Monday, July 6, 2020

The Lost 1875 New-York Tribune Bldg - 150-154 Nassau Street

To the left of the soaring Tribune Building is the New York World building.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

In the 19th century the triangular plot of ground bound by Nassau Street, Spruce Street, and Park Row was known as Printing House Square because the city's newspaper publishers were closely packed into the neighborhood.  Certainly not the least of these was the New-York Tribune, founded in 1841 by Horace Greeley.  Upon Greely's death in November 1872 editor Whitelaw Reid purchased the newspaper.

Only seven months later, on June 13, 1873, architect Richard Morris Hunt filed plans for a replacement building for the Tribune.  Elisha Graves Otis had introduced the passenger elevator to the world in 1853, laying the groundwork for higher buildings.  Hunt's plans called for an 8-story structure to cost $400,000--about $8.82 million in today's dollars.  The 260-foot tall building would be the tallest in New York City, surpassed only by the spire of Trinity Church.

Richard Morris Hunt supplied this watercolor-tinted rendering.   The four-sided clock tower was described as a "Florentine campanile."  from the collection of the Library of Congress.
Almost from the beginning there were problems.  In March 1874 the New-York Sun newspaper sued in Supreme Court "to recover a large amount of damages for encroaching twenty-five inches on the property of the Sun in erecting their new building," as reported in The New York Times.  And a fatal accident occurred five months later when 30-year old construction worker John Murray plunged from the fifth floor on August 15, 1874.  

Completed in April 1875 the building was, in fact, ten stories rather than eight as originally planned.  Morris had created a vibrant neo-Grec style structure faced in bright red brick and trimmed in granite.   The New-York Tribune reported that the clock dials, "twelve feet in diameter," would be illuminated at night.

   from the collection of the Library of Congress

The main floor lobby was decorated in various colors of marble--black from Belgium, gray from Italy, and rouge griotte, or red marble, most likely from France.  The wood trims were of ash, cherry and apple, and bronze chandeliers dazzled the visitors.   Up-to-the-minute technologies included electricity for lighting (although gas lighting was prevalent), speaking tubes between floors, pneumatic tubes for sending messages, and "electric annuciators," early versions of the intercom.

Known popularly as "the Tall Tower," it drew criticism from near and the far.  An article in The British Architect called it "commonplace and unsatisfactory" and said it "was less pleasing in execution than in the illustration."  The Real Estate Record & Guide blamed the new challenge of designing a skyscraper for the building's "indecision and even formlessness."  Architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler said it was "a glaring collocation of red and white and black."  And The New York Times likened it to a "sugar refinery," and the type of architecture which children might appreciate.

In addition to the newspaper offices and plant the structure housed commercial tenants, including its architect,  Richard Morris Hunt.  

One tenant in particular, Koster & Bial, brought more unwanted press to the building with its "elegantly fitted up" basement saloon.  On August 20, 1875 The New York Times mocked the newspaper for leasing space to a saloon, quoting Horace Greeley's own words against intemperance (he called alcohol "poison").  The article said the Tribune had "added one more to the already large number of drinking saloons in this City...Perhaps not many drunkards will be allowed to loiter about the premises, but who can estimate the number who will therein develop the appetite which will inevitably end in inebrity and ruin?"

The other tenants of the New-York Tribune Building caused no unwanted ripples.  Among them was businessman and inventory Charles A. Cheever.   Undaunted by his disability (he was paralyzed from the waist down at an early age), he held more than 100 patents, ranging from electric rock drills to electric fire engines.  He became associated with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and made dozens of improvements on their inventions.  He constructed the first telephone line in New York and formed the Telephone Company of New York.  The city's second phone line, installed in 1877, ran from Cheever's office in the Tribune Building to the the Law Telegraph Exchange at No. 140 Fulton Street 1877.  

The law firm of Brown, Hall & Vanderpoel was in the building at the time.  The New York Times described the office of partner A. Oakley Hall, former mayor of New York, on March 21, 1877.  "The offices of Mr. Hall comprise a suite of rooms handsomely furnished and decorated with pictures, statues, and other works of art many of which have some interesting incidents connected with their history."

The elevator had solved one of the problems of tall buildings, but fire remained a danger.  On April 1, 1888 a blaze broke out in the eighth floor offices of the Homer Lee Bank Note Company.  It quickly spread to the Tribune editorial rooms on the ninth floor.  The New York Times reported "Crowds...soon collected on The Times's corner, and strained their necks in their efforts to look at the tongues of flame that darted out from the windows so far above the street.  Ladders, of course, were of no avail to the firemen."

Firefighters climbed the nine flights of stairs with ropes which they lowered to the street.  Hoses were then hoisted up by that method while other firefighters dragged heavy hoses up the stairs.  Simultaneously, Tribune workers on the tenth floor had gotten the stand hose working which the firefighters took control of.

The fire was extinguished within 30 minutes; but the entire ninth floor was lost, including an old oil portrait of Horace Greeley.  Although the monetary loss to the New-York Tribune and its building was estimated at less than $2,000 (about $55,500 today), the loss of paperwork, the library, and original manuscripts "can hardly be estimated," according to the city night editor.

In 1900 the Tribune Building was by no means the tallest building in the neighborhood.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

An annex to the Tribune Building was erected on Frankfort Street in 1881, but at the turn of the century yet more space was needed.  On August 22, 1903 The New York Times reported "The Tribune Association is to add a skyscraper to the Printing House Square neighborhood by increasing the height of its building from ten to nineteen stories."  The article said that the addition of 100 feet upwards would make the structure "visible within a radius of twenty-five miles from City Hall."  It would also be the only skyscraper without a steel skeleton.

