that the bank’s business was “conducted in a manner to attract the custom and support of the dry-goods, furniture, jewelry, and other classes of merchants whose places of business are in the vicinity.”

The bank opened at 31 Union Square at the corner of 16th Street.  Then, as business flourished, moved to 17 Union Square and, once again in 1888, to 29 Union Square.

By the turn of the century the Square was becoming encircled by sophisticated commercial buildings; among them the Queen Anne style Century Building on the north side and the elaborate Moorish Revival Decker Piano Building on the west side at 33 Union Square.

In 1900 stock in the Bank of the Metropolis was selling for $475 a share and the bank had capitol of $300,000. In catering to its exclusive commercial clients, the Board of Directors was made up of the likes of Louis C. Tiffany (Charles Tiffany’s jewelry store was on Union Square at the corner of 15th Street), Aaron Arnold of Arnold, Constable & Co., and publisher Charles Scribner.

Brentano’s Bookstore had long been a fixture at 31 Union Square since the Bank of the Metropolis left that building years earlier.  (When the Decker Piano firm put up its 1881 building, it was noted as being “next to Brentano’s.)  The bank purchased the property and, in 1902, commissioned architect Bruce Price to design a 16-story skyscraper on the long, thin site.

To make the most of a Union Square address, Price situated the entrance on the narrow, 32-foot end.  Two polished granite Ionic columns supported a bowed, two story portico that bulged out from the façade.  Here the frieze announced the bank’s name in bold carved letters.

Two heroic, polished granite columns support the bowed portico -- photo by Alice Lum

The nine-story midsection rose to a cornice above the 13th floor with immense stone brackets.  Above it all a deeply overhanging copper cornice was ornamented with ambitious cresting.  The L-shaped building stretched back 150 feet along 16th Street.

Construction began late in 1901 by the contractors George A. Fuller Company, which was simultaneously erecting its own skyscraper a few blocks away–later to become familiarly known as the Flatiron Building.  On November 3 the $150,000 contract was signed for the Maine granite for the façade.

The grand new building was completed in 1903 at a cost of $500,000.  The Buildings Department of New York announced that it was the narrowest building for its height in the city, “if not the world.”  There were five rapid elevators, steam heat, electric light, mail chutes, and connections for telephones.

photo by Alice Lum
.Unfortunately Bruce Price, who had traveled to Europe in an effort to regain his health, died in Paris on May 29 at the age of 59, never to see the completed structure.

Pittman’s Journal of Commercial Education was among the first tenants, lured in part by the subway being constructed under Union Square.  The Journal’s 1903 edition noted “The two-track tunnel of the rapid-transit line running through Union square passes the door of No. 31.  This line will be opened in the autumn, and our new office is most favourably situated for the facilities it will offer.”

Price included details like carved stone lions' head water spouts -- photo by Alice Lum

Two years after its completion William Washington Cole purchased the building for around $1.5 million.  It attracted a diverse list of tenants.  Architects Jackson, Rosencrans & Caufield were early tenants, and later, in 1921, architect Charles B. Meyers would move in.  The Employing Lithographers’ Association had its offices here, as did engineers W. L. Fleischer & Co.

No. 31 would become home to a variety of Jewish charities such as the Jewish Board for Welfare Work in 1917, the Young Men’s Hebrew and Kindred Association in 1918, The American Jewish Committee in 1931, and the Jewish Consumptives Relief Society in 1937.

The Banking Law Journal reported on the merger of the Bank of the Metropolis with the Bank of the Manhattan Company. “Foreseeing the present trend of American banking practice toward the branch bank system, in 1918 [the Bank of the Manhattan Company] consummated a merger with the Bank of the Metropolis, at 31 Union Square, converting that bank into its uptown office, and providing convenient banking facilities for its clientele in that section of the city.”

On May 11, 1920 the estate of William Washington Cole sold the building to Mrs. Dora Kuch who intended to hold the property “as an investment.”

Union Square in 1928.  The Bank of the Metropolis (far left) still retained its flamboyant cornice cresting -- photo NYPL Collection

The impressive Bank of the Metropolis Building managed to survive the 20th century with little change other than the loss of the exuberant copper cresting on the cornice.  Today a restaurant takes the place of the banking floor and the former office spaces were converted to residential use in 1975.

photo by Alice Lum

The Bank of the Metropolis Building which was designed by the under-appreciated Bruce Price was designated a New York City landmark in 1988.

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