Monday, August 22, 2016

The Lost 1888 Bank of America Bldg -- No. 44 Wall Street

The Record & Guide published this photograph of the newly-completed building on June 25, 1898.  (copyright expired)
The Bank of America was incorporated in 1812, established in a house formerly occupied by Francis Bayard Winthrop on the northwest corner of William and Wall Streets.  It was one of four other banks in New York City, which boasted a population of about 100,000.

By 1835 most of the residences along the once-fashionable Wall Street were gone.  That year the Bank of America demolished its old headquarters and began construction on a fine bank building designed by Isaiah Rogers.  

On December 16, 1835 fire broke out in the store of Comstock & Andrews at No. 25 Merchant Street.  High winds were blowing on that frigid night and the blaze quickly became an inferno, spreading from building to building and block to block.  Before morning 13 acres of downtown Manhattan had been burned; 528 structures were destroyed and the total lose was estimated at $17 million.  The flames had progressed within feet of the nearly-completed Bank of America building—destroying the building on the opposite side of William Street.

Isaiah Rogers produced a substantial stone bank building in 1835.  The Bank of America: A Brief Account of an Historic Financial Institute, 1918 (copyright expired)

The bank remained in its new building, “Corinthian in design,” until 1888 when it was demolished for a larger, income-producing structure.  On September 1 that year the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted “The most expensive down-town building in progress is that being erected for the Bank of America, at Nos, 44 and 46 Wall street on the northwest corner of William street…The front will be of stone, the first two stories of granite and the seven floors above of Indiana lime-stone.”

Architect Charles W. Clinton estimated that the building would be ready for occupancy about a year later.  “The façade will be in the Italian Renaissance, and the cost complete will be about $400,000,” said the article.  The cost would translate to more than $10 million today; and the style was, in fact, a handsome commercial interpretation of Romanesque Revival.

Clinton alleviated the potential heaviness of the style with vertical bandcourses; piers and arches that tricked the eye, seeming to extend a full seven stories; and a relatively delicate top floor of arched openings above a prim cornice.  A parapet of balustrades crowned the design.

The Bank took the “first floor” (not to be confused with the “ground floor”) while the upper seven stories were leased as office space.  By March 1889 the new building was nearly fully leased.  Without naming names, the Bank announced that a “corporation” had taken the ground floor, and the other tenants included “a prominent firm of lawyers” who took the sixth floor; and banking and brokerage firms on the others.

To provide its tenants with the most modern of amenities, the Bank of America building incorporated astonishing plumbing features.  On August 3, 1889 The Engineering and Building Record noted that the upper floors “are arranged as single offices, and suites, each of which is supplied with hot and cold water.  There are also public and private water-closets, urinals, etc.”

At a time when modern plumbing was in its infancy, the article reported “This building contains about 40 water-closets, 20 urinals, 50 washbowls, and 6 slop-sinks exclusive of the janitor’s apartments, which have a kitchen sink and wash-tubs with marble panels and safes, one toilet-room containing urinal and water-closet, another containing bath-tub and water-closet, another with a sink only and two wash-basins.”

Among the first tenants was the Lackawanna Steel and Iron Company, organized in a meeting in the building on March 10, 1891.  The New York Times predicted “This step is expected to go far toward producing harmony in the steel-rail market.”  In fact, the consolidation of six steel companies—the Lackawanna, the Bethlehem Iron Company, the Illinois Steel Company, the Pennsylvania Steel Company, the Edgar Thomson Steel Company and the Cambria Iron Company—may have had more to do with joining forces against the growing unions than in “producing harmony.”

Also in the building were the offices of the Carnegie Association, which handled Andrew Carnegie’s various interests.  The building teemed with journalists on July 7, 1892 following one of the bloodiest and most serious conflicts in labor history.

Members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers went on strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania on June 30, demanding better wages.  Andrew Carnegie had earlier put Henry Clay Frick in charge of his Carnegie Steel Company.  Frick was determined to break the union and locked out the workers on June 28 as he laid plans to reopen the works with non-union men.  He hired 300 Pinkerton agents with Winchester rifles and ordered them to break through the strike lines.

The union was prepared and had assembled 5,000 armed members.  After a 14-hour battle the Pinkerton agents surrendered.  At least two dozen men were wounded and nine were dead.

On July 7 The Evening World reported “There was considerable activity in the New York office of the Carnegie Association, on the eighth floor of the Bank of America Building...The office was opened earlier than usual, and telegraph boys were kept busy all morning carrying messages to the office from the neighboring telegraph offices.”

A company representative, L. L. Schoonmaker, gave reporters an update on the still-tenuous situation.  “My latest advices from Homestead this morning indicate that the situation is quiet.  How long it will remain so I, of course, at this end of the line, cannot tell.  It is possible that there may be another outbreak, followed by bloodshed, but we hope not.”

A hand-colored postcard depicted the building on a much quieter Wall Street around the turn of the last century.

One of the Bank of America’s most significant tenants was the banking house of Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co., deemed by The Times “one of the most prominent in Wall Street.”  The firm was here before December 1892 when it experienced the first of a string of tragedies.  Hermann Stern, “a German Hebrew, thirty-three years old,” as described by a newspaper, was employed as a foreign-exchange clerk.  On December 25 he committed suicide in the house of Samuel M. Marks on Lexington Avenue where he rented a room.

