Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Downtown Treasure, The National City Bank Building - 55 Wall Street

Photographer Irving Underhill captured this shot of an eerily-empty Wall Street.  From the collection of the Library of Congress

At 2:30 on the afternoon of December 17, 1835 Samuel Swartwout, Collector of the City of New York, wrote a startling letter to a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.  It began:

Dear Sir--Last night, between eight and nine o'clock, a fire broke out near the Merchants' Exchange, and is still raging most violently...By this disastrous visitation, between four and five hundred buildings have been destroyed, and goods and other effects, to the amount of fifteen to twenty millions of dollars.  This calamity falls principally upon the heavy importing merchants; and they must unquestionably become greatly embarrassed, and many of them ruined.

Those merchants relied heavily on the Merchants' Exchange building for holding meetings, conducting business, auctioning properties and goods, and related functions.  With its destruction, Swartwout quickly arranged temporary quarters and plans were laid for a new structure.

The original Merchants' Exchange was a casualty of the 1835 Great Fire of New York --King's Handbook of New York (copyright expired)
About two months following the fire The Herald announced "It is intended, if practicable, that the new Merchants Exchange shall occupy the whole block, bounded by Exchange street, Wall, William and Exchange Place."  

Interestingly, on May 3, 1836 the South Carolina newspaper, the Cheraw Gazette, announced "John Haviland, Esq. of Philadelphia, has received the first premium for a plan of the new Merchants Exchange, New-York.  The cost of the building, exclusive of the ground, will be about $300,000."  It is unclear whether the newspaper simply received erroneous information or if Haviland's undertaking merely fell apart.  In either case, it was architect Isaiah Rogers who took on the project.

Rogers was among the foremost architects of the time.  He had recently completed designs for the massive Astor House Hotel nearby on Broadway; and was at work on the plans for the Bank of America at No. 44 Wall Street, also destroyed in the fire.   Both of those buildings would employ classic Greek columns in their designs.

Rogers's nearby Bank of America building, completed in 1836, featured two massive Greek columns. The Bank of America: A Brief Account of an Historic Financial Institute, 1918 (copyright expired)
Considering the fate of its predecessor, Rogers was tasked with designing a "fire-proof" building.  His gray granite structure, which took six years to complete, would indeed be hard to burn.  The New-York Tribune noted its "partitions, floors and walls being all of stone."

The finished building was a stately Greek Revival edifice with a free-standing order of monolithic two-story Ionic columns at the second floor.  Each column was 3 feet in diameter, nearly 30 feet tall, and weighed more than 33 tons.  According to The New York Times, they "were hauled up Wall Street, one at a time, by teams of forty spanned oxen."

The architect topped the structure with a massive iron dome.  Its oculus allowed sunlight into the large rotunda.

An 1858 engraving shows the iron dome and a sedate Wall Street.  Rogers's building bore a striking resemblance to LaGrange Terrace, or Colonnade Row, completed a few years earlier.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Even though the building was still under construction, tenants had begun moving in as early as 1839.  Among them were several fire insurance firms, including the Seventeenth Ward Fire insurance Company, the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, and the Merchants' Fire Insurance Company.   Broker Myer Levy established his office here in 1839, the same year his speculations for a client resulted in an violent encounter.

At noon on December 20 Levy was walking back to the Merchants Exchange from a meeting of the Board of Brokers.  The Morning Herald (which commented that women found Levy to be "very handsome looking") reported he was ambling along "with his book under his arm, and his thoughts on the rise and fall of stocks" when Emanuel B. Hart approached.

The newspaper said Hart then produced "a very respectable cowskin [and] gave Mr. Levy a smart blow across the most classical portion of his nose.  At this sudden attack, the fire flew from his eyes and the blood from his nose."  The two well-dressed and respectable businessmen engaged in fisticuffs, creating "as great a sensation in Wall street as the arrival of the British Queen."

