Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The 1902 Chamber of Commerce Bldg -- 65 Liberty Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1897 the New York Chamber of Commerce was already over a century old.  It was founded in Fraunces Tavern years before the American Revolution—in 1768.  Yet the venerable institution which included among its members the most powerful industrialists and businessmen in the country had no home of its own.  Instead it conducted business from rented rooms on the fourth floor of the Mutual Life Insurance Building on Nassau Street.

This was about to come to an end.

The Chamber of Commerce initiated a building fund early that year and by June 3 it had reached just under half a million dollars.  During the Chamber’s meeting that day, George Bliss added another $2,500 and both John W. Mackay and George A. Hearn donated $5,000.  The group had lofty aspirations-- the goal was at least $1 million (nearly $25 million today).

As word spread of a proposed Chamber of Commerce building, The New York Times added its two cents in an editorial three days later.   The newspaper, too, was adamant that a new headquarters was necessary.

“There is indeed a lack of dignity in the fact that an institution with so proud a history occupies hired quarters in a building not even called by its own name,” said the paper.  But The Times cautioned the Chamber on several issues:  the building should not be a skyscraper or be larger than necessary for its sole use (there should be no income-earning space); it should be monumental and, most of all, it should not be “shut away on a side street.”

The newspaper would get two of its three wishes.

On April 5, 1900 the $1 million goal was met and plans were put in motion for the new structure.  A year later, on May 2, The New York Tribune announced that the Chamber of Commerce building would be built on the site of the old Real Estate Exchange building, on the corner Liberty Street and Liberty Place.  As The Times had hoped, it was to be a low and majestic structure.

“Instead of a skyscraper, to take all the light possible from neighbors to increase the rent roll,” said The Tribune, “there will be a building which shows that the chamber recognizes there is something beyond revenue only.”

The New York Tribune published a drawing of the proposed building on May 2, 1901 (ciopyright expired)
The newspaper published a sketch of the plans by architect James B. Baker.   Designed during the City Beautiful Movement that encouraged monumental buildings intended to foster civic pride and civilized behavior among citizens, it would be a grand white Vermont marble structure.  Baker worked in the French Renaissance Eclectic style, creating a powerful and majestic design.

The heavily rusticated first floor served as a massive platform.  The second floor was reminiscent of the Paris Opera House with enormous half-engaged fluted columns.    Above it all a gently-curved mansard roof was punctured by ornately-framed dormers.

A year after construction was completed, the sculptures had not been installed between the columns -- photo Architectural Record 1903 (copyright expired)
The first floor was intended as a bank, with a separate entrance and “will be handsomely finished with mahogany fittings and marble mosaic floor,” said The Tribune.  The main entrance would be on the Broadway side, leading into a “monumental hall and stairway, twenty feet wide and eighty feet long, extending through two stories.”

The "marble" columns of the uppermost floor were actually meticulously hand-veined plaster -- Architectural Record 1903 (copyright expired)
The New York Times commented on the windows of the main gallery being 20 feet above the floor “on account of the large wall space necessary for hanging the collection of portraits which the Chamber has been acquiring for many years.”  Later the newspaper would comment “In no other art gallery will be found so many of the faces of men who have made New York great.”

The extensive collection of prestigious New York businessmen was, unfortunately, diminished by the selling of many during the 20th century -- Architectural Record 1903 (copyright expired)
But contrary to the wishes of The New York Times editor four years earlier, the site was on a side street.  The Brickbuilder magazine was distressed as well.  “The Chamber of Commerce has purchased the old Real Estate Exchange on Liberty Street and will erect their magnificent new building on that site.  This is a fact to be sincerely regretted, as Liberty Street is very narrow, and the building will be as wretchedly placed as the beautiful Clearing House on Pine Street, which is lost between two skyscrapers on a narrow little alley.”

The cornerstone was laid on November 8, 1901.  Over 100 distinguished members of the Chamber marched from the Mutual Life Insurance Building to the construction site.   Morris K. Jesup used a sterling silver trowel to plop a glob of mortar in the place where the stone would go.  “I now declare the stone laid,” he said.  The Times reported that “After Mr. Jesup had declared the stone laid workmen were busy really getting it into place.”

The amount of items placed into the cornerstone was astounding, including dozens of magazines, books and newspapers, coins of all denominations, medals, and lists of members and others.

As the building rose, The New York Times praised the architecture.  On September 28, 1902 it reported “Compared with the giant sky-scraping steel towers crowded together in that congested district of New York known as ‘Wall Street’ the Chamber of Commerce Building will be in size very small.  But the architecture of the new structure is upon such a scale, the proportions are so thoroughly observed, that in spite of the low height of the building it will be pointed out as one of the few artistic buildings of the neighborhood.”

photo Architectural Record 1903 (copyright expired)
The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine chimed in as well.  “About two millions of dollars will be expended on this building, and every modern invention will be utilized in it by which time can be saved to men engaged in a business wherein, preeminently, this is money.”

