Saturday, September 15, 2012

The 1895 American Tract Society Bldg -- 144-152 Nassau Street

photo by Alice Lum
There was little religious literature in America, other than the Bible, in the early years of the 19th Century and that troubled Reverend William Allen Hallock.  Like many others, the austerely religious Protestant minister saw the rapidly developing cities with their the waves of unwashed immigrants as fertile breeding grounds for sin and corruption.  One weapon in combating the wickedness was the distribution of tracts—religious pamphlets and fliers aimed at putting wayward citizens back on the path of righteousness. 

Hallock was the agent for the New England Tract Society in Andover, Massachusetts, which was founded in 1814.  The organization changed its name in 1823 to the American Tract Society, hoping to broaden its influence and distribution.  A year later a similar organization, the New York Religious Tract Society, sought to join forces.  And they did.

Reverend Hallock, believing that the society should be headquartered where it was most needed, “the great wicked city of New York,” helped arrange for its move there in May 1825.    Three wealthy New Yorkers, silk jobber Arthur Tappan, merchant Anson Green Phelps and banker Moses Allen spent $15,000 on the land at the southeast corner of Nassau and Spruce Streets for the Society’s new home.  Within a year the four-story Tract House designed by City Hall architect John McComb Jr. was completed at a cost of $26,000.   The first year of operation the Society printed almost 700,000 pamphlets and fliers.

By 1846 the building was insufficient to house modern steam-powered printing presses and the American Tract Society razed the old Tract House, replacing it with a five story structure completed in 1847.  The Society used the top three floors and rented out the lower floors to tenants such as the highly successful print-making company of Currier & Ives.   By now the Society was printing over 5 million tracts.

The American Tract Society, which for decades had grown more successful, was suddenly hit hard by the Financial Panic of 1873.   The financial problems became such that in 1886 there was serious talk about selling the Tract House building.  The Society plodded along until another financial recession came about in 1893.  The Executive Committee realized that “a bold course of action” needed to be taken.

That course of action was to abandon the Tract House for more affordable space further uptown, and build a modern skyscraper on the site.  The valuable property sat in the midst of the New York publishing district and the rental income would, at least theoretically, rescue the Society.

On May 13, 1894 The Sun reported that “The new building of the American Tract Society to be erected on the site of the old one at the corner of Nassau and Spruce streets will be one of the tallest sky scrapers in the city…The building will include twenty stories in the main, and the additional structure will add two of three stories more.”

The Sun provided readers a sketch of the proposed building on May 13, 1894 (copyright expired)
The newspaper predicted the cost of the completed structure to be a staggering $900,000—an incredible amount of money for a cash-strapped religious organization.  It was to be “as nearly fireproof as possible” and in a clever marketing scheme to take full advantage of the soaring height of the building and its resulting views, the entire top floor would be a restaurant.

Architect Robert Henderson Robertson was commissioned to design the building.  He was already well-known for his own version of the Romanesque Revival style that used chunky blocks of rough-cut stone blended with terra cotta.  But for the towering American Tract Society Building he tempered the heavy style with the more refined Renaissance Revival.

The Sun reported “For the first five stories the front wall will be built of Indiana limestone or granite so as to make it as light in color as possible, because of the narrowness of Nassau street.  The rest will be of brick with terra-cotta ornamentation.”

Plans had already been filed when The Sun’s article appeared; but there was a problem.  Corrupt building inspectors who received kick-backs from contractors held up approvals.  On January 24, 1896 The New York Times exposed the bribery.  Augustus Paule, an architect working in Roberson’s firm “was told that there was something wrong about the plans and was advised to see Inspector Reilly, who referred him to Inspector Fryer.  The latter told him that the wall was not right, and appeared offended because the American Tract Society had gone out of the city to give the contract for the iron work.  It was intimated to him that if the contract was given to Warren Conover the plans would speedily be approved.  The plans were not approved until seven months later.”

Construction—which included the largest derrick ever built in New York City for building purposes--finally preceded.   But almost immediately an incident occurred that ended in devastatingly negative public opinion.   Before long The American Tract Society would wonder if its decision to build a grand skyscraper had been a good one.

On the afternoon of May 16, 1895 a young plasterer’s assistant, Michael Melvin, was working high above Nassau Street.  The laborer earned $2.75 a day to support his wife and three children.   Melvin slipped and fell through a hoistway, falling fourteen stories to his death.