It had all started when Levy purchased disastrous stocks for Hart.  When Levy demanded the $400 owed him, Hart requested time to obtain the funds.  The broker threatened to report him as a defaulter and "put your name in the Black Book."  Hart retorted that "If you do I'll cowhide you."  Both men fulfilled their promises.

Among the tenants in 1843 was the young attorney John Jay, who had graduated from Columbia College in 1836.  He was the namesake of his grandfather who was President of the First Congress and first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. 

The first hints at financial problems for the Merchants' Exchange Company, owners of the building, came in February 1852 when an announcement appeared in The New York Times.  The group was looking for an $800,000 loan, secured by the mortgage to the building.  The massive amount would be equal to about $25.6 million today.  The statement declared that the current rental income was $65,000 and "it is presumed that is can be increased" to $90,000.

But the desperate attempt came too late.  "After every effort had been exhausted to redeem it from the sheriff's hands," according to The New York Times on May 11, 1852,  the Merchants Exchange building was sold at auction.  Called by the newspaper "one of the grandest structures in the United States"--its shocking-low winning bid was $805,000, or "two-thirds its estimated value." 

Despite the change in ownership (the new organization was the New York Exchange Company), business inside the building went on unchanged.  For years real estate auctioneers like Anthony Bleecker and A. H. Muller conducted sales of estates and properties within the building; and Simeon Draper held semi-weekly auction sales of stocks and bonds. 

The large meetings of merchants routinely held in the rotunda dealt with issues which potentially affected commerce.  Such was the case on December 16, 1853 when about 300 businessmen assembled to discuss the problem of "Harbor Encroachments."  A sudden rash of private docks threatened to obstruct harbor traffic and, consequently, with business.  The men pressed for the "appointment of Commissioners to fix a permanent shore line."

In 1862 the Merchants Exchange left its granite headquarters, which then became home to the United States Custom House.  The move came at a tenuous time; one when the suggestion of corruption within the Custom House was rampant.   On February 7, 1863 The New York Herald wrote "For some time past we have heard much upon the subject of gross frauds said to have been committed by Custom House officers."   With the nation engaged in civil war, the newspaper noted that the nerves of citizens were on edge and officials needed to act.  "The anxiety felt about this matter should be cleared away by an official expose of the whole affair.  These are times when it is dangerous to tamper with the people."

Although the 1871 depiction of the Custom House appears to show a missing dome, an etching of the rotunda that same year confirms that it was intact.  images from the collection of the New York Public Library
Familiar faces continued to lease space within the building.  In 1864 at least five insurance company, including four fire insurance firms, shared the address with the Customs House.  And Simeon Draper who had for years auctioned stocks and bonds in the Merchants Exchange, now held the position of Collector of the Port.  That ended in scandal, however, following a visit by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1865.

On August 16 that year The New York Herald reported "Political circles in this city have been in the greatest ferment since the announcement of the removal of Simeon Draper from the position of Collector of the Port."  The President intended to stamp out corruption and Draper and his cohorts were on his hit list.  The Herald commented "With this removal the President has ripped up a most formidable cabal."

But corruption was a recurring scourge within the Custom House.  It would once again find itself in the sights of a Government clean-up in the summer of 1873.  On August 15 The New York Herald reported "Yesterday was a 'Black Friday' in the annals of the New York Custom House.  That stately and imposing building was swarming from the hour when business commenced in the morning till dusk with half-crazed inspectors and other outside officials of the Custom House, who were led to visit headquarters by the rumor that an investigation was pending before Assistant Secretary of the Treasury."   The federal investigators were on their way "in regard to some huge frauds, alleged to have been committed by various Custom House officials, numbering in all from seventy to ninety persons."

Top-hatted businessmen conduct business within the Custom House's stately rotunda.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The newspaper said "It is impossible to describe the paralysis of terror depicted on the faces of the swarms of office-holders who thronged the corridors, passages and anterooms of the big building attendant on this rumor of probable decapitation and criminal exposures."

