Thursday, September 18, 2014

The 1929 Industrial National Bank -- 72 Second Avenue

photo by Alice Lum

In 1928 the Lower East Side, with its tenement houses and dingy brick commercial buildings, was about to get a splash of color.  On May 19 that year The New York Times announced that “A new national bank, to be known as the Industrial National, will shortly be doing business in Second Avenue…Representative William I Sirovich will head the bank.  Dr. Sirovich is a newcomer in the banking field.”

Unmentioned in the Times article was Max Weinstein, recently president of Russeks Fifth Avenue department store.  Sirovich would serve as President and Weinstein as Chairman of the board.  Both inexperienced in banking, they chose prudently their Executive Vice President.  Philip L. Tuchman had been associated with the State Bank and Trust Company for over two decades.  He was held in such high esteem that a month later, on June 21, over 1,000 guests attended a dinner in his honor, during which he received an automobile as a gift. 

The architectural firm of Landsman & Smith received the commission to design the bank’s headquarters at No. 72 Second Avenue.  When completed a year later, it would be like nothing the Lower East Side—or indeed Manhattan—had yet seen.

As construction commenced, the bank opened for business on July 2, 1928 in temporary space at No. 64 Second Avenue, just north of the site.  The New York Times remarked the following day that the bank “started off with a rush.”  By 3:00 when the doors were closed 350 accounts had been opened with deposits over more than $2 million.

The new building at the corner of Second Avenue and East 4th Street was completed in 1929—just before the onslaught of the Great Depression.  The architects had produced a startlingly different structure.  While the base reflected the solid architectural elements expected in a bank—Corinthian pilasters separating rows of arched openings and a substantial bronze entrance surmounted by a clock—the upper floors exploded in color and fancy.

While the overall style was vaguely Renaissance Revival, the green and beige terra cotta spandrel tiles and the rope-twist engaged columns added an exotic air.  The arcade-like topmost windows, surmounted by a hefty balustrade at the roof, added to the Mediterranean feel.  The $150,000 cost of the building would be more in the neighborhood of $2 million today.

photo by Alice Lum

Oddly enough the Industrial National Bank and its subsidiary Industrial National Safe Deposit would soon seek a new headquarters.  Only months after the new building was opened The Times reported that the bank was moving its main offices.  In January 1939 Max Weinstein announced that the bank would take over a full floor in the newly completed Navarre Building at 38th Street and Seventh Avenue (the same spot where, The Times said, Mr. Weinstein sold candy for a living 37 years earlier).

The Industrial National Bank maintained a branch office in the Second Avenue building for a year; then on December 17, 1931 the Continental Bank & Trust Co. of No. 25 Broad Street opened a branch here.  It was just the first of a series of Depression Era changes.

On July 4, 1936 The Bank of New York announced it would open a branch here.  But when September rolled around, it was instead the Trade Bank of New York that opened.  The institution hired a public relations agency, Green-Brodie, Inc., to handle a promotional campaign hoping to boost interest. 

The Trade Bank of New York weathered the Depression; but the building owners did not.  Three months after the new bank moved in, the building was lost in a foreclosure auction.  Interestingly, the winning bid of $100,000 was placed by Bertha Weinstein, the wife of Max Weinstein.  The man who had come to this country in 1893 with no money and unfamiliar with the language was now wealthy enough to buy his former building back in cash.

In 1938 the Trade Bank of New York was pulled into a high-profile bribery trial.  Assistant District Attorney Alexander R. Baldwin was charged with accepting cash payments by Isidore Juffe who was involved in what newspapers called “a fur racket.”  Baldwin became the central figure in an investigation of official corruption in Brooklyn, called the “Rachet Inquiry.”

Cornered, Juffe had told investigators that he had “paid plenty” to Baldwin over a period of months in 1938.  To help conceal the transactions, the Assistant D.A. would have the money placed in safe deposit boxes to be retrieved later.  And he instructed Juffe to change banks after short periods.  One of the banks was the Trade Bank of New York and one bank employee would take the stand for the prosecution.

“On Aug. 11, 1938, William Miller, a guard in the Trade Bank of New York, 72 Second Avenue, Manhattan, testified, Juffe rented a safe deposit box in that bank under the name of Isidore Rosenbloom.  Previously, Juffe had said Baldwin requested him to change banks.”

The sensational trial played out in the newspaper for weeks, with Baldwin and Juffe “denouncing each other as ‘liars,’” as reported in The Times on August 3, 1939.  Baldwin complained that he was the victim of a plot against him and a “frame-up” by police.  In the end Baldwin was disbarred and humiliated.

The Trade Bank and Trust Company was still here at mid-century.  On February 3, 1950 21-year old Betty Cohen dropped in the bank to pick up her company’s payroll as she did every Friday.  The bookkeeper worked for the Foreign Embroidery Company at No. 159 West 27th Street.  This day would be much different.

Betty left the bank with the $2,300 payroll just after 10:30 a.m.  She entered the building where she worked and took the elevator to the 9th Floor.  There, just outside of the company’s office, a thug assaulted her.  Betty was knocked down, beaten, according to The Times, “and bruised.”

Bank robberies—or at least attempted ones--did not go away with the dawn of the 21st century and modern technology.  By now No. 72 Second Avenue was home to a branch of the Bank of America.  At around 10:30 a.m. on the morning of July 11, 2011 a tee-shirt wearing man in his 40s entered the bank and passed a note demanding money.  The disappointed would-be robber left without any cash.

photo by Alice Lum

Because the ground floor of No. 72 Second Avenue has always house a bank throughout its eight decades, it has not suffered the abuse of modernized storefronts and garish awnings.  Landsman & Smith’s highly innovative and unusual design is beautifully intact; a fascinating example of 1920s bank architecture.

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