At the time Charles Moehling, described by The Times as “a well-educated and highly-cultured German,” was the head bookkeeper at Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co.  The highly-private man had rented a room in the house of Dr. R. W. Muller on East 10th Street shortly before Stern’s suicide.  Two years later Muller commented “In all the time Mr. Moehling was in my house, I never exchanged five minutes’ conversation with him.  He lived entirely to himself, like a hermit, almost.”

Instead, he went directly to his room where he “passed his evenings in his room, studying.”  He contributed several lengthy articles on finance and literature to local German-language newspapers.

On February 22 1894 Moehling left Muller’s house unusually early.  Instead of traveling downtown to his office, he went to Central Park.  Around 11:00 that morning Park Policeman McKenna found the body of the 50-year old in a clump of shrubbery.  He had shot himself in the left ear with a 32-calibre pistol.

Next to the dead man was a note that read “My name is Charles E. Moehling, and I occupy a furnished room in the house of Dr. R. W. Muller, 123 East Tenth Street.  I desire that my body be taken to Charles Diehl’s undertaking shop in Essex Street.”

No one could imagine why the bookkeeper had taken his life; although Dr. Muller noted “The servant in the house said she had noticed him several times feeling his way about the house, as if he were losing his sight, and it may be because of his failing sight and utter friendlessness that led him to take his life.”

It was sadly not the end of the misfortunes suffered by Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co.  Adolf Ladenburg was the senior member of the firm.  The wealthy banker lived at No. 13 East 38th Street (“a large and richly furnished mansion” according to The New York Times) with his wife, the former Emily Stevens, and their 11-month old daughter.   He was suffering from “a painful malady” in the winter of 1896 and traveled alone to Florida for his health.

As he prepared to return home, he thought it would be nicer to travel by water rather than rail.  He crossed to Nassau where he boarded the Niagara on February 18 with about a dozen other first class passengers.

Ladenburg “seemed to be in excellent health and spirits” when he sat down to dinner that evening.  But he most likely soon regretted his decision not to take the train home.  According to ship’s officers “The vessel reached the open sea and began to roll heavily.”  A gale died down, but then “burst into a hurricane from the southwest.”

The officers reported that Ladenburg was the first to leave the table and the following day refused all meals, saying he was very seasick.  At 8:00 that night a steward asked the sick millionaire if he needed anything.  He was told simply to open the porthole, and to send someone to close it around 11:00.  When the steward returned to close the porthole, Ladenburg was asleep.

The following morning the same steward, Robert Evans, went back.  After repeated knocks on the door, he entered the cabin.  There was no sign of Adolph Ladenburg.  A search of the ship was made; but he was inexplicably gone.  Oddly enough, the bottom portion of his pajamas were found on the berth and no clothing, other than the pajama top was missing—intimating that Ladenburg was half-naked when he left his stateroom.

The body of Adolf Ladenburg was never found and the mystery of his supposed drowning was never solved.  In the meantime, following her mourning period, Emily Ladenburg did not allow grieving to interfere with her social life.

She entertained at Oasis, her country estate near Westbury, Long Island, when not in the city.  On July 15, 1902 The New York Times reported on rumors of her quiet engagement to Jay Phipps, Jr., the son of Henry Phipps, Jr., a partner of Andrew Carnegie.  Phipps’ summer home was near Emily’s.

“They have been frequently seen together riding during the past Spring,” said the article.  But it cautioned its readers, “Mrs. Ladenburg has been rumored engaged a number of times since the death of her husband, Adolph Ladenburg…Two years ago Mrs. Ladenburg was reported engaged to Ralph Ellis, Master of the Hounds.  Last year it was to Alfred Beit, the South African millionaire, and then again to Capt. Beresford, who was over here during the Winter.  She is a very handsome and attractive women, somewhat the senior of her reported finance.”

The Bank of America Building was the scene of a common high-rise fatality in 1901.  Elevators had surprisingly few safeguards and elevator deaths were nearly commonplace.  On April 30 Erik Carlsen was cleaning the elevator shafts by sitting on the top of a cab and moving the elevator slowly upward.  The New-York Tribune reported the following day “He was on the top of the elevator, which had come to a standstill between the sixth and seventh floors, when he incautiously put his head and shoulders over the side to look below.”

The elevator in the abutting shaft, separated by a few inches, suddenly descended.  Carlsen’s body was pinned between the two cars.  The operator of the second elevator, Arthur J. Perrotet, took it back to the seventh floor, not knowing what had caused the problem.

The Tribune reported “When Carlsen’s body was discovered several typewriter girls who were in Perrotet’s car fainted at the sight.”  Oddly enough, Perrotet was arrested, charged with criminal negligence.

The Bank of America continued to grow and offices in the building were continuously leased.  The ground floor became home to J. B. Russell & Co. in 1905; and the London and Brazilian Bank, Ltd. moved in in 1918.

The Trowbridge & Livingston replacement still stands.  photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Then, in May 1921 the bank announced that architects Trowbridge & Livingston would replace No. 44 Wall Street with a $2.5 million, 23-story office building.  That rather eccentric skyscraper survives.

many thanks to reader Chauncey Primm for suggesting this post.


  1. Fascinating, as always. One is ever amazed by the layers of lower Manhattan. Minor correction: the architect of the second building was Isaiah Rogers, not Isaac.

  2. Thanks for the sequential pictures! Now I'd like to see that for Frances Tavern and be clear what survives from each era.