By 1896 it was obvious that the old granite building was no longer adequate for the Customs House.  In January that year two congressmen had opposing opinions regarding a solution.  Representative Quinn introduced a bill in the House for "reconstruction and renovation of the present Custom House building."  Representative Low had already introduced a bill for the erection of a new building on Bowling Green.

The Customs Collector Kilbreth had already met with architects McKim, Mead & White.  The firm directed the construction firm of Norcross Brothers to assess the possibility of remodeling and adding floors to the aging structure.  Their report, made public on January 17, 1896, concluded "To enlarge the building and to make it perfectly must be practically rebuilt" and doubted that it would "be either economical or wise to do this."

Three years later the magnificent Cass Gilbert designed Custom House neared completion at No. 1 Bowling Green.  On January 29, 1899 the New-York Tribune rejoiced over the coming move from Wall Street, writing "few tears will be shed over the abandonment of the dark, dirty structure."

There was at least one man who did not share the newspaper's opinion of the stately structure.  James Stillman was president of the National City Bank, located across the street at No. 52 Wall.  On July 3, 1899 the bank paid the Department of the Treasury more nearly $3.3 million for the old Customs House.  The New-York Tribune noted that the bank's directors had "the ambition" of making it the American counterpart to the Bank of England.  "This purpose is generally understood to have been the leading motive which impelled the National City Bank to purchase the Custom House."

On December 2 Stillman held a stockholders' special meeting.  The agenda included "payment for an improvement of the old Custom House property."   Despite the earlier opinion of the Norcross Brothers, the bank went back to McKim, Mead & White in 1904 to carry out those renovations.

McKim, Mead & White staff architect Louis H. Dreyer produced a rendering of the renovations.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In a remarkably sympathetic and seamless renovation, the architects added four stories.  A second colonnade, this one Corinthian, perfectly aligned with Rogers's original.  Already classic, the renovations made the building monumental.  Inside the architects completely redesigned the rotunda, creating a classical Roman environment later echoed in their Pennsylvania Station and the Main Post Office.

photo by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

At the time of the building's remodeling banks relied heavily on messenger boys whose extremely low rate of pay was equal to their skill level.  One, a 17-year old named Benson Lang, would make national news after he headed off to the National City Bank on Friday, February 4, 1910.

The following day the Washington D.C. Evening Star reported "the ticker startled hundreds of business offices today and set a small army of messenger boys on a fruitless quest with this laconic announcement: 'Lost, a ten-thousand dollar bill.  Notify Hornblower & Weeks.'"

Lang had been employed by the banking house of Hornblower & Weeks for about four months when he was handed the rare $10,000 bill (there were only about 20 in circulation at the time) and the company's pass book and sent to the bank to deposit it.   But when he arrived at National City Bank, the bill was gone.

As he explained later "I never had seen so much money in one bill before and I couldn't help showing it, first to the elevator man then to another bank runner, and thirdly to a Greek bootblack, who has a stand in front of the building.  I let him handle it and hold it up to the light.  He didn't believe it could be real.  He gave it back to me, I put it into the pass book, put the pass book in my overcoat pocket and hurried to the bank."

According to the teen, he was so stunned by the loss that he wandered the streets all day until nightfall looking for the bill.  Afraid to tell his employers, he went home.  He told his mother what had happened and the following day she accompanied him to Hornblower & Weeks.

While the loss of the bill was substantial--more than $260,000 in today's dollars--it was doubtful that it could be used.  The New York Tribune pointed out two days later "It would seem prudent for the next few days not to present a certificate of that denomination in payment of any merchandise, as all such bills will in the nature of the case, be under some suspicion."

Three days after the incident, Benson Lang was behind bars in The Tombs with his bail set at $10,000--the exact amount of the lost bill.   On February 18 the Ohio newspaper The Democratic Banner reported that his lawyer "pointed out that his client had been afflicted by attacks of aphasia with complete temporary loss of memory."  His employers had another opinion entirely.  "It has been asserted by members of Hornblower & Weeks that young Lang fell into the hands of a gang of gamblers through a woman's influence."

