Monday, November 28, 2016

The Lost 1824 Phenix Bank Building - Wall Street and Broad

Martin E. Thompson's white marble edifice was perfectly proportioned.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1812 the Phoenix Bank was established and within only a few years became one of New York City's principal financial institutions.  Along with other banks, it established a branch far to the north in Greenwich Village at the time of the devastating yellow fever epidemic of 1822.  The concentration of these branches on one street, far away from the dangerous conditions, led to its being renamed Bank Street.  By now Phenix Bank had lost its "o."

Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, it was about the same time that Phenix Bank began construction of its noble new headquarters on the south side of Wall Street near the corner of Broad.  The bank commissioned architect Martin Euclid Thompson to design its building.  Thompson had been a partner with Ithiel Town and both architects were influential in the introduction of the Greek temple style.

The completed Phenix Bank building is credited by some historians as the first example of the Greek temple style to appear on Wall Street.  Perfectly proportioned, it featured an impressive portico of four fluted, Doric columns.  A classic triangular pediment perched above the Grecian-style entablature.

The Phenix Bank narrowly escaped destruction on December 16, 1835 when fire broke out in the store of Comstock & Andrews at No. 25 Merchant Street.  Before morning 13 acres of downtown Manhattan had been burned; 528 structures were destroyed and the total lose was estimated at $17 million.  The inferno had stopped at Wall and Williams Street at the opposite end of the block from the Phenix Bank.

Former mansions, converted for business purposes, abutted the bank building.  print from the collection of the New York Public Library

It was not fire nor even financial panic that most threatened the institution--it was corruption.  On March 1, 1838 readers of the Morning Herald learned that Senator Verplanck had opened a state investigation "into certain charges against the Phenix Bank of the city of New York."  The list of accusations which included overcharging on exchange rates was so lengthy that the newspaper simply wrote "&c. &c."  (The exchange rates mentioned involved the various currencies of states and territories--it would not be until February 25, 1863 that the National Currency Act established the federal dollar.)  The senator's push for an investigation was followed by one in the House by Representative Willis Hall.

The ugly and widely-publicized affair developed into the case of The People vs. Phenix Bank.  The Morning Herald went to the bank's defense, asserting on March 31 that every bank on Wall Street conducted business exactly as did the Phenix Bank.  "If, therefore, the transactions of the Phenix Bank in exchange are sufficient cause for the legislature to take away its effect, every charter of Wall street [would be] declared forfeited, and the great bulk of the exchange transactions, foreign and domestic, are tainted with usury, fraud and extortion."

The newspaper added "But this is not all."  The editors alleged "the movement against the Phenix Bank" was the result of "private malice and revenge" of the Whig Committee, "the omnipotent power of a party invoked to carry out the game of destruction."

The turmoil ended on April 5 when the Whigs and the Board of Trade were victorious in forcing out bank President John Delafield.   On that day he tendered his letter of resignation which began "Having been assured that the present hostility to the Phenix Bank has its origin in enmity to myself, and that unless I am sacrificed, the interest of the stockholders and of the commercial community will suffer serious consequences; I am willing, though conscious of the rectitude and legality of all my operations, to offer up my office."

In reporting on his resignation, the Morning Herald was indignant.  "A more paltry, personal, and vindictive crusade was never undertaken than the one set on foot by the Board of Trade against Mr. Delafield."

Bank security in 1842 was weak, certainly in comparison to the alarms, plexiglass partitions and surveillance cameras patrons are accustomed to today.  And so it was easy for Thomas Conroy and Charles Wheeler to rob the Phenix Bank of $1,900 (about $57,000 in 2016 dollars) in February that year.

The New York Herald reported "The money missed from the Phenix Bank was in Highland Bank notes...and had been placed in a package on the inside of the bank counter on the day it was stolen."  On March 6 the newspaper noted "It was ascertained a few days after that the rogues who took it had proceeded to the Long Island Bank, at Brooklyn, and obtained other notes in exchange."

Not long after the incident the Phenix Bank laid plans for an updated headquarters at the corner of Wall and William Streets.  On September 13, 1845 The New York Herald mentioned "The building of the Phenix Bank, in Wall street, is rapidly progressing.  A good part of the front is already raised.  The whole front is to be of pecked brown freestone, and will present a neat and substantial appearance."

The new brownstone-clad Phenix Bank building as it appeared in 1855.  In the foreground, part of the 1841 Merchants Exchange building can be seen.  The Bankers' Magazine, June 1855 (copyright expired)
The old Greek temple-style building survived until 1872 when it was demolished along with six other structures to make way for the marble Drexel Building, designed by Arthur Gilman.  That building was razed in 1912 to be replaced by the still-standing J. P. Morgan & Co. building designed by Trowbridge & Livingston.
photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

1 comment:

  1. Always enjoy reading these narratives as part of my morning ritual. Thanks!