Monday, May 12, 2014

The Lost German Savings Bank -- 14th Street & 4th Ave

The German Savings Bank dominated the eastern corner around the turn of the century -- photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the 1840s German immigrants began pouring into Manhattan, settling mostly on the Lower East Side.  Within the next decade 800,000 Germans entered New York Harbor and by 1855 only Vienna and Berlin had a larger German population than did New York City.  Along with the impoverished working class Germans were highly successful businessmen including Jacob Windmuller.

Another influential and wealthy German, Oswald Ottendorfer, would later describe Windmuller as an able businessman and note his “wise beneficence” and “refining and powerful influence he had exerted in the advancement of music and art.”  But in 1858 Jacob Windmuller was more focused on opening a savings bank for the German population.  With a group of associates of the German Society he established the German Savings Bank and submitted the proposed charter to the State legislature that year.  The first attempt failed; but the group was successful in incorporating on April 9, 1859.

The new bank opened for business on July 1 in the Cooper Institute building.  Initial deposits were overwhelming—reportedly about $100,000 or around $2.7 million today.  On January 10, 1862 the Directors of the German Savings Bank heard a promising report from the bank’s President, William Jellinghaus.

He told the members “I had expected that the last month would have increased our deposits, for such is usually the case just before the opening of the months of June and January; but I did not expect that the increase would be so great, nor that the receipts would be $5,000 more, and the money paid out $2,000 less, than in December, 1860.”

He added, “The number of depositors also has increased in a surprising manner.  In December, for instance, 280 new bank-books were made out, and the total of our depositors at the end of that month reached 7,742.”  As 1861 came to a close, the bank listed assets of $909,098.

The German Savings Bank’s success should not have been surprising.  The Germans were the largest group of immigrants arriving in New York and a great many of them would never learn English.  At the German Savings Bank they could transact their business in their native language, without fear of miscommunication or of being duped.

In 1864 the growing bank acquired land on the southeast corner of 14th Street and Fourth Avenue facing Union Square.  The bank was among the first commercial intruders on the upscale residential neighborhood.  Before the end of the decade it was obvious that the bank needed an even larger, more substantial building.  Additional, adjoining land was acquired and the trustees contracted German-born architect Henry Fernbach to design its new headquarters.  Fernbach reportedly worked with Edward Henry Kendall in designing the structure, construction of which was begun in 1870.  It would be two years before the bank building was completed.
An early stereoscope view shows gas street lamps.  Houses, some converted for business, still fill the neighborhood -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
Five stories tall, its regimented fa├žade featured the arched openings, separating pilasters and cornices at each level made popular by the French Second Empire style currently all the rage.  Ferbach used the corner plot to visual advantage, placing the entrance on a chamfered point and crowning it with a faceted dome.  Architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler pointed to the building as an example as to why Fernbach “is one of the most accomplished practitioners in this country of academic Renaissance.”  A year after the building’s completion Fernbach would design a near-clone in Philadelphia with his New York Mutual Insurance Company building. 

Among the workers in the bank in 1871 was 16-year old Adolph Koppel.  Koppel was an immigrant who was hired as to run errands.  Over half a century later, Koppel would still be employed here.

Although there was ample use of marble, the banking room was relatively no-nonsense -- photogrpah by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The tenant list on the upper floors was widely varied.  Among the first leasers was artist and glassmaker David Maitland Armstrong who established his studio here.  In 1875 sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens returned to New York and shared the space with Armstrong.  According to historian Mosette Broderick in his Trimvirate: McKim, Mead & White, Saint-Gaudens missed the flowing fountains of Rome and would leave water running in the sink for soothing background noise as he worked.

The bank was innocently drawn into two scandals in 1887.  John Gloeckler was to be married to Hattie Dilger on Monday night, October 3.  That morning he left his sweetheart, saying he was on the way to the German Savings Bank to withdraw $600 “and buy furniture with it for their housekeeping,” as reported by The Sun three days later.  Hattie said “The last thing he said to me when he left the house was: ‘Now I am going to get the fruit and the flowers for the wedding supper.  Don’t you worry about it.’”

Gloeckler had told Hattie that he was a collector for a publishing house—although he never divulged its name—and that he had a tidy $1,000 in the bank.  The Sun doubted his story, saying “probably he had no such employment.  Since he left John Ganther’s saloon, in the Sea Beach Railroad depot, a month ago, he had frequented other saloons a good deal, and really did not seem to be doing anything.”  And in fact, the bank treasurer, G. F. Amthor, revealed that the largest amount Gloeckler ever had in the bank was $65 and that he had withdrawn the last $15 of that on September 27. 

The would-be groom never returned for the wedding.  The following morning his body was found on the beach at Bath, Long Island.  There were no marks of violence on the body and the County Physician reported “that Gloeckler’s death resulted from drowning and from nothing else.”  The Sun was convinced it had the answers.  “It is now thought, therefore, that Gloeckler, without money and unable to get any, drowned himself rather than go home and face his betrothed penniless.”

