Monday, June 2, 2014

The Lost Drexel Building -- Broad and Wall Streets

photograph Library of Congress
Anthony Drexel, Sr. was a successful Philadelphia portrait painter until 1837.  But his profession would not provide a living for his young son, Anthony Jr.  So that year, according to The New York Times later, he “determined to engage in business as a broker in order to open up a career for his son.”  On New Year’s Day 1838 he opened his small brokerage office “in which were laid the foundations of the enormous business” that would be eventually run by his son.

Three years later the younger Anthony entered the business at the age of 13.  He took on his father’s ambitious and aggressive business nature.  By the time of the California Gold Rush in 1848 Anthony Drexel Sr. left his son in charge of the firm while he traveled, often for extended periods.

In 1850 the senior Drexel took advantage of the Gold Rush and established the firm of Drexel, Sather & Church in California.  Simultaneously he opened a New York City house, Drexel & Co.  Before long what had started out as a one-man operation was a leading force in American banking.  “The house’s business was always that of money lending on a gigantic scale,” noted The New York Times in 1893, “and its timely help saved many a suffering corporation from bankruptcy, while it piled up the millions to its own credit, and strengthened year by year the already strong foundation of its tremendous trade.”

In 1869 Anthony Drexel, Jr. partnered with J. Pierpont Morgan whom he entrusted to run the New York branch which was renamed Drexel, Morgan & Co.  In 1872 the powerful banking firm laid plans for a headquarters building that would turn heads.  On March paid $250,000 (over $4.5 million today) in gold for the land at the southeast corner of Wall and Broad Streets.  The Times reported on March 17, 1872 that “more money was paid for it than any other piece of ground of a similar area of which there is any record in any city in the world.” 

Drexel, Morgan & Co. commissioned architect Arthur D. Gilman to design the structure which The Times predicted would be “magnificent.”  Work commenced on May 1, 1872 with an anticipated completion of April 1, 1873.  The six-story building would be clad in gleaming white Vermont marble and while Gilman described the style as “Italian renaissance” it would be deemed French Second Empire today.  There would be a grand mansard roof above the fifth floor cornice, crowned by a faceted cap at the corner.  On either side dormers would line up with military precision.

Construction of what would be known as the Drexel Building would be fraught with accidents and set-backs.  On October 30, 1872 The Sun complained “From the inception of this building up to the present time a series of discomfort and disasters have been of almost daily occurrence.”  The newspaper’s assessment was sparked by the worst calamity yet.

On Tuesday October 29 a worker recklessly tossed a piece of lumber from a third floor window.  The hunk of wood struck and killed a pedestrian.  “It is to be hoped this will put an effectual check upon the carelessness which has marked the course of the progress of this building from the start, and that the proper authorities will investigate to-day’s calamity,” said the newspaper.
sketch from the collection of the New York Public Library
As the Drexel Building neared completion in April 1873 advertisements for office space appeared.  Offices for “Corporations, Bankers, Lawyers &c.” were offered and the structure’s up-to-date accommodations were marketed.  “Two elevators, two staircases, fire-proof, well ventilated and lighted, heated by steam; every modern convenience on each floor.”

The advertisements did not touch on the upscale finishes and amenities.  The New York Times remarked that the building was “finely finished throughout with black walnut and mahogany, marble floors, &c,” and said that the grand staircase was “one of the largest in New-York.”  Above the main entrance were two larger-than-life statues representing Europe and America.

Drexel, Morgan & Co. took nearly half of the ground floor and the remainder of the building filled quickly.  As the Drexel Building was being planned, the Leather Manufacturers' Bank negotiated what was effectively a separate building with no interior connections.  The New York Times said that the Leather Manufacturers’ Bank section was built “in the same style precisely, so that the two edifices will present one front and have a common entrance way.”  Morton, Bliss & Co. took the remainder of the first floor not occupied by that bank.
The six-story structure dwarfed its neighbors -- photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Although the advertisements for office space had targeted bankers and lawyers, a surprising number of railroad concerns moved in.  Within the first few years the building became home to the Missouri Pacific Railroad offices, the New-Jersey and New-York Railroad Company, the Hackensack and New York Railroad Company, the New-York City and Northern Railway Company, and the Hackensack and New-York Extension Railroad offices.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected tenants was the Barnum Museum Company which had its offices here in 1880. 
In 1885 Adolph Wittemann captured Wall Street and the Drexel Building from a rooftop -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On September 4, 1882 the attention of the world was centered on the Drexel Building as inventor Thomas Alva Edison flipped a switch, illuminating 600 electric lights throughout the building.  It was a ground-breaking moment that would jump-started the transition from gas to incandescent lighting.

Like it is today, Wall Street corruption was sometimes a problem in the 1880s.  In 1888 broker Francis E. Trowbridge had his offices in the Drexel Building.  A highly respected member of the Stock Exchange, he was also a director in at least banks and a Trustee o St. Paul’s Methodist Church (as well as its musical director).  And so it was perhaps surprising when on March 22, 1888 he was arrested for absconding with the proceeds of the sale of stock.

Lawyer Abraham Kling accused Trowbridge of cheating him out of $28,500 and said he “had in a similar manner appropriated money belonging to other people.”  Trowbridge insisted that “the assertion that he is indebted to other people, or that he intended fleeing, are alike preposterous.”  The New York Times said “He was very indignant.”

Indignity of another type came to a Drexel Building tenant in 1891.  J. Madison Pinckney was employed as a clerk in the brokerage office of W. Cross.  In September that year the man was running for a telephone on the floor of the Stock Exchange when, in doing so, he jostled Wall Street broker John B. Manning.