National City Bank leased office space in the building.  Among the tenants around the time of Benson Lang's felony were the brokerage firms of Mackay & Co., and Colgate Hoyt & Co.  

The law firm of Shearman & Sterling was also located in the building.  John W. Sterling handled the affairs and estates of millionaires in the United States and abroad.   When Baron Strathcona died in London in May 1914, for instance, his $23.25 million estate was executed by Sterling.  And four years later when National City Bank president James Stillman died, it was Sterling who handled the $20 million estate.  (Newspapers were somewhat shocked that he left his entire fortune to his family, The Evening World noting "Nothing was left to charity.)

When John W. Sterling died in 1921, his will was significantly more philanthropic.  The New York Times announced "He provided for the erection of several memorial buildings for his Alma Mater, Yale; scholarships, library, laboratories, &c., all of which will represent an expenditure of probably $20,000,000."

Every year the gloom of the Great Depression temporarily disappeared below the grand dome of the rotunda as the National City Bank held its Christmas party.   In 1937, for instance, all 6,000 employees of the bank's 74 offices gathered here.  On December 22 The Times reported "The City Bank Club Choral Society of 125 voices will sing Christmas carols to the accompaniment of an electric organ.  The program will be broadcast over WHN.  The decorations include a 50-foot Christmas tree."

Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, American boys abandoned their jobs to joining the military.  It caused a severe shortage in the workforce and National City Bank met the problem head on by hiring women as messengers.  On August 6 that year The New York Times reported on the 60 "girl runners" in language which would be deemed inexcusably sexist today.

Faced with a shortage of qualified young men for page boys, messengers, and runners, the bank turned six months ago to the feminine field.  From it was gleaned a photogenic group of high school girl graduates who now 'wouldn't give up' their jobs "for anything"--except marriage...Five suburban "glamour girls" combined the intricacies of banking with a few remarks about their 'really nice' men associates in a description of their work.

In 1957 the bank re-hired McKim, Mead & White to modernize the building at a cost of $912,000.  Included in the project was the installation of a two-story safe deposit vault that weighed more than 1,400,000 pounds.  The Times reported on November 27 "Men with hydraulic drills raised fearful clatter on the world's largest banking floor--it is 188 feet long, 124 feet wide, with a reach of 72 feet to [the] roof of the great Pantheon-type dome put up in 1842."   It took days to lower the massive steel vault into place on hydraulic jacks, the same "used to underpin the White House in Washington when it was made over a few years ago," said the newspaper.

Other renovations included an escalator to reach the banking floor.  The Times added "The grim old brick-arched cells in the basement, used by the Customs people from 1863 to 1899 as a lock-up for pirates, smugglers and other interesting male-factors, may be done over too.  Now they're used mainly for utilities and for storage."

Luckily, because the bank had again chosen McKim, Mead & White, the classical facade was preserved and the magnificent interiors were not significantly altered.  Nevertheless, eight years later when the building was being proposed as a New York City landmark, the bank bristled.  Spokesman John A. Wilson remarked "We are not Philistines," but insisted that the building was just "one example of Greek architecture...Certainly not all present examples of Greek architecture in our city are to be preserved--only...the finest.  And, in our opinion, our head office building is not in the elite category."

Despite the bank's opposition, the exterior of the building was designated a landmark on December 21, 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission calling it "one of the few truly monumental Classical buildings of this city."

In 1979 the bank, now named Citibank, remodeled again.  The interiors were not yet landmarked and could potentially have been destroyed by modernization.   Instead, in what architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called "another laudable action," the exterior was cleaned and restored and the interiors converted to a public banking facility "within the framework of a historical interior."  In deference to the glorious McKim, Mead & White banking room, the manufacturers of the automated banking machines were asked to specially design the equipment for 55 Wall Street.

