Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Manhattan Savings Institute - 644-646 Broadway

photo by Beyond My Ken

At around 6:10 on the evening of October 27, 1878 thieves broke into the Manhattan Savings Institution at Broadway and Bleecker Street and made off with $3.5 million in cash and securities – approximately $91 million by today’s standards.  It was the most sensational bank robbery in United States history.

A decade later the heist was nearly forgotten and the Manhattan Savings Institute was laying plans for a new, larger building.  Its directors turned to architect Stephen Decatur Hatch who was responsible for several Manhattan buildings, most recently the monumental New York Life Insurance Company Building at 346 Broadway.

The bank, which was founded in 1851, moved into temporary offices in 1889 while the old structure at No. 644 Broadway was razed and construction started on the new one.  Hatch used a harmonious mix of Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles and a medley of materials: carved sandstone, terra cotta, brick, copper and cast iron. He took advantage of the corner site, crowning the building with a copper-clad tower visible for blocks.

The building was completed in 1891 at a cost of $325,000 (about $9.25 million today).  The facade was a feast of bays, pseudo-balconies, pilasters, arches and small-bracketed courses.  Within the Broadway pediment the Institute’s monogram, MSI, stood in bold copper relief.  In a drastic diversion from traditional European decorative motifs–gods and goddesses, or allegories of continents or the arts, for instance–Hatch turned to the uniquely American.  Beavers, ears of corn, and Native American faces appeared within the keystones and cornices.

A Native American stares out from a keystone above an elaborate wrought iron grill above the corner entrance.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide pointed out "The bank floor will be of quartered oak and the other parts of the building ash.  The Broadway entrance will be of marble, the staircases of wrought iron with marble treads."  The structure boasted up-to-date technology:  elevators, electric lighting, steam heat and "a pneumatic clock."

The History and Commerce of New York wrote of the newly completed building, saying, “The banking rooms are handsomely furnished in all respects, and amply provided with improved fire and burglar-proof safes and vaults, which gives the greatest possible security…A valuable and increasing list of patrons is drawn to its counters."   Depositors were no doubt interested in the burglar-proof sales and vaults given the somewhat recent history of the institution. 

The owners proudly touted the new structure as "fire-proof."  But it was not.  On Wednesday, November 6, 1895 fire broke out in an old factory building at the southeast corner of Bleecker Street and Broadway and spread to the Manhattan Savings InstituteThe Record & Guide accused "The susceptibility of this building, which was publicly, though improperly, accepted as a fire-proof building, to injury from fire has created a great outcry and thrown doubts in the untechnical mind on the value of fire-proof construction."

Diplomatically, the journal did not aim blame at Stephen Decatur Hatch.  Calling him "a man prominent in the profession in his day," it said he "could not have imagined what has actually occurred, that his building would be partially destroyed by a fire originating across the street.  He no doubt had in mind the danger of fire occurring within the building itself."

The Manhattan Savings Institute initially leased the upper floors to the clothing firm Bierman, Heidelberg & Co.  Its catalog announced it had acquired the space "with a purpose of surpassing in elegance and convenience all that the clothing trade had hitherto known in business establishments," and added "the final touches of the decorator and cabinet makers [have] just been given to the interior."

Bierman, Heidelberg & Co. subleased space.  In 1894 Strouse & Bros., "the well-known manufacturers of 'High Art Clothing,' according to The Clothier and Furnisher, moved its showrooms in; and the following year real estate brokers M. & L. Hess were operating from the building.  In 1899 artificial feather merchants Thos. H. Wood & Co. and Albert Stein & Co. were here, and on June 6, 1903, the Record & Guide reported that the J. C. Lyons Building Co. had leased 10,000 square feet.

A 1901 receipt from clothing retailers Heidelberg, Wolff & Co. featured an etching of the building.  courtesy of Lynne Hammar

Despite the bank's monogram emblazoned on the facade, No. 644-646 Broadway became popularly known as the Bierman-Heidelberg Building.   In 1899 Isaac Bierman retired and the firm become Heidelberg, Wolff & Co.

The Manhattan Savings Institute remained in the building at least through the 1920's.  By mid-century the neighborhood had changed as fashion moved uptown and the once-elegant hotels and shops along Broadway grew seedy.  On April 30, 1959 The New York Times reported that the former Manhattan Savings Institute building, described as an "eight-story loft and manufacturing building" had been sold to Fischer-Landis investors.  "The buyers plan improvements, including new elevators and a modernized lobby," said the article.

As so often happens in Manhattan, decline turned to renaissance and in 1981 the old Manhattan Savings Institute building was converted to luxury loft apartments, two per floor above a ground floor restaurant.  The building's owner was Martin Fine, a lawyer who also installed his Blue Willow restaurant in the ground floor.  He told The New York Times columnist John Duka in January 1984 "A few of us bought buildings [in the neighborhood] because we knew that someday the area would be hot."

One of those apartments appeared in Woody Allen's 1986 film "Hannah and Her Sisters" as the set for the movie's memorable catering scene, and another in the 1989 film "Ghostbusters" as the home of Bill Murry's character, Dr. Peter Venkman.   

Patch repairs were made to the facade in 1987 and again in 1992; however seven years later it became obvious that a more substantial restoration was necessary.  Walter B. Melvin Architects, LLC, was contracted to stabilize and restore the façade.  Specially formulated coatings were applied to unify the façade and prevent water intrusion.  The cast iron balconies were removed, stripped and rebuilt with stainless steel joints.

The monogram MSI is still evident within the pediment.  photo by Tony Hisgett
Stephen Decatur Hatch's striking stone and brick structure survives amazingly intact; its carved details worthy of a closer inspection while passing by.

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