Monday, December 8, 2014

The Lost Gillender Building -- No. 14 Wall Street

The Gillender Building sat on an improbably-small lot.  photo Library of Congress

On March 7, 1905 the New-York Daily Tribune reported that Augustus T. Gillender had, in the newspaper’s words,  gone “insane.”  The article contained a single line that infuriated one reader.  “He owned the Gillender Building, at Wall and Nassau sts.”

Three days later the following letter appeared in the newspaper:

To the Editor of The Tribune.

Sir:  In your issue of yesterday, under the heading of ‘A. T. Gillender Insane,’ you said that the Gillender Building, at Nassau and Wall sts., had been owned by Augustus T. Gillender.  This statement is not correct.  The land I inherited from my grandfather many years ago, and the building on it was constructed and owned by myself, and was named by me for my father, Eccles Gillender, and Mr. Augustus T. Gillender never has had, nor has he now, the slightest interest in the property.”

Helena L. Gillender Asinari

Admitting its mistake much later, the New-York Tribune would say “Mrs. Helena L. Gillender Asinari inherited the property from George Lovett, her grandfather, in 1849.”  Once again the newspaper had problems getting its facts straight.  

George Lovett, a wealthy lumber merchant and real estate investor, purchased the plot in 1849 for $55,000—an astonishing $1.73 million in today’s dollars.   Upon the settlement of his estate in 1873, the property passed to Helena. 

As the turn of the new century approached, steel-frame construction was making taller buildings possible.  Coupled with improved elevator engineering, New York real estate developers were getting the idea that, almost literally, the sky was the limit.

Along with the Manhattan fervor to construct ever-higher structures came the public’s concern that the streets would be left in a constant dusk.   New building regulations were tossed about to ensure that sunlight made its way to the pavement.  Unsure of what those restrictions would entail, Helen L. Gillender Asinari went into action in 1896, hoping to get ahead of the proposed laws.

At the time the narrow plot held the six-story Union Building.  Only 25-feet, 2 inches wide on Wall Street, it was the width of an upscale Fifth Avenue house.  The Nassau Street width was 73 feet, 5 inches.  In short it was a perfect sized plot for a six-story structure.

But having been bitten by the skyscraper bug, Helena hired architect Charles I. Berg to design a soaring office tower on the site.  Berg was challenged not only by the small plot; but by the spongy soil on which the building would sit.  In order to support a building of what Fireproof Magazine called “towering proportions,” caissons took the place of what normally would have been a sub-basement where storage rooms or income-producing vaults could be housed.

A turn-of-the-century postcard of Wall Street captured the Gillender Building with Trinity Church beyond.

The small rectangular footprint created a nightmare for Berg in laying out office space.   Common corridors, stairways and elevator shafts took up much of the usable interior space.  The several logistical and engineering drawbacks suggest that Helena L. Gillender Asinari most likely defiantly forged ahead against more sensible counsel.

Construction began in 1896 and was completed exactly ten months to the day afterward, prompting Fireproof Magazine to say “The Gillender office building has taken rank in the metropolis as one of the most rapidly completed structures as yet achieved anywhere in the United States.”

Journalists and architects disagreed about the number of floors.   The New York Times said it was 19 stories tall.   Technical World Magazine gave it credit for only 16 floors, ignoring the tower; while other publications counted the cupola as a floor, making a total of 20.  What everyone agreed upon was the height—306 feet from the curb to the tip of the tower’s pinnacle.  It was for a short time, according to The New York Times “the tallest office structure in the world” and “one of the wonders of the city.”

According to contractor Charles T. Wills, the cost of the completed granite-clad structure was $500,000.  It was a handsome structure when viewed squarely from the Nassau Street viewpoint.   When the skinny Wall Street side was taken into view, however, the Gillender Building took on the look of domino set on end, ready to topple at any moment.

Touted as “absolutely fireproof,” the steel framework of the skyscraper was encased in cement mortar.   No combustible materials were used inside, other than “unimportant details of trim,” according to Fireproof Magazine.  The magazine added, incidentally, “The interior decoration, finish and equipment are in perfect harmony with the general scheme of construction.”

Helena Gillender Asinari was fortunate in that a previous tenant in her Union Building, The Manhattan Trust Company, now took the three lower floors of the Gillender Building.   The small offices of the upper floors were taken by brokerage firms like Henry Allen & Co. and Patton & Cannon.

Being the tallest building in the neighborhood could have its disadvantages.  In July 1897, only months after the building opened, a storm blew in from the harbor.  The wooden flagpole atop the cupola was struck by lightning and was, according to The New York Times, “entirely wrecked.”

The flag pole atop the cupola was destroyed by lightning twice -- American Architect, June 15, 1901 (copyright expired)

Three years later on May 31, 1900, the replacement flag pole was struck again.  The New York Times reported “That lightning never strikes twice in the same place was proved a false theory yesterday afternoon, when a terrific stroke sent splinters flying in every direction from the flag pole on the Gillender Building at Nassau and Wall Streets.”