Although Huxtable lamented "It would be nice to be able to say that the results are as good as the intentions," the interiors were, nonetheless, preserved.

In the spring of 1990 Citibank sold the historic structure to foreign investors for $69.1 million.  Luckily, according to a lawyer for the buyers, "They think it's a fine structure, a fine piece of Americana.  They intend to maintain it."

photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress

Oddly enough, the building sat almost empty for nearly a decade.  In October 1994 real estate operator Raymond T. O'Keefe explained "It's unusual, it's unique, but what can you do with it?  Banks no longer need grandiose space, retailers don't like space that's tucked away, and the office floors just don't divide well."

It seemed the building would be purchased in September 1996 when Donald J. Trump boasted he had negotiated "a bargain" price for the property at $20 million.  He declined to say what exactly what his plans for the site were; but was "in discussions with House of Blues, Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock Cafe and Virgin Records."  With his customary use of superlatives, he told Robert D. McFadden of The New York Times "It's one of the easiest to rent that I've ever seen because it is one of the most beautiful buildings...It's truly one of the most magnificent structures in the world."

Then, on May 28, 1997, The Times reported "Four months after Donald J. Trump walked away from buying 55 Wall Street, a subsidiary of the investment bank that was to have financed his purchase of the historic building has bought it."

The Cipriani family, owners of Harry's Bar in Venice and two restaurants in New York City, announced it would open a luxury hotel and banquet hall in the building.  Giuseppe Cipriani told reporters "It'll be the most exclusive hotel in America, with the most gorgeous banquet hall."

The renovation by Michael Gadaleta of MG Architects resulted in a 30,000-squre foot banquet hall and the 144-room all-suite Regent Wall Street hotel.  Unfortunately the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack dealt a fatal blow to the hotel.   On December 18, 2003 The Times explained "It is a victim not only of the attack on New York--through which it resolutely stayed open, sheltering and feeding victims, workers and neighbors--but of an economy that was souring even before Sept. 11, 2001."  The Regent Wall Street closed on January 7, 2004.

photograph by Charles Heckler, via mgnewyork

Today, following a 2017 conversion, the upper floors contain 106 furnished condominium apartments known as the Cipriani Residences.  The grand banking hall (designated a landmark in 1999) is still home to the Cipriani restaurant.

many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for suggesting this post.


  1. Glorious building, isn't it? An interesting footnote to the McKim Mead & White renovation: At the time of the enlargement, Frank A. Vanderlip was president of National City Bank. For whatever reason, a couple of the Ionic columns were not re-used. Vanderlip had the immense pair hauled to "Beechwood", his estate at Scarborough on the Hudson. His architect, Welles Bosworth, had them partially sunken in the ground at the estate entrance, where they are still on of the astonishing sights along rte 9. Here is a picture of the gates (to understand how gargantuan this entrance is, the iron gates are well over six feet high.

    1. As a child I always wondered about those columns, they are beautiful

  2. My bad. Vanderlip was only vice-president of the bank when he had the columns moved to "Beechwoo." From Wikipedia: "In 1907, while Vanderlip was vice president of the First National City Bank (later Citibank), he had two columns from the headquarters 55 Wall Street shipped to Beechwood (55 Wall Street was being remodeled and the columns were re-spaced, with two left over). He had the columns placed two-thirds above ground in Beechwood’s entranceway off of Albany Post Road (now U.S. Route 9), an entrance which was later closed due to increasing traffic volume on Route 9 (the current entrance is off Scarborough Station Road)."

  3. So glad this magnificent building wasn't knocked down. I bet the units are beautiful!

  4. You’ll need the bank to afford the Cipriani restaurant, never mind the apartments.

  5. Does anyone know if the one on Canal Street with the exact same name is a 'cousin'to this location? Thanks.

    1. It was a branch of the same bank, if that's what you mean. yes.