Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Temple Court -- 5 Beekman Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1881 the southwest corner of Beekman and Nassau Streets had seen buildings come and buildings go and was about to see yet one more.  The first production of "Hamlet" in America was staged in the theater built on the site in 1751.  Fourteen years later a meeting of early patriots was held in the theater that resulted in “empathic disapproval” of the 1764 Stamp Act.

Later the dual-purpose building housing Clinton Hall and the Clinton Hotel was erected.  “The Clinton Hotel was one of the best of its time and the table was particularly pleasing to old-fashioned New-Yorkers,” remembered King’s Handbook of New York later.   Clinton Hall was built to house the Mercantile Library which became a fundamental part of the Astor Place Library.

Now banker Eugene Kelly laid plans to replace the old hotel and hall with a modern law office building.   He called upon the architectural firm of Silliman & Farnsworth to design an up-to-the-minute structure with the latest amenities and handsome façade.   Although it was known as the Kelly Building, it was also called (perhaps to attract the desired legal firms and attorneys as tenants) Temple Square—a purposeful reference to the Temple Bar area of London.

King's Handbook of New York City published a sketch of the building in 1892 (copyright expired)

Perhaps coincidentally, architectural historian James Fergusson had restored, on paper, the Temple of Jerusalem in 1878.  Intentionally or not, the architects closely mimicked Fergusson’s twin pyramidal peaks of the temple in their own Temple Square. 

James Fergusson's vision of Herod's Temple included twin pyramical towers -- American Architect & Building News October 5, 1873 (copyright expired)

When the architects revealed the plans in April 1881 at a projected cost of $400,000, The New York Times promised the new building would “be one of the finest in the lower part of the city.”

Completed two years later in 1883, the office building rose ten stories including the mansard roof and towers.  The façade was a combination of limestone imported from Balinasloe, Ireland; red brick, and terra cotta.   King’s Handbook of New York called it “quite stately.”

The architects drew on the Queen Anne and Aesthetic Movement styles, using motifs like ferns, sunflowers and waterbirds, while splashing a bit of Romanesque Revival into the mix.   The pointed towers could be seen for blocks and prompted King’s Handbook to say “The quaint towers of Temple Court, with their high pyramidal roofs, are unmistakable land-marks in the heart of New York, and point the way to the scenes of vast and momentous transactions in business and finance.”

To guarantee that the structure was “fireproof,” the walls were constructed of hollow bricks “and all the safeguards for the prevention of fire were utilized in its construction,” assured The New York Times.

Cast iron knee braces took the shape of fierce winged creatures -- http://tribecacitizen.com/2013/01/03/a-long-deep-look-inside-temple-court/

The interior outshone the impressive exterior.  Inside was an enormous central court that rose through the center of the building to a glass skylight.  “This gives light and ventilation, and a pleasant effect to the interior rooms,” said King’s.  Ornamental railings of cast iron erupted in Aesthetic Movement designs.  Minute details included openwork cast iron knee brackets in the shape of phoenixes and scenic Asian-inspired bas-relief wall panels of storks and rushes.
Aesthetic Movement interior decorations, now covered in layers of paint, were up-to-the-minute style-wise --http://tribecacitizen.com/2013/01/03/a-long-deep-look-inside-temple-court/

“Some of the offices have open fire-places with mantels and grates, and the trim is in hardwood finish throughout,” said the Guide.  Kelly intended that his building be ultra-modern.  King’s Handbook of New York City announced “Temple Court is a modern building in every sense, it is thoroughly equipped with all the latest improvements.  It contains five fine passenger elevators, which give quick and easy access to all the floors; Worthington pumps for supplying water; and other modern conveniences.”

Not everyone was as glowing in their description as was King’s Handbook.  Building News called it “nondescript” and referred to the corner towers as “donkey’s ears.”
photo by Alice Lum

Nonetheless the building quickly filled with law and other professional offices.  The entire ground floor was taken over by the banking rooms and safe deposit vaults of the Nassau Bank.  Within ten years Kelly was ready to expand.  An western annex was designed by Benjanmin Silliman, Jr. in 1890 and completed three years later.  The two buildings were connected by passageways and the united structures created one of the largest office buildings in the city, with frontages on Beekman Street, Nassau Street and Theatre Alley (which owed its name to the original 18th century building).

Among the first tenants in the new annex, even before it was completed, was Margaret S. Powers who opened her typewriting office in Room 725.  On the same floor were the advertising offices of George C. Pease; the office of architect Arthur D. Pickering in Room 728, and Frederick K. Goodwin and Gustavus C. Henning in Rooms 726 and 727.

Other tenants in the partially finished structure were the American Association of Public Accountants; attorney George Gordon Battle; City Marshalls Cornelius Farley and Charles A. Farley; lawyers D. J. Newland, Joseph P. Mullin, Knight Brothers law firm; and M. W. Russell and J. H. Glover, publishers of the Telegraphic Age.

On the top floor was the apartment of janitor Frank Leslie and his wife.  At 6:30 on the morning of April 2, 1893, the night watchman left for home.  An hour later Leslie woke to find his apartment filling with smoke.  He and his wife attempted to rush down the ten flights of stairs, but were turned back by the smoke and headed out to the roof.