Wrapping the Gillender Building was the L-shaped Stevens Building.  In 1908 it was leased to the Bankers Trust Company which, like the Manufacturers Trust Company, was affiliated J. P. Morgan & Co. whose building was diagonally across Wall Street.   Then, on December 15, 1909, it was announced the Helena L. Gillender Asinari had sold the Gillender Building to her major tenant, the Manhattan Trust Company.     The bank met Helena’s purchase price of $1.5 million—almost $40 million by today’s standards.  “As the plot occupied by the structure comprises 1,825 square feet, about $825 a square floor was paid for the site,” said the New-York Tribune.  “That would be a new high record price for land on Manhattan Island.”

The newspaper figured the value of the property only in terms of the land, saying “the worth of the building on the plot did not figure largely in the sum which was obtained for the property.”

Much to the astonishment of many New Yorkers, The Sun reported that the Gillender Buildling—only 12 years old—was most likely doomed.  “Morgan interests are identified with both the Manhattan Trust Company and the Bankers Trust Company.  Negotiations are under way between the two companies which if successful will result in the demolition of both the old Stevens Building and the comparatively modern Gillender Building and the erection of a thirty-two story skyscraper on the combined plot.”

On New Year’s Day, just two weeks after the Manhattan Trust Company purchased the Gillender Building, the New-York Tribune reported that it had resold the property and “rented from the purchaser the ground floor and other space in the building for a term of eighty-four years.”

The 84-year lease would play out in an entirely new building.  The purchaser was Bankers Trust, which now controlled the large corner plot. 

In April 1910 “dismemberment” of the Gillender Building began, making way for Trowbridge & Livingston’s $3 million, 39-story Bankers Trust Company Building.  “This new building will be erected on the combined plot at the joint expense of the two trust companies and will be occupied jointly by them,” announced The Sun on May 1.

The New York Times wrote on April 10, 1910 “Here is a modern steel skyscraper in every respect, which was finished barely twelve years ago, and yet the purchasers of the property are going to sacrifice it as ruthlessly as though it were some ancient shack whose usefulness had long outlived the demands required from it by the immediate business vicinity.”

Adding to its boasts of having been the tallest building in the city, the most rapidly-constructed, and the highest price paid per square foot; the Gillender Building was now the first skyscraper ever to be demolished.  The term “dismembered,” used by a structural engineer, was aptly chosen.  

The structure was disassembled from the top down.  Jacob Volk, the contractor, explained to reporters that “A big shaft will be cut through the center of the building, and the material, as torn out, beginning at the top, will be dumped through it to the ground and the night force will cart it away.”  An enormous sidewalk bridge covered Nassau Street to “prevent possible accident from falling steel girders or blocks of granite,” said The New York Times on April 30.

The importance of dismantling a pioneer skyscraper was not lost on Professor Charles Baskerville, Director of the Department of Chemistry at the College of the City of New York.  He obtained permission from to examine and photograph the steel as it was exposed by the workers.  His purpose was to study corrosion, the condition of the beams and rivets and other structural elements.   The Gillender Building, in its early demise, provided important information to engineers and architects going forward.

In 1910 workers started at the top in demolishing the structure -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Former Congressman Robert Baker of Brooklyn fired off a letter to Mayor Gaynor demanding that the demolition of the Gillender Building cease immediately.  “The demolition of the Gillender Building at Wall and Nassau Streets is rapidly producing a condition fraught with the direst possible consequences,” he wrote, “not alone to our citizens, but to the entire country.  This proceeding threatens to paralyze the financial activities of the Nation, as none of these millionaires can reach their offices without traversing air completely surcharged with pulverized stone, mortar, and brick, and thus filling their lungs, eyes, ears, nostrils, and clothes with this volcanic like material.”

An enormous sidewalk bridge covered the entire width of Nassau Street -- photo Library of Congress

Baker insisted that the Fire Department should direct a stream of water on the building during its removal in fear that the country’s economy would collapse.  “While ostensibly this appeal is made in the interest of a class, it is really induced by a desire to avert that stoppage of the wheels of industry of the Nation that would—we are assured—follow the temporary driving of our financial magnates from their field of operations, for the Nation has no right to demand that these men continue to run the affairs of the country under such conditions dangerous to their health.”

Despite the former congressman’s ardent plea, the mayor allowed the demolition to continue, J. P. Morgan and his peers continued to arrive at their offices, and the economy survived.

Trowbridge & Livingston's Bankers Trust Building still stands.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

The former Bankers Trust Company Building survives today—nearly ten times the lifespan of its predecessor, the unlikely Gillender Building.

many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for suggesting this post


  1. Always found this building to be simply wonderful, so full of architectural details and ornament dripping from every possible location, but absurdly narrow. While demolished at least it's replacement is a stunner.