Monday, July 27, 2020

The Lost 1871 Kemp Building - NE Corner of Cedar and William Streets

Ornate decorations included large cast iron griffins on the stubby stoop newels, massive statues at the third floor corner, and carved stone urns.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 25, 1898 (copyright expired)

In 1870 George Kemp had come a long way since he arrived in New York from Ireland with his family at the age of five.  Active in real estate development, The New York Times would later note “He erected many fine buildings upon the real estate that he owned.”  He was also the proprietor of the Buckingham Hotel; but his great fortune was made in Lanman & Kemp, a perfumery nationally-known for its Florida Water and Eau de Cologne.  Florida Water was so popular (today we would call it a “body splash”) that baseball teams used it as a refresher during hot games.

Early in 1870 Kemp hired renowned architect Griffith Thomas to design an office building at the northeast corner of Center and William Streets.  His plans, filed in May, called for a "five story and basement iron and brick building for offices."  They gave no hint of the architectural extravaganza that was to come.

Working with the Architectural Iron Works, Thomas designed a flamboyant cast-iron faced structure in the French Second Empire style.  Technically five stories tall, the full-height basement level made it the visual equivalent of six.   The classical temple-like entrance rose a floor and a half, its staircase continuing upward within the archway.  Thomas gently curved the corner and embellished the facade with balustrades, balconies, and columns.  At the third floor corner a plaque which announced the building's name and date was flanked by cast iron statues a full floor in height.  The elaborate 11-foot tall mansard, covered in fish-scale slate shingles and sprouting elaborate dormers, was crowned by tall iron cresting.

On September 30, 1871 the Evening Telegram called the Kemp Building "most majestic and imposing in appearance," adding "the building cost $225,000, and is cheap at that."  That cost would equal $4.86 million today.

Kemp moved the offices of Lanman & Kemp into the new building, and leased additional space to a variety of businesses.  An advertisement on December 28, 1871 suggested the appropriate tenant:

Offices to Rent--Suitable for bankers, brokers and insurance companies, in the elegant building in William street, corner of Cedar, only one block from Wall street, known as the Kemp building; also in same building, on the third story, a Suit of Rooms, admirably arranged for lawyers' offices.

The structure, indeed, saw several attorneys move in, like Moran Brothers who were among the first tenants.  The attorneys counted among its clients the Toledo, Peoria and Western Railroad Company.  Other tenants in the building were also involved in the railroad industry.  On March 30, 1872, for instance, The Chronicle, announced that the firm of Winslow & Wilson had moved in.  "This firm transacts every kind of railway business," it said, adding that it had "special facilities for building, managing and equipping railways, negotiating railway loans and securities and selling state, city, town and county bonds."  And the headquarters of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company was here by 1876.

The City of New York, 1876, (copyright expired)
The legal offices of Burrill, Davison & Burrill were here by the end of the decades.  The firm was nearly the victim of a swindler in February 1880.  The New York Times reported that "A well-dressed stranger visited the law offices...and introduced himself to Mr. John E. Burrill as H. A. Pillman, of Baltimore."  He told "a long and interesting story" about his wealthy father's recent death and the unfair distribution of his estate.  A respected Baltimore lawyer, S. T. Wallace, referred the man to Burrill, Davison & Burrill.

Burrill promised that he would take the case after writing to Wallace for details.  A moment after being shown out of the office, Pillman reappeared.  "By the way, Mr. Burrill, I happen to be a little short of ready money at the moment.  Would you mind cashing a certified check for me?"

The amount of the $500 check, drawn on a Baltimore bank, would equal nearly $13,000 today.  His suspicions raised, Burrill said "I will send this to the bank and get the money for you.  Call around again in an hour."  Pillman happily agreed and left.  Burrill immediately telegraphed Wallace, who said he had met Pillman regarding the suit, but knew nothing about him.  Another telegram to the bank revealed that Pillman had no account there.  A detective waited for the crook to come back, but he never returned.

In 1883 the offices of commission merchants D. A. De Lima & Co. were in the building.  The firm dealt in "South American products."  Around 3:00 on the afternoon of September 17 a messenger boy handed David A. De Lima a letter containing terrifying information.  It said that De Lima's 8-year old daughter Lylia had been kidnapped and unless a $26,000 ransom was paid, "the little girl's throat would be cut from ear to ear and her body sent to her father's house," as reported by The New York Times.  The cash was to be sent to lawyer David De Leon who was to then deliver it to a "Mr. Spofford, on the Mall in Central Park."

De Lima sent a clerk to his home on East 57th Street where, ten minutes after he arrived, Mrs. De Lima and the girl returned home.  This was not the first attempt at extortion.  Three other letters had already been received, one by mail.  The De Limas had five children and "The last three letters contained threats to kill one of the children and do bodily harm to Mr. De Lima if he did not send the money to Mr. De Leon, to be given to Mr. Spofford," said The Times.  Neither De Lima nor De Leon could make sense of it.  Police Inspector Byrnes announced "It was not believed that there was any serious intention of killing any of Mr. De Lima's children."   

The case took an ironic twist when David A. De Lima was suited for $100,000 in damages by Daniel De Leon.  On January 11, 1884 The New York Times reported "De Leon asserts that De Lima has injured his fair fame by telling Inspector Byrnes and other persons that he believed De Leon was a party to a scheme to black-mail him."

Tenants in the building in 1889 included Albert Reynaud, described by the New-York Tribune as a "distinguished New-York City lawyer," and at least four other law firms.

George Kemp died on November 23, 1893.  The New-York Tribune's account was somewhat startling, saying the millionaire "died after an illness of several months on Thursday morning from malnutrition."  His estate retained ownership of the Kemp Building until May 1901, when it sold it to the New York Realty Company.

King's Photographic Views of New York 1895, (copyright expired)
Only two months later, on July 20, 1901, the New-York Tribune reported "The Kemp Building...was sold yesterday by the New-York Realty Company to a new corporation.  The building now on the site will be torn down, and a fifteen story structure built in its place."  The newly-formed group of owners had paid $750,000 for the property, or about $23.3 million in today's money.

The peacockish Kemp Building was demolished shortly after and construction on the Royal Bank of Canada building begun.  The Globe and Commercial Advertiser commented "the old Kemp Building...was a landmark, and gave the thoroughfare its distinctive character."  The Royal Bank of Canada building was completed in 1902 and demolished in 1991.  Today the site is a plaza fronting 2 Liberty Street.

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