The following day The Times reported “No other persons were in the building, but meantime the fire had been noticed and an alarm sent out.  The Leslies were soon released from their uncomfortable position.”

Nearby on Beekman Street the old World Building had caught fire.  Sparks landed on the cotton screens of the uncompleted Temple Square, setting the new structure ablaze.  Inside, freshly-varnished pine fed the fire.  The flames were fanned by high winds which created havoc in the still-windowless courtyard.

“Fire wrecked a considerable portion of the annex.  Water, in its combat with the flames, did considerable damage on its own account.  Then the wind took a turn, and, careening wildly around the doorless and windowless building, caught hold on all conceivable kinds of papers which had escaped burning and scattered them in all directions,” reported the newspaper.

The Times took advantage of the disastrous combination of fire, water and wind to sarcasticly say “The elements caused havoc yesterday in Temple Court, the big so-called fire-proof office building.”

By 9:00 the fire had been put out, not before extensive damage had been done.  The “fine library of many thousand law books” in the offices of attorneys Knight Brothers was practically destroyed.  The tailoring store on the first floor, Burnham & Phillips, suffered $10,000 loss to its stock (about $230,000 today), the accounting offices of Henry R. M. Cook was gutted and “a couple of wrecked typewriting machines completed the recognizable remnants of Miss Power’s office.” 

The original building was relatively untouched by the fire, “but on four floors of the western block very few offices escaped,” reported The Times.

At the time of the fire architect George H. Edbrooke had been a tenant for over six years.   His suite of offices included Numbers 300, 301 and 302.  The Evening World noted that “When he took the offices first he was regarded as being wealthy, and for a long time his practice was of the most extensive kind.”  Indeed it was, for Edbrooke was responsible for notable buildings such as the Brooklyn Savings Bank and the Real Estate Exchange of Brooklyn.

photo by Alice Lum

But the same year as the fire Edbrooke had “speculated unfortunately” according to the newspaper and he sustained substantial financial losses.

The new year did not improve his circumstances and on January 26, 1894 The New York Times noted “His business until recently had been very good, but dull times made the architect very despondent.”  The Evening World agreed, saying that “Usually he was of the most cheerful disposition, but during the past few days even the elevator man noticed a change in his demeanor…the change was also noticed by the clerks in his office.” 

Because of that, when the architect entered the office around noon on January 25 looking particularly downcast, no one paid much notice.

After half an hour of quiet, broken only by the sound of rustling papers from Edbrooke’s office, the staff was alarmed by the sound of two pistol shots in rapid succession.  They found the architect in his desk chair with two bullet wounds in his temple.

In 1900 a near-catastrophic elevator accident was caused by a pesky rodent.   As elevator attendant Alexander Lundeen was moving some “well-known citizens” between floors the car suddenly ascended rapidly to the roof, then dropped to the basement.  “Through Lundeen’s work and the air cushion the lives of four men were saved,” reported the New-York Tribune.

“A rat coming out for his morning meal had been attracted by the odor of the lubricating oil and had gone to the pulley,” explained the newspaper.  “Just as he was about to enjoy his breakfast the elevator started up, and his body was pulled between the cable and the wheel.  The obstruction offered by the body of the rat was sufficient to throw the cable out of place, and the accident followed.”

The safety of the passengers was attributed to Lundeen’s “cool-headedness and courage,” notwithstanding “the terrible condition of his hands,” said the paper.

Eugene Kelly sold Temple Court for $1.325 million in 1907.   Five years later the Nassau Bank, still in its old headquarters, expanded.  In July 1912 it took the ground floor of the annex and took part of the second floor for its bookkeeping staff.

It was about time, according to The New York Times who said “The queue of depositors during busy periods has so crowded the old banking room as to become an embarrassment.”

photo by Alice Lum

The bank would not be in its new space for long.  In 1914 it consolidated with the Irving National Bank.  After more than three decades in the corner space, the bank was now gone.  On April 14, 1915 The Times reported that “The space is now being converted into seven stores, three of which have already been rented.”  Among the new first-floor tenants was The New York Times’ downtown office.

“The heavy granite piers are being replaced by structural steel,” said the article.

Twenty years later, on August 19, 1934, the same newspaper would casually note that Temple Square “for many years was pointed out as the finest example of modern office building construction in this city.”

Just six years later the magnificent 1881 central court below the skylight was walled up to meet new fire code.   The fine Victorian railings and brackets were covered over, to be forgotten by subsequent generations of businessmen and tenants.

Then, around 2000, the last tenant left and the doors of the once-grand Temple Court were chained shut.  A decade of neglect resulted in the paint and plaster inside to peel and crumble.  The hulking abandoned beauty sat ignored.

Finally in 2012 Commune Hotels & Resorts acquired the property and announced plans to convert the vintage structure to a 297-room boutique hotel with 90 residences.   As demolition started inside, entombed magnificence (albeit faded) emerged.

After more than a century behind false walls, the central court reappeard -- http://tribecacitizen.com/2013/01/03/a-long-deep-look-inside-temple-court/

The project is scheduled to be completed in 2014, including Silliman & Farnsworth’s wonderful  resurrected and restored interiors.


  1. Thanks for another great post. What a jewel this building is. I can't wait to see it in its reborn glory!

  2. Incredible building - can't wait to see the finished product!

  3. this is great, where did you find all this info?