The impressive building was worthy of its own turn-of-the-century postcard.
On February 15, 1896 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the Washington Life Insurance Co. had paid $1.28 million for the southwest corner of Broadway and Liberty Street. It added, "the sale must rank as the most important that has been made in the down-town business section since the purchase by the Singer Manufacturing Co. of the northwest corner of the same thoroughfare." The cost of the land would be equivalent to just under $36 million today.
The firm hired architect Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz to design its new 19-story skyscraper. Iron frame construction coupled with innovations like electricity and elevators had recently made tall buildings possible. As excavation for the foundation was underway in July 1897 The New York Times explained the deep "hole" was "of the utmost importance" to support the 280-foot tall structure. "This vast weight will be supported by seventeen caisson piers," said the article, upon bedrock 75 feet below the street.
Construction was not without its problems. On November 25, 1897 The World reported, "A steel girder weighing 3,000 pounds fell fifteen stories yesterday from the Washington Life Building...It struck the pavement in Liberty street about twenty yards back from Broadway, grinding the paving-stones into small fragments and tearing up the earth for a depth of nearly thirty inches. The shock of the impact was sufficient to manifest itself to pedestrians within a radius of a block." Thankfully none of those pedestrians was near the impact site.
Four months later progress was ground to a halt by competing labor unions. The Sun explained on March 25, 1898 "The grievance was that housesmiths were doing the work of metal lathers." The latter, members of the Metal Lathers' Union, walked off the job, insisting that the workers of the Housesmiths and Bridgemen's Union got back to their own business. The general contractor, Otto M. Eidlitz (Cyrus Eidlitz's uncle), assisted in negotiating a return to work.
Construction was completed in the spring of 1898. The Record & Guide commented that "one has to give up as irredeemably ugly" some of the recent skyscrapers. However, it went on, the "Washington Life is one of the few that are positively attractive, and in which allowances do not have to be made."
Eidlitz had turned to the German Renaissance for inspiration in his design. Above the three-story base faced in pink granite, the main shaft was clad in limestone. It was the topmost section that set the building apart. The Record & Guide called the roof "the architectural fortune of the building," adding that with out it, "it would be a sky-scraper rather better than the average. With it, it becomes a distinguished and brilliant performance." The steeply pitched bronze tiled roof detonated with spikey German Renaissance dormers.
The Washington Life Insurance Co. leased space to a variety of tenants. Among the first was the real estate firm of E. A. Cruikshank & Co., which took a suite of ten rooms before construction was completed. Another of the initial tenants was the American Commercial Corporation which sought to revolutionize the way trading was done on Wall Street.
On May 25, 1899 The Buffalo Review reported on the firm's "machine invented to solve the secrets of Wall Street," calling it an "extraordinary device." The company had impressive credentials. Its president was Deputy Assistant Treasurer of the United States, the treasurer was former Treasure of the United States under President Benjamin Harrison, and its secretary was Francis H. Baldwin who had recently graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School.
The article said, "The officers of the company whose machine is to turn paupers into millionaires are so confident that they have great fortunes in their grasp that they are sending circulars to all parts of the United States from their handsomely appointed offices in the Washington Life Building." The gizmo was not taken seriously by brokerage firms. "Wall Street was inclined to laugh," said the article. "Hundreds of systems are tried in the stock market every year and never has one failed to work ruin to its promoters and those who had faith in it."
Several attorneys moved into the building, including Job E. Hedges. He had previously been secretary to Mayor William L. Strong and was then appointed a judge in the City Court. He resigned that position "because of the meagreness [sic] of the income," according to The Morning Telegraph, and returned to his private law practice. "That, too, proved somewhat dull in the matter of income, and he whiled away the time by writing law books to sell to the young and aspiring," said the newspaper.
Hedges finished his Text Book on Taxation in October 1900 and sent it off to the printer. After a few days the proofs arrived. Hedges carefully marked his corrections and sent them back. "Then came the trouble," said The Morning Telegraph.
Between Hedges' office and the printer the manuscript was lost. And in the days before reproduction machines made multiple copies common, it was a calamity. "Sounds of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth emanated from over the transom of room 716 of the Washington Life Building," said the article, "and the sometime secretary of Col. Strong was heard to indulge freely in the same language that was used by the 'Teapot Mayor' when visited by an extra vigorous twinge of the gout."
Hedges placed notices in various newspapers, offering a reward. Seemingly against all odds, on October 23 a "long haired and whiskered" man appeared with a roll of manuscript tied with a blue ribbon. The clerk in Hedges' office immediately recognized the bowknot "as a Hedges tie." Hedges was overjoyed to see the rolled manuscript and shook the man's hand, slipping a silver dollar into it. The bewhiskered man left as Hedges opened the package. To his dismay, inside was a copy of the book The Single Tax by Henry George, along with a scrawled message, "This beats your rot all to death."
