Friday, February 14, 2020

C. P. H. Gilbert's 1914 Franklin Trust Co. Building - 204 Fifth Avenue

The once stately structure is sadly ravaged today.

For years beginning around 1897 the well-known William Schaus Gallery had operated from the former mansion at No. 204 Fifth Avenue, overlooking Madison Square.  One by one the houses along the block were razed to make way for business buildings.  In 1902 the Franklin Trust Co. established its uptown branch two doors north in the Darling Building at No. 208 Fifth Avenue.

Then in its July 1913 Bulletin, the New York State Safe Deposit Association announced that architect C. P. H. Gilbert had filed plans "for the new building to be occupied by the Lincoln Trust Co. at No. 204 Fifth Avenue."  The 28-foot wide structure would run through the narrow, pie-shaped block with another entrance at No. 1124 Broadway.  The American Contractor set the cost of construction of the four-story structure at $70,000, or about $1.83 million today.

Gilbert's dignified neo-Classical style bank building was completed in 1914.  The entrance was centered within a rusticate base below a two-story arched opening.  Massive stone piers that flanked the arch upheld an entablature that announced the bank's name.  The top floor was fronted by a balustrade and capped by a stone cornice.

 Architecture and Building, October 1914 (copyright expired)

The banking room was 26-feet high, with a mezzanine at either end.  The safe deposit vaults and offices were located in the basement, and other offices in the top floors.

Employees working on the mezzanines (top) overlooked the banking floor.  Architecture and Building, October 1914 (copyright expired)
In July 1922 stockholders approved a merger of Lincoln Trust with the Mechanics and Metals National Bank.  In reporting on the move, The Morning Telegraph reported that the branch at No. 204 Fifth Avenue would be retained, now under the name of the latter institution.

Three years later, on April 28, 1925, The Sun entitled an article "Fifth Avenue Blockaded By Blaze in Bank."  A patrolman saw flames through the basement windows the night before and called in an alarm.  Waste paper had been gathered into large bales and placed in a storeroom.  The Sun reported "Flames were raging through the waste paper."

The location of the blaze under the fortress-like structure made fighting it a challenge.  "The firemen found it necessary to smash the concrete walk and glass in the walk to get at the seat of the fire."

The battle "resulted in a complete blockade of Fifth avenue for an hour and a half and caused much concern among spectators, who predicted the destruction of currency and negotiable papers, as the flames threatened to sweep through the first floor."  In the end, the fire was extinguished with no major damage to the building nor loss of cash or securities.

The building still retained its dignity around 1941.  photo via the NYC Department of  Records & Information Services

Within two years The Chase National Bank had taken over the location.  It remained until 1947 when the building was renovated to accommodate a showroom and offices on the ground floor and mezzanines, and office space above.  Among the tenants by the early 1960's was the New York State Credit Union League.

The Broadway elevation is identical to the Fifth Avenue side.
In 1976 A. Altman purchased the building as the headquarters for his apparel business.  Then in 1988 he leased the property to designer Serge Becker and artist Eric Goode.  (By now the top floor balustrade and the cornice had been shaved off.)  They transformed the interior to M.I., a combination night-club and restaurant.  On April 7 Joseph Giovannini, writing in The New York Times, said "A cross between the '21' Club and Neil's--a downtown club furnished with antiques--M.K. might be compared to European clubs like Bains-Douches in Paris."

Giovannini reported "they designed a kind of building-wide stage set for a larger-than-life town house, with a living room and bar downstairs, a dining room upstairs, and a billiard room and bedroom on the top floor."  In the basement was a small, separate club for members only.

Popular with "New York's new fusion society" of models, artists, and socialites, it was a unique night spot.  "After dinner, people adjourn for after-dinner drinks in the library, or meander on to a grand parlor bedroom and open bath, with its wrap-around vanity and framed 19th-century sepia-toned pornographic photos," said the article.

M.K. remained in the building at least through 1990, after which it saw a succession of nightclubs come and go.  Then in 1994 Alman leased it to Pentagram Design, self-described as "the world's largest independently-owned design studio."  A subsequent renovation resulted in offices throughout the building.

In 2010 British artist Anthony Gormley staged an "exhibition" of his figurative sculptures as part of his Event Horizon series around Madison Square.  Thirty-seven nude male statues were placed atop buildings, one of which was perched on No. 204.  Unfortunately, many passersby did not recognize them as artworks, but mistook them for attempted suicides and repeatedly alerted police.

One of Gormley's naked figures appears prepared to jump in 2010.  photo by Beyond My Ken
The London-based Pentagram, who eventually purchased the building, sold it in January 2017 to Artemis Partners for just under $30 million.  Exactly one year later they sold it to the Spanish ceramics and interior design firm Porcelanosa for $42.5 million.

Through it all C. P. H. Gilbert's once-striking structure has suffered much abuse, and it does not appear that anyone is much interested in correcting that.

photographs by the author

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