Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The 1930 New York County Lawyers' Association Buildling -- No. 41 Vesey Street

Stone urns atop massive fence posts and a graceful wrought iron arch with lantern add to the 18th Century feel of the design -- photo by Americasroof
In 1908 a group of Manhattan lawyers met to form what they called the New York County Lawyers’ Association. While, like other such clubs, the purpose was ostensibly to “serve the public interest” and the legal profession, the association was ahead of its time.

At a time when social and racial divisions were clearly defined, this was the first major bar association in the United States to welcome members regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or religion. The liberal views on membership were innovative and, perhaps, a little shocking.

For two decades the group held its meetings at the Hotel Astor on Broadway at the north corner of Vesey Street, across from St. Paul’s Chapel. In 1923 President William Nelson Cromwell had initiated plans for a permanent clubhouse, making an initial gift of $125,000 to jump-start the project.

By 1928 the membership had increased to 5,802. Cromwell purchased the buildings as Nos. 12 through 26 Vesey Street, just behind the Astor House. Within the site, for over 50 years, were the auction rooms of Keeler’s Art Gallery, a familiar spot for many New Yorkers. Everything from a Stuart portrait of George Washington to wooden cigar-store Indians had passed through its doors and frequent clients were William Cullen Bryant and James Gordon Bennett.

The club hired eminent architect Cass Gilbert to design its new building which Cromwell insisted “must reflect an atmosphere similar in dignity to the Inns of Court in London.” Fifteen years earlier Gilbert had designed the magnificent neo-Gothic Woolworth Building nearby, but he often worked in more classic, reserved styles for museums, capitol buildings and libraries.

On October 18, 1928 Gilbert submitted his plans to the association at the Astor Hotel. The architect described the building as “being of a monumental type and design in the manner of the Georgian phase of the Renaissance.”

Projected to cost about $1 million, the structure would be of limestone rather than brick – making it English Georgian rather than American. Four stories high (the fourth floor being disguised by a stone balustrade) it was intended “to express the dignity of the law.”  Bas-relief panels set between two-story pilasters, graceful ironwork, and tall, multi-paned windows at the second floor created a distinguished fa├žade.

In 1929 the old buildings including Keeler’s Art Gallery were demolished and on December 7 the cornerstone was laid. The Association President, William Nelson Cromwell announced “It is my dream that this home of law become an institute, not in the cold sense of lectures and teaching but in the warmth of good fellowship, friendship.”

Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals predicted that “this building will represent to the community that the law is meant to be a useful profession; helpful to the people, seeking to lighten, not to increase their burdens, and the building will suggest to our members that the only great danger lurking in our midst is that we imperceptibly are apt to fall behind the times.”

The cornerstone contained gold and silver 1929 coins, a copy of each of the daily newspapers, the Congressional Directory, Legislative manual of the State of New York, Manual of the City of New York and a brochure describing the new building.

St. Paul's neatly trimmed churchyard sits across from the newly-constructed building -- photo NYPL Collection
By the time of the cornerstone laying the construction estimate had grown slightly to $1.1 million. Cromwell personally donated $404,000 toward the project. As the Great Depression spread financial fear across the country, the cost had risen to $1.2 million by April 1930; yet members had already provided over $1 million in paid donations.

The building was dedicated on May 27, 1930. The New York Times pronounced the clubhouse as “of Colonial architecture conforming in design with the historic background of old New York.”

The new, gleaming white limestone Association building stands out next to the Astor Office Building in 1930 -- photo NYPL Collection
The newspaper was impressed with the second floor Auditorium which “in every particular is a replica of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the meeting place of the Continental Congress.” Also on the second floor was a roomy Georgian-style Lounge with wood-paneled walls and high ceilings. Separating the two areas was a marble, column-lined foyer.

A dark-paneled library of 25,000 books was on the third floor. Two massive fireplaces were at either end. In the basement, another 25,000 books were stored “for use as called for.”

Continuing the association’s tradition of jurisprudence reform, one of the first items of business in the new building regarded the legality of the 18th Amendment – the prohibition of transportation, sale or manufacture of alcohol.  On July 2, 1930 the association considered two resolutions: that the 18th Amendment was illegally ratified in defiance of the 10th Amendment and that the association would take the question of legality before the United States Supreme Court.

Five years before World War II, in June 1934, the building was the scene of an inquiry regarding the conditions in Hitler’s Germany. Testimonies were heard from European witness such as the former Prussian Minister of Justice, Dr. Kurt Rosenfeld; British Labor M. P. Aneurin Bevan; and German journalist and author Johannes Steel.

But it was a rhesus monkey that shattered the serious discussions within the walls of the New York County Lawyers’ Association building on October 21, 1954. The nine-pound monkey was one of 300 delivered to the Trefflich Bird and Animal Company at 228 Fulton Street; but this one yearned for freedom.  After a day on the lam, the monkey was spotted on the ledge of St. Paul’s where Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt was to speak at noon. “It was decided something ought to be done,” reported The New York Times.

While a crowd of about one hundred people slowly gathered, the monkey swung from tree to tree and hopped from building to building with a panting contingent of patrolmen in pursuit. And then he ducked into the open window of the New York Lawyers’ Association conference room.

Someone quickly slammed the window shut and the chase was on within the marble halls of the building. Long-handled nets finally nabbed the fugitive and the excitement came to an end.

Gilbert based the design of the elegant Auditorium on Independence Hall -- photo New York County Lawyers' Association
In May 1961 the Association purchased for $440,000 the land and buildings at Nos. 6, 8 and 10 Barclay that abutted the Vesey Street building in order to expand the facilities. Extensive renovation and modernization including air conditioning and heating systems were initiated in 1990.

Although the AIA Guide to New York City called Gilbert’s design “the wimp of the neighborhood;” the Landmarks Preservation Commission lauded the structure. In its 1965 designation it said that “among its important qualities, this distinguished building has set a very high standard for the planning, design and construction of a small clubhouse and…makes a significant contribution to the architectural beauty of the City.”

The website of the New York County Lawyers’ Association stresses that “Since its inception, [the Association] has pioneered some of the most far-reaching and tangible reforms in American jurisprudence and has continuously played an active role in legal developments and public policy.” And it has done so for over 80 years from its handsome limestone clubhouse on Vesey Street.

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