Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The 1894 Wallace Building -- No. 56-58 Pine Street

photo by Alice Lum
In the last decade of the 19th century downtown Manhattan experienced an explosion of redevelopment. Blocks of four- and five-story masonry storehouses and office buildings were demolished as multilevel structures rose.

By 1893, when developer James G. Wallace purchased the properties at 56-58 Pine Street, passenger elevators were already advanced. Since March 23, 1857 when the first safety elevator invented by Elisha Otis was installed at 488 Broadway, improvements and innovations – including Alexander Miles’ 1887 elevator with automatic doors – made walking up long flights of stairs unnecessary. Coupled with the engineering advancements like steel and iron framing, the inventive technologies meant that buildings could go higher and higher.

Wallace directed his in-house architect, Swiss-born Oswald Wirz, to design an eye-catching structure that would tower over the surrounding buildings. When completed, the twelve-story office building would be among the tallest of the downtown buildings. Here Wallace would install his own company’s headquarters while leasing the rest of the office spaces.

Clustered columns, snaking sea serpents and intricate carving over the lobby entrance made for a lush facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Completed in 1894, the Wallace Building was a spectacular amalgam of pinkish brick, terra cotta, brownstone and dark polished granite. An arcade of four heavy Romanesque arches formed the street level, each supported by clustered stone columns. Each group of five columns shared a unifying, heavily-carved Byzantine capital. Above two, fronting the retail space, grotesque wriggling sea serpents descend towards the passerby. Hidden among the carvings or placed on higher floors, Wirz added stylized faces—a surprise and delight to the observant viewer.

Above the third floor cornice Wirz rocketed the building skyward with emphasized verticality. His overall, highly-decorative design spoke of the rapid transition from the solid, ground-hugging structures with which Victorian New Yorkers were familiar to the soaring skyscrapers to come.

photo by Alice Lum
Along with Wallace’s own offices, the building quickly filled with a variety of tenants. There were several insurance firms, The German Fire Lloyds of America; F. W. Temmler & Co. Insurance; Lethbridge & Davidge Insurance and the Norwich Union Fire Insurance Society among them.

The same year that the building was completed, on November 30, Wallace sold it to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company for $750,000.

Rusticated piers separated the second and third floor windows -- photo by Alice Lum
Other companies in the Wallace Building as the turn of the century approached were the New York French and American Trading Company, the industry publication Life Insurance News, and a number of lawyers.

One of these attorneys, Thomas C. Dutro, got himself in hot water by striding into the elegant St. Regis Hotel and demanding “the best” accommodations. After Dutro was in his three-room suite for a full week but had not paid for the room or his food and drink (described by manager Rudolph M. Haan as “the best the house could give him”) he was asked for partial payment.

Enraged, Dutro demanded a better suite. And he got it.

Two more weeks passed before Dutro checked out of the stylish hotel—without paying his $1,164.17 bill.

Haan defended his desk clerk saying “When a swell looking gentleman comes up to the desk and bosses things around, demanding the best in the house, the clerk never dares to inquire whether he has money, but assumes that he is a man of wealth. That was how Mr. Dutro was permitted to remain at the St. Regis without paying anything for three weeks.”

Wirz's attention to detail included tight stone colonnades beneath the first floor windows -- photo by Alice Lum
After the court ruled against him, the attorney continued accepting clients from his offices in the Wallace Building in an effort to pay for his luxurious midtown romp.

In March 1913 the Chicago-based mail-order firm Montgomery Ward & Co. opened its New York branch office here. The firm announced “As to the lines of merchandise which will be carried by this house, we can only say at this time that we expect to carry practically every line of merchandise, with the exception of automobiles and undertakers’ supplies.”

In 1919, in response to the increased demand for downtown office space, three stories were added. While the architect of the yellow brick addition made no attempt to harmonize it with the existing structure; the additional floors are nearly invisible from street level, hidden by the original cornice.

Throughout the 20th Century the impressive Wallace Building served a variety of tenants including brokers and attorneys. Then in 2000 it was partially renovated to become “The Cambridge Club”—fully furnished apartments for the sole use of Salomon Brothers Smith Barney and Lehman Brothers.

By 2007 the building had been fully converted to residential space and modernized with a wired conference room, fitness center, billiards room and a private club “TWO” on the second floor for residents.

Oscar Wirz’s marvelously decorative Wallace Building was designated a New York City landmark in 1997.

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