The man’s body was taken to his home at No. 318 East 99th Street.  The Times noted that “The Melvins occupy three rooms, which are poorly furnished, because the family cannot afford anything better.”  The reporter was told by Melvin’s sister-in-law “Mrs. Melvin hasn’t a cent in the house and we don’t know how she is going to live. “

New Yorkers, knowing that the building under construction belonged to a Christian benevolent society, understandably wondered if the American Tract Society would come to the aid of the family.   It didn’t.

In an astonishingly appalling  public relations move, the Reverend George L. Shearer, Financial Secretary of the Society told The Times “I don’t know anything about Melvin.  He was not employed by the American Tract society, but by a contractor, and there is an explicit stipulation in our contract with all contractors that the society shall not be held in any wise responsible for accidents to the workmen.  If we were to assume such responsibility we would not be able to put up any building.”

The reporter pushed the minister.  “But might not the society stretch a point in a case of this kind and do something for Melvin’s family; or is the society not a benevolent institution?”

“The American Tract Society,” answered Shearer, “was organized for the purpose of disseminating the gospel and literature of the Lord Jesus Christ by such means as Christians may approve.  Another thing about Melvin.  He was not killed while at work, but during the noon hour.  I cannot see why the society should be called upon in such a case.  It is presumed that the workmen in the building are protected by proper safeguards.”

New Yorkers were offended that the Society, whose new building was now estimated to cost $1.05 million, would not offer a small sum to the widow and her small children.  But they were about to become even more offended.

Referring to Shearer’s comments, The New York Times reported that “Melvin’s comrades did not stop to consider whether or not they were legally or morally responsible for his death, but at once thought of doing what they could out of their scanty wages for his widow and children.”  The men soldered a zinc box to a pipe and affixed a crudely lettered sign:  “Drop in contributions here in aid of the family of Michael Melvin who was killed on this job Thursday, May 16, 1895.”

By the end of the day on Friday May 17 the workmen themselves had contributed $106, just about enough money to pay for Melvin’s grave.  Passersby dropped coins and bills into the box on their way to and from work.   Then, in yet one more callous move, The Tract Society ordered the box removed.

“The box was taken down yesterday morning,” reported The Times, “not because sufficient money had been received, but because some one reported to those who had the matter in charge that the Tract Society objected to the box’s being there.”

Feelings of compassion towards the workers and Michael Melvin’s family swelled and resentment towards the American Tract Society festered.  As a direct result, rumors started circulating that charitable donations to the Society had been diverted for the construction of the new skyscraper.

Publishing Secretary The Reverend William W. Rand denied the charges, but they would not go away easily.   A year later, with the building completed, Alexander Jay Bruen borrowed the Society’s idea of dissemination of information through pamphlets and published one entitled “Our Charities and How They Are Managed.”  In it he assailed the new Tract Society Building.

“Most charitable societies treat the money they receive as if it were their own, to use as any caprice may dictate.  Too often it is hoarded up, put away in so-called safe investments, or used in erecting some sky-scraper in the shape of a million-dollar building…This is notably the case with the American Tract Society.”

When The New York Tribune published this sketch on January 30, 1897, the building was having major elevator problems (copyright expired)
The American Tract Society Building’s bad luck and bad press continued with repeated elevator accidents the first year.  Between the building’s opening and November 16, 1896, three elevators fell several floors, injuring passengers.  
Then on September 10, 1897 yet another elevator car dropped 19 floors killing engineer Richard Neilson and Isaac Bachrach, the 18-year old elevator boy.  The Times reported “In some manner, as yet not comprehensively explained, the car was released from all of the cables, wires, and safety attachments at the nineteenth floor and was plunged into a tangled mass of iron and woodwork with its human freight in the basement.”

The AIA Guide to New York City wrote  of the bulding "Fascination is at the roof." -- photo by Alice Lum
In the meantime, the building had filled with various tenants, including publishing firms like Illustrated Record and Ladies’ World.  In 1897 the Internal Revenue Collector’s office was here and would remain until the new Custom House building was opened in 1902.  Mapes-Reeve Construction Company was on the 11th floor, the Gold Point Mining Company was on the 18th, and lawyer Benjamin Levy had his offices in the building.

