Monday, December 13, 2021

The Lost 1827 Merchants' Exchange Building - Wall Street near Exchange Street


The frame buildling next to the Merchants' Exchange belonged to Jacobus Roosevelt in 1735.  It was one of the oldest buildings on Wall Street.  from Early new York Houses 1750 - 1900, (copyright expired)

In 1900 historian William S. Pelletreau wrote, "In the early days of New York, there stood at the foot of Broad street, a large building with its lower story entirely open to the weather.  This was the 'Exchange' of that day, and the street adjoining took the name of 'Exchange street.'"  The Exchange was an important center of business.  Merchants held meetings, transacted business, and auctioned properties and goods within its walls.

In 1824 a group of prominent businessmen organized the Merchants' Exchange Company and laid plans for a substantial new structure.  Thomas Buchanan had purchased what was then 37 through 41 Wall Street, between Hanover and William Streets, in 1809.  On June 1, 1824 his heirs sold that 112-foot-wide property to the new organization.  With the site secured, the Merchants' Exchange Company commissioned one of the most esteemed architects of the day, Alexander Jackson Davis, to design a magnificent edifice.

Alexander Jackson Davis's watercolor rendering of the facade survives.  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Davis's plans were completed that summer.  On August 21, an notice the New-York Evening Post announced:

Sealed proposals will be received at No. 45 Wall street...for the delivery of marble for the Merchant's Exchange.  It is expected that the proposals will be accompanied with specimens of the marble to be furnished...Plans of the building may be seen and specifications of the marble to be furnished may be hand, and any further information obtains on application to H. I. Wyckoff, Chairman of the Building Committee.

The great expense of the structure seems to have caused debate within the Merchants' Exchange Company.  An announcement in The Evening Post a month later noted in part, "As it is in contemplation to substitute Brown Free Stone in place of marble, except for the flagging in the portico and basement, estimates are required for that artical [sic] to be of the best quality."

Four columns upheld the rotunda, as seen in Alexander Jackson Davis's first floor plan.  The architect's own office sat directly off the entrance, to the right.  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the end marble won out.  Davis's awe-inspiring Merchants' Exchange Building opened on May 1, 1827.  William S. Pelletreau would call it "by far the most important business building in the city."  A broad staircase rose from the sidewalk to the portico.  Patently Davis, it was recessed into the structure, its two-story Ionic columns flush with the façade.  An imposing cupula and spire capped the interior rotunda, where a bronze status of Alexander Hamilton stood.

The Merchants' Exchange Building held meeting rooms, auction rooms, and offices.  The flurry of activity within the building was evidenced on January 12, 1829, when seven different announcements for real estate auctions to be held on a single day appeared in the New-York Evening Post

Various tenants occupied the office spaces.  Decades later, in 1908, The Architectural Record recalled, "In 1829, 'A. J. Davis, Ithiel Town and Thompson,' had their offices in the building and were noteworthy as the only firm of architects in New York."  Also occupying space in the building were several insurance companies.  

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As the city prospered and expanded, fire became a significant concern for insurance firms.  While the city erected additional watch towers, there remained the problem of enough available water to fight large fires.  On the night of December 14, 1835, two large fires broke out, destroying 13 buildings.  They left the city's fire cisterns nearly empty.

Two nights later a gas pipe, ignited by a coal stove, exploded in a five-story warehouse on Merchant Street (today's Beaver Street) and Hanover Street.  The resultant blaze was fanned and spread by gale force winds.  The inferno became so massive the glow could be seen 80 miles away in Philadelphia.

Newspapers reported the temperature at 17 degrees below zero.  The East River and the Hudson River were frozen over, forcing fire fighters to drill holes in the thick ice to access water.   A detachment of marines from the Navy Yard was brought in to dynamite buildings, in hopes of stopping the spread of fire.

As the fire raged, architect Nicolino Calyo sketched the scene for this painting.  The dome and cupola of the Merchants' Exchange had already collapsed.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The following day the fire still roared out of control.  At 2:30 on the afternoon of December 17,  Samuel Swartwout, Collector of the City of New York, wrote a startling letter to a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.  It began:

Dear Sir--Last night, between eight and nine o'clock, a fire broke out near the Merchants' Exchange, and is still raging most violently...By this disastrous visitation, between four and five hundred buildings have been destroyed, and goods and other effects, to the amount of fifteen to twenty millions of dollars.  This calamity falls principally upon the heavy importing merchants; and they must unquestionably become greatly embarrassed, and many of them ruined.

The magnificent Merchants' Exchange Building was gutted.  On December 18, The Evening Post reported, "The lower part of this city is thronged this morning by thousands of men, women and children eager to view the scene of destruction.  Hughes' fine statue of Alexander Hamilton is among the valuable articles buried deep beneath the ruins of the Exchange."  (The statue, sadly, could not be salvaged.)

from the collection of the New York Public Library

The importance of the Merchants' Exchange was evident when, that same day while the ruins were still smoking, the Board of Assistants resolved, "that the north-western Chamber of the city Hall, known as the Superiour Court Room, be placed at the disposal of the city for their use as a Merchants' Exchange Room."

Isaiah Rogers's design included a cast iron dome.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Within months, architect Isaiah Rogers was at work on plans for a splendid replacement on the site.  His Greek Revival Merchants' Exchange Building survives at 55 Wall Street, albeit altered.

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