The Morning Telegraph called the scam "a cruel canard," and said "Job E. Hedges is slowly recovering from the greatest shock his literary aspirations ever received. His shattered nerves are slowly assuming their normal form, and his physicians hope for his recovery."
Benedict Brothers leased one of the ground floor store spaces in December 1902. The venerable jewelry firm had been established in 1819 by Samuel W. Benedict, the current owners' father. The New York Press said, "For valuable and artistic jewelry no more extensive display can be found than in the large, new and beautiful store of Benedict Brothers...It is well worth a visit to see the store alone."
Among the employees of Washington Life Insurance was Robert Endicott. His close friend, George H. Griffiths had been in the insurance business, too, but lost his job with the Greenwich Life Insurance Company in 1903. Still unable to find new employment a year later, Griffiths' "health began to fail on account of a nervous affection," according to The Evening World. "Latterly he suffered from nervous prostration and imagined that paresis was overtaking him."
In an effort to cheer his friend up, Endicott took him to lunch on May 27, 1904. Afterward they returned to Endicott's office where they "had a long, animated conversation in which Mr. Endicott tried to lighten the spirits of Mr. Griffiths." The ploy did not work. Griffiths went to an adjoining room where, half an hour later, the janitor found his body. He had swallowed carbolic acid.
The advent of skyscrapers brought a new terror--high rise fires. On January 28, 1907 the New-York Tribune reported, "Flames burst out of the windows of the fifth floor of the Broadway side of the nineteen story Washington Life Building...shortly after 5 o'clock yesterday morning."
The fire had broken out in the law offices of Lee & Fleischman. The New York Times said, "It was a blaze of dangerous possibilities until the four engine companies mastered it by quick action." Fire fighters had to haul the heavy hoses up the four flights of stairs to battle the blaze from inside. They were able to confine the fire to the Lee & Flesichman offices, which were "practically gutted."
At the time, Andrew W. Smith worked as a "confidential man" for the Warren Chemical Company here. The position gave him access to the firm's proprietary information, and to its funds. He was fired in January 1909 when he was suspected of embezzlement. Five days later detectives appeared at his home on West 112th Street with a warrant for his arrest.
Mrs. Smith told the detectives that her husband was out of town on business. Armed with a warrant, they searched the apartment. The New York Times reported, "They were just giving up, when one of the detectives noticed the mattress of the bed rising and falling as though imbued with life. He looked beneath it and saw the figure of a man lying on his back, his bare toes and fingers twisted in the bed springs."
With Smith's digits firmly entwined in the springs, the officers could not extract him. Then one of them grabbed a whisk broom and began tickling the captive. He "brushed it delicately along the soles of the man's feet. They writhed for a minute or two, then came to the floor with a bang."
But the struggle was not yet over. "The detectives rolled the bed all over the room, but Smith kept close to its centre with his wriggling. Finally, the sleuths stripped from the bed pillows, sheets, mattress, and springs; then they tumbled over on top of the man in pink pajamas."
Smith admitted to his identity. He was asked why he was hiding under the bed. "Well, I didn't go there to pay golf," he replied. He was arrested and appeared before a judge charged with embezzling upwards of $25,000 over the course of nine years--around three quarters of a million in today's dollars.
In January 1915 the newly-formed Russian Chamber of Commerce moved its offices into the building. The organization was not endorsed by the Russian Imperial Consulate General. He placed a notice in The New York Times on May 7 that announced its managing director, Ivan Narodny, "is not registered as a Russian citizen and, moreover, has absolutely no connection with any departments of the Imperial Government."
Narodny had been in the United States for seven years. According to him he was a political refugee, "but hoped some day to go back." He told a reporter from The New York Times, "Our desire is to foster trade between Russia and the United States...The Consulate refused its support when we declined to bar Jews."
In 1922 the Washington Life Building was purchased by the Metropolitan Life Company. Its tenants continued to be attorneys, accounting firms, and brokerage companies. Among them during the early World War II years was the Hansa Securities Corporation. The Pennsylvania Securities Commission issued a cease and deist order against the firm in May 1941 for sending hundreds of circulars through the mail "urging German Americans in Pennsylvania to turn their savings into German bonds." The brochures said in part that converting dollars into marks "has never been so justified in the last twenty-six years as just in this time, in which the victorious conclusion of the war is near for Germany."
It appeared that the end of the line for the Washington Life Building was near in February 1951 when developer Sylvan Lawrence purchased the entire blockfront. The New York Times reported, "Mr. Lawrence said he planned to modernize and improve the buildings and hold them for improvement."
That "improvement" would come in 1967 when the magnificent Singer Building across Liberty Street was demolished for the United States Steel headquarters. As part of the deal the firm negotiated with city officials to create Liberty Plaza Park (now Zuccotti Park) on the Lawrence-owned block. In a single stroke, New York City lost two of its most striking early skyscrapers.
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