On February 14, 1898 there was considerable commotion on the 20th floor around 7:45 at night.  The Sun reported that “The sounds were emphatic—a fall as of a man’s body, a woman’s loud, clear voice, men’s ejaculations, and the rattling of light furniture.  The door flew open and two men flew out and chased down the twenty flights of stairs around and around the elevators, their feet ringing on the iron steps.”

Policeman Crane of the Oak Street station was at the bottom of the stairs to take everyone to jail to sort things out.  The Sun, rather callously said “The incident was the most exciting that has occurred in the American Tract Society building since the last time the elevators gave their safety appliances something to do.”

The battle, it turned out, was the result of an on-going feud between two publishers.

Elegant winged terra cotta caryatids, this one heavily strapped in to prevent falling, ornamented the corners -- photo by Alice Lum
On May 7, 1900 The Intercollegiate Association of American moved in.  The organization was formed “for the purpose of transacting its business in connection with the coming athletic championships.”  It was the same year that the American Tract Society again faced serious money problems.  The Times reported that the Society “is now passing through a financial crisis.  The great office building at Nassau and Spruce Streets, erected six years ago at an enormous cost, necessitated the placing of a mortgage upon it of about $1,250,000, created a deficit which last year amounted to $35,000.  This led to a great deal of criticism of the management of the society.”

Yet the building remained filled and the Society struggled on.  In 1902 the six elevators, which had earned a dark reputation, were carrying 14,204 passengers between 8 am and 6 pm daily.  On May 17 that year George Shearer, who had offended so many with his comments about Michael Melvin, hosted a luncheon here for 600 of the commissioners of the Presbyterian General Assembly.   He then took the group to the roof “where they got a bird’s-eye view of the city,” reported The New York Tribune.

The luncheon was not nearly as interesting to newspaper readers as was the dinner held at the rooftop Eyrie restaurant a month later.  The Thirteen Club joined the Vegetarian Society on June 13 in a curious ceremony.   Members of the Thirteen Club, whose purpose was to deride superstitions, walked under a ladder, shared a cake in the shape of a coffin, and broke a mirror.   Thirteen shards of the glass were distributed to members.

The New York Tribune was more interested, however, in the fare—there was no meat served.  The reported noted that one vegetarian, Mr. Scott, “says he gets along well on a banana or two and two ounces of nuts a day…Mr. Scott must weigh fully as much as some beef eaters.”

The building continued to attract a variety of tenants.  In 1904 the Globe Security Company issued loans from its offices here and John Craven-Burleigh was selling his “True Hair Grower” two years later.  Craven-Burleigh promised “This is not a patent medicine, but a compound following minutely the original private formula given me by a learned Swiss Savant, while I was traveling in Switzerland a few years ago.  I was bald myself then, but by using this compound in forty days my hair grew out again, thick, silken and strong.”

In 1914 the Tract Society left the building, moving to offices at No. 101 Park Avenue.  On August 1 it was announced that the New York Sun would make “extensive alterations” to several floors of the building.  “While the alterations will be extensive in character, they will not alter the exterior of the building materially,” said The Times, “the chief part of the work being to prepare the basement for the presses.  About five floors in addition to the basement, it is learned, will be occupied for the offices of The Sun, and the changes probably will be completed by the end of the year.”

Shortly after The Sun moved in, the building was sold at foreclosure to The New York Life Insurance Company for $1 million.  With the newspaper here, the building became known as “The Sun Buildling.” 

In 1919, however, the newspaper opted to move on to the Stewart Building on Chambers Street and, simultaneously, New York Life sold the property to Frank A. Munsey.  Munsey had purchased the Stewart Building two years earlier.

A noticable patch marked the spot of a missing caryatid -- photo by Alice Lum
Throughout the 20th century the American Tract Society Building survived nearly intact.  Recognized as one of the earliest extant steel-framed skyscrapers in the city, it represents the bridge between traditional masonry architecture and the soaring high-rise buildings that were soon to come.

And today the elevators operate much more safely.


  1. Another one I'd always been curious about. Thanks.

  2. The caryatid strapped to teh building is lame but I guess it is better than being stripped off entirely. Wonderful building in an area once known for all its publishing skyscrapers.

  3. Great article! I've been researching this building for a while, and hadn't come across the story about the building inspectors' corruption yet.

    I'm also pleased to report that the building and the caryatids in particular have gone through a restoration. They're looking much better these days.

    1. That's great information! Thanks for the update

  4. I found a book called Children of the Gospel Days The copyright is 1897 by William L. Worcester