Architects D'Oench, Yost & Thouvard had been hired to do the $350,000 in renovations ($10.5 million today).   They promised to "retain the architectural features of the present Tribune building, and its portico will suffer no change," although the steps would be removed to make the facade flush with the street.  The Times added "The tower, whose summit is 240 feet from the street, will be taken down with the clock and rebuilt so that its vane will be 340 feet above the sidewalk."

Plans were filed in November 1904, the Record & Guide noting that "the work calls for steel work, reinforcing the frame work." 

In an amazing feat of engineering and logistics, the clock tower was preserved.  On February 3, 1907 The New-York Tribune explained on February 3, 1907, "every stone [was] carefully taken and relaid on top of the twenty-story structure in exactly the same position.  The only difference between the Tribune tower to-day and that which stood for thirty years on the site is that the finial and weather vane of the present one are of copper and those of the former one were of iron."

The additional floors took the form of a massive mansard.  photo by Edwin Levick from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1915 the Tribune leased the corner, ground floor space to a drugstore.  The deal included the remodeling of the storefront and that presented a problem.  On June 13 The New York Times explained "An up-to-date American druggist cannot display the latest concoctions of ice cream and fruit flavors with a twenty-foot statue right where a show window ought to be."  John Quincy Adams Ward's imposing bronze statue of Horace Greeley reading an issue of the New-York Tribune had sat on the site since its unveiling on September 20, 1890.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
"So, Horace Greeley being in the way," said The Times, "decidedly persona non grata in front of the Tribune Building, may have to move on.  That is a tragedy."  The bronze monument was moved across the street into City Hall Park.

In the years following World War I the newspaper industry had moved northward and in 1921 the New-York Tribune followed the trend.  On December 24 The New York Times reported that after being located on the Nassau Street site for 80 years, the newspaper had purchase property on West 40th Street and sold its 20-story downtown building.  Saying that they had paid about $3 million (more than 40 times that amount today), the article added "The new owners have bought the property as an investment, and upon the removal of The Tribune, probably in May, 1923, they will renovate the structure and offer it in large suites to the ever-growing number of corporations seeking offices down town."

A postcard view showed the proximity of the Tribune Building to City Hall.   from the collection of the New York Public Library

In April 1922 demolition of the buildings on the 40th Street site got underway.  Six months later, on October 18, The New York Times reported that retired merchant Victor Weichman had leased the Tribune Building for 21 years for a total rental of $5 million (more than $76 million today).

The next three decades sat a number of legal firms as tenants, as well as banking and contracting companies.  Around 1935 the Catholic Board for Mission Work Among Colored People moved its offices into the building.

In 1944 the Tribune Building was sold to a syndicate which resold it the following year to Borrock, Steingart & Borrock.  It was again sold in July 1956 to a syndicate headed by Frederick W. Gehly, former vice president of the Chase National Bank.  The New York Times commented "The buyer plans to modernize and air-condition the structure."

That modernization was not enough to save what had become an unofficial landmark.  On May 20, 1966 The New York Times reported "The old Tribune Building at 150 Nassau Street, a relic of what was New York's 'Newspaper Row' at the turn of the century, is to be razed to make way for Pace College's $12-million campus center."  The article noted "The Tribune Building has been called New York's first 'skyscraper,' preceding the 21-story Flatiron Building."

Later The New York Times's columnist Christopher Gray would comment "The Tribune has vanished almost without a trace, and barely a whimper."

many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for suggesting this post


  1. Complete travesty with what it was replaced with.....

  2. The travesty was only surpassed by the replacement of the magnificent adjacent Pulitzer/World building by a network of highway entrance/exit ramps.

  3. A most enjoyable post, Tom. Your coverage of various “lost” structures includes some of my very favorites here. (Would that they were not lost, of course!)

    Regarding your photo caption, “To the left of the soaring Tribune Building is the New York World building”: this would refer either to an 1890 structure completely out of view to the left or, if in reference to that five-floor building just north of the Tribune Building, then to the NY Sun’s offices, right?

    “The 260-foot tall building would be the tallest in New York City, surpassed only by the spire of Trinity Church,” you write. It was certainly the city’s — and he world’s — tallest _office_ building then. But the same year, Trinity itself was surpassed by the 286′ Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, consecrated May 9th. So at that point, the Tribune Building dropped to the city’s third-tallest structure.

    (Interestingly, the Brooklyn Bridge towers, often cited as the city’s/nation’s/continent’s/hemisphere’s tallest structures upon completion in 1883, were and are in fact shorter than the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church! And if the 315′ Latting Observatory hadn’t burned down in 1856, that claim would be even more off-base.)

    NYC wouldn’t have a taller office tower until 1890, with the coming of the _new_ New York World (AKA Pulitzer) Building — but Chicago would, thanks to its 1885 Chicago Board of Trade building, 320′ tall with its original clocktower.

    It looks as if Hunt had first envisioned the Greeley statue for the 2nd floor. Perhaps that was too much bronze for a ledge?

    Might I suggest another good “lostie” for you? The Mail and Express Building (1892–1920), 203 Broadway; two names of interest associated with it: Richard Felton Outcault and Rube Goldberg.

    — JMS

    1. Regarding the Sun building, yes, the little structure was home to the Sun's offices. Thanks for the suggestion of the Mail & Express Building. And thanks for the informed comments, I always enjoy hearing feedback.

    2. And thank you, sir. I tried including a link to a wonderful image of the front of the M&E Building I’d found, but for some reason it didn’t take. Let me try that once more:

      — JMS

  4. Legendary
    King’s 1893 guide has the panorama next door from the tower of the World bldg

  5. King's guides are the cat's pajamas! 1893 Photographic and 1895 guide to NYC are the next best thing to a time machine.