The building was opened and dedicated on November 11, 1902.  The impressive ceremonies included President Theodore Roosevelt and former President Grover Cleveland.   Among the guests of honor were the French Ambassador, the British Ambassadors, the Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, and Mayor Low.  The Consul Generals of Russia, Germany and Britain were in attendance as were several European royals.
photo Architectural Record 1903 (copyright expired)
Although the term “magnificent” was repeatedly used to describe the new building; some critics were not pleased.  Many criticized the front elevation as “heavy and illogical,” according to The Times, “the latter chiefly because the six big columns of the façade practically support nothing but a false front which obscures the windows on the top floor, and have no structural purposes.”  There were complaints that the banking floor relied totally on artificial lighting.

Nevertheless, the critical verdict was that Baker’s building was a success—although it was not quite completed.

The white Vermont marble building is exuberantly decorated including frothy copper embellishment of the cornice -- photo by Alice Lum
Sculptures were to be placed within the three great spans between the columns on Liberty Street.  Esteemed artists Daniel Chester French and Philip Martiny were still hard at work on the statues when the dedication took place.  Over the entrance a carved marble figure of Mercury was sculpted by Karl Bitter.

As the Chamber Building was under construction, newspapers repeatedly mentioned that the marble floor of the assembly room would be covered by a carpet.   A few days after the dedication the carpet arrived—the largest one-piece rug ever imported into the country.

Designed by W. & J. Sloane, the carpet was hand-tufted in Berlin.  It measured 59 feet, 8 inches by 37 feet 8 inches and weighed a hefty 2,750 pounds.    Fifty men were required to carry the carpet into the Chamber of Commerce Building.  It was so large that it could not fit into the hold of the steamer so it was placed on deck, packed in a specially made zinc-lined case.  The total weight of the crate and rug was over three tons.

The weaving mill in Germany might have regretted taking the commission.  The New York Tribune noted that “When the work of weaving this rug was in progress it was necessary to strengthen the looms several times, as the heavy beams nearly broke under the weight and tension of the rug.  But the main difficulty arose when the workmen had to take the rug from the loom to finish and shear it, and it was finally necessary to take a portion of the outside wall of the building away in order to remove the rug.”

photo by Alice Lum
Finally on November 17, 1903 the south façade statuary was unveiled.   The Chamber of Commerce was draped with American flags and music from orchestra playing in the gallery wafted onto the street.  The Evening World said that “Flags hung from the building and bunting decorations made Cedar street look as if it were dressed for a holiday.”  The Governor, Benjamin Barker Odell, Jr., was among the speakers who presented the figures of Alexander Hamilton, DeWitt Clinton and John Jay.

The New York Tribune published photographs of the newly-installed sculptures on November 18, 1903 (copyright expired)
In June 1921 the Chamber of Commerce Building was closed as architects Helmle & Corbett began remodeling the structure.   In addition to the renovations on the interior, an entire floor was added.  The addition was essentially invisible from street level, other than the modification in the mansard roof.  The interior treatment reflected the elegance of the former space. 

The changes were completed the first week of January 1922.  The New York Times commented on the grand staircase.  “This stairway, inspired by the famous stair of the Ducal Palace at Venice, offers one of the unusual instances where the decorated vault above follows the line of the stair.

“The treatment consists of travertine steps, exceedingly simple walls of texture Rosato marble and a contrasting design on the vault above.”

The ceiling of the fourth floor contained three octagonal panels with allegorical reliefs of Transportation, Industry and Commerce.  The former library was now the main banquet room, and a smaller dining room was installed on the third floor for less extensive banquets. 

“Here a new note of delicacy has been introduced fitting this small scale of the space, and the treatment in the Adam style with its delicate handling and fine proportion is most pleasing,” said The Times.

Following the 1922 renovations, the mansard roof was noticably but harmoniously changed -- photo Library of Congress
Helmle & Corbett praised its own work.  The dignity and importance of the association, they told the press, “is well expressed by a fine quality of restraint, simplicity and good taste, as well in the use of materials as in the proportions and forms throughout.”

The Chamber of Commerce remained in the impressive white marble building until 1980.  Now the home of the International Commercial Bank of China, it was restored by Haines Lundberg Waehler in 1990 through 1991.  Decades of acid rain and pollution had attacked the façade and over 25,000 tons of white marble were required to replace the damaged stone.  Tragically, Martiny’s and French’s grand splendid statues, as well as Bitter’s Mercury, were so heavily devastated that they could not be salvaged.
The statues, heavily eroded, could not be saved -- photo Library of Congress
The masterful white marble Chamber of Commerce Building—nearly lost through the effects of pollution—was designated a New York City landmark in 1966.


  1. A stunning jewel box of a structure. Like a grand but tiny Beaux Arts palace. Reminds me of equally breathtaking buildings like the NY Yacht Club on 44th Street and the Custom House on Bowling Green.

  2. what ecer becane of that buildin'gs art collection

    1. The paintings moved with the Chamber of Commerce to the new site.

  3. In enjoying the view on Liberty St. I noticed a mysterious optical effect created by the block modillions of the main cornice. They seem to present a pattern reminiscent of M.C. Escher's drawings of forms convoluting on themselves. I am a long-time observer of the neo-classical, and have never experienced this in hundreds of other cornices. Has anyone else noticed this optical illusion? I plan to attempt to view J.B. Baker's original construction drawings at the Avery Library to see the construction details set out for the modillions. It is a mesmerizing thing.

  4. The Great Hall can be seen in all its 1983 glory in the movie Trading Places.