Hattie Dilger would not believe it.  “He couldn’t tell me a lie.  I know he couldn’t…Oh! They drugged him and took him to Bath and got his money and murdered him!”

Another German woman was duped two years earlier.  Mrs. Matilda Stern was wooed by Josef Schrurrer for only a few weeks before he convinced her to marry him.  He told the widow that he was a Hungarian banker and was in America to establish a branch of his bank.  But now that he met Matilda, “love prolonged his stay—or at least he told her so,” reported The Sun on December 3, 1887.

“She believed all he said, and gave him $5,000 to deposit in the German Savings Bank in his own name.  Some of this was drawn out for household expenses, but there were $,460 to his credit on Jan. 30, 1886, when he bade his wife good morning at their flat…and said he thought his arrangements for a branch banking house would be completed that day.”

Like John Gloeckler, Josef Schrurrer did not return home that night.  The following morning Matilda realized her watch and jewelry were missing.  Suspecting the worst, she headed to the German Savings Bank where she was told all the money had been withdrawn.  The headstrong Matilda was not about to be conned out of her jewelry and money.  She rushed to attorney Benjamin Hoffman who checked the passenger lists of vessels that left on January 30.  “It was found that Schrurrer, or a man answering his description, had sailed under another name on La Gascogne for Havre,” said The Sun.

French detectives were notified by telegram and Matilda boarded the next steamer to France.  Joined by a detective, she traced Schrurrer to Hungary.  “Although he had shaved off his beard and put on a pair of spectacles, she knew him.  He had joined his Hungarian wife and three children.”

The irate Matilda had him promptly arrested for bigamy, retrieved her watch and jewelry and about $4,000 of the stolen money.  Now in December 1887 she stood before Judge Barrett to have her marriage annulled.

Normally, other than false reports on runs on the bank in 1875 and again in 1878, things on the 14th Street and Fourth Avenue corner were less dramatic.  In 1906 The Russ Metal Lath Company moved into Rooms 216 through 218.  Architect Maximillian Zipkes had his offices in the building in 1909 and artist H. P. King’s studio was here at the same time.  Film manufacturer the Solax Co. was here in 1911 and 1912 as was Henry Metcalfe, a retired army officer, who ran his real estate business from the building.

War broke out in Europe on July 28, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.  The weekly publication The Fatherland reported in 1915 on the various New York City banks’ use of deposits.  Readers were concerned that their money would be lost in investments in war loans.  The magazine, which targeted German American readers, assured “The German Savings Bank in Fourteenth Street has announced, however, that none of its funds are being used in the war loans.”

The war would soon have a major effect on the German Savings Bank.  Following the United States’ entry into the war in 1917, anti-German sentiment ran high.  Businesses and institutions thought it best to remove any implied affiliation with the enemy from their names.  By the end of the year the Germania Life Insurance Company on the opposite end of Union Square had changed its name to the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.  The German Savings Bank would be close behind.

On June 4, 1918 The New York Times reported “The German Savings Bank of 100 East Fourteenth Street announced yesterday that it had been decided to change the name of the institution to ‘The Central Savings Bank in the City of New York.”  At the time the highly-successful bank had assets of over $102 million.

Around World War I the intersection bustles with activity.  Motorized vehicles replace horses and ornate subway kiosks have sprouted on both sides of 14th Street -- photograah by Byron Company. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The bank weathered the storm of war and things returned to normal.  In October 1925 Adolph Koppel, the 16-year old immigrant boy who had been hired as an errand boy in 1871 got a promotion.  Reporting on what was a real-life Horatio Alger story, on October 20 The New York Times said that Koppel “was elected President of the Central Savings Bank…by the Board of Trustees yesterday.”  The newspaper noted “He has been cashier, Treasurer, Second Vice President and First Vice President of the bank.”

Sadly, Koppel’s health began failing only six months later.  In April 1926 he was no longer able to make it to the bank offices and on August 3 the 71-year old banker died.

The following year the executive offices of the Central Savings Bank left the building they had called home for 55 years.  A new building engulfing the entire block between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, 73rd to 74th Streets was constructed.  The venerable Victorian bank building on 14th Street continued as a branch office.

In the early 1940s the upper floors housed the headquarters of the New York County Committee of the Communist Party.  In March 1944 the FBI gained access to Committee documents—possibly through a government-sanctioned burglary—that aided it in its battle against KGB spies.

Henry Fernbach’s wonderful Victorian pile survived on the fringe of Union Square until 1962.  It was demolished to be replaced by a red brick apartment building with the architectural charisma of a cinder block.

photograph taken by the author


  1. Sigh, another gorgeous gem that almost survived long enough to be appreciated and preserved. Oh well, but comparisons to a cinder block is insulting to cinder blocks. That bland facade with AC boxes is a pile of..#$*&@....well you know what I mean.

  2. It is remarkable that there were architects with so little self respect that they could put their names on building designs such as this.