Unaccustomed to being manhandled by a clerk, Manning showed his displeasure by landing a vigorous kick on Pinckney’s rear end.  “Mr. Pinckney felt the result,” said The New York Times on September 11, 1891.  The  broker felt the results as well when Abraham Pinckney threatened to sue for $10,000 in damages.

The New York Stock Exchange saw the matter from a difference perspective.  “There is a rule against running on the Exchange,” explained The Times.  “Mr. Manning said yesterday, however, that so far as he was concerned the matter was ended.”  Presumably the office clerk did not reap his envisioned $10,000.

A Drexel tenant with a peculiar commodity was the Railway Ammonia Motor Company.  The firm marketed street cars that ran on ammonia.  The inventor, P. J. McMahon who had formerly been a Chief Engineer in the U.S. Navy, boasted that the cost of running a car with his system was about one cent per mile.

A successful demonstration of the cars was held in Manhattan on March 17, 1893; with one drawback.  “To avoid all possibility of passengers being annoyed by the pungent and disagreeable odor that was noticeable yesterday,” reported The Times the following day, “the company is having a sixteen-foot car built, which will merely carry the motor.”

On June 30 that year Anthony J. Drexel died.   J. P. Morgan, who had functioned as the head of Drexel, Morgan & Co. for years wasted little time in reorganizing the firm.  On January 1, 1895 he renamed the New York branch J. P. Morgan & Co.; the Paris firm became Morgan, Harjes & Co.; while the London branch retained the name J. S. Morgan & Co.  Above the corner entrance he had the name J. P. Morgan & Co. installed.

The quality of the materials used in the Drexel Building was still recognized nearly three decades after its construction.  When the multimillion dollar New York Public was in its planning stage in 1900, it was the Drexel Building that was held as a benchmark.  Reporting on the plans on October 31, 1900 the New-York Tribune noted that the “entire interior [is] to be composed of white marble without blemish, and of the character of that used in the Drexel Building.”

The comparison would end in an injunction a year later when the Board of Estimate awarded the contract for the Library to Norcross Brothers.  The contractor's bid was $77,000 higher than the lowest bidder; Eugene Lentilhon.  And according to affidavits submitted by Lentilhon’s attorney, “the architect…stated to the board that the Drexel Building was built from the quarry from which the Norcross Brothers were to take their stone.” 

In actuality, said the law suit, “the Drexel Building in this city was not built of marble taken from the quarry, and that there are no buildings in the city built of the marble from the Norcross Brothers’ quarry.”

The gigantic white marble building would be draped in mourning in September 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley.  The New-York Tribune noted that “The earliest preparation for the mourning decorations on a large scale in Wall Street appeared at the Drexel Building.”  Soon after the news of the President’s death was announced, J. P. Morgan arrived at the building and a team of employees was set to work.

“Two heavy packing boxes and a sewing machine were unloaded on the sidewalk.  From the boxes were unpacked bales of crepe, which were stacked upon the sidewalk, while workmen began to cut and sew long streamers of the sombre material, preparatory to draping them on the wooden frames which are to be placed on the front of the building.”

In what was nearly a foreshadowing of things to come, on April 14, 1907 The Times recalled the Drexel Building’s origins and future.  “The firm ‘at the corner,’ J. P. Morgan & Co., was one of the very first, if not the first, to occupy a building designed in part, even, for their own use.  It was when the name was Drexel, Morgan & Co. that the Drexel Building was erected at Wall and Broad Streets, a showplace in its day and a landmark so long as it shall stand.”

In 1909 the building was swathed in patriotic bunting -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

In February 1912 J. P. Morgan established the Drexel Building Corporation for the purpose of purchasing the property.  Anthony J. Drexel’s heirs received $3 million for the land and the building.  Sereno S. Pratt, in his The Work of Wall Street published that same year, called the corner “the most valuable site per square foot of any real estate in New York.”

Rumors quickly circulated that the dignified old building would be razed “for the erection of a modern office building on the site,” as mentioned in The Sun.  Officers of the Drexel Building Corporation played down the stories.  But, as The Times reported a year later on March 23, 1913, “J. P. Morgan has had a new building in mind for a number of years, and leases which expired were not renewed.”

By now tenants were leaving one-by-one as the demolition of the Drexel Building neared.  The New York Times reminisced about the venerable structure.  “There is an air of quiet comfort and gentility about the old building which is not found in any of the newer Wall Street offices.”  The writer mentioned Gus, the janitor, who had been away from work only twice in thirty years—once for a sprained ankle and once for appendicitis.  The newspaper said he “feels as though the world was coming down about his ears, for when the wreckers take down the building they will also demolish his home under the roof.”

The Drexel Building would wear the trappings of mourning one more time before its demolition.  On April 1, 1913 a sign was hung on the main entrance, “Closed on account of the death of Mr. J. P. Morgan.”  The 75-year old banker whose personal fortune was estimated at between $75 and $150 million had died in his sleep while traveling abroad. 

Within two months the magnificent marble Drexel Building would be no more.  On June 14 The New York Times wrote “In a few days the most valuable piece of real estate in the United States will be nothing but a vacant lot, surrounded by a board fence.”

The new J. P. Morgan & Co. Building, designed by Towbridge & Livingston, was completed in 1914.  Other than the Morgan name the rather stark, squat structure had nothing in common with its predecessor. 
The 1914 Morgan building survives today -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

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