In 1928 Earl Winfield Spencer and his wife, the former Agnes Lucy Hughes, lived in the large, Queen Anne style house at 59 West 86th Street. It had been designed by John G. Prague in 1888. The Spencers' names were in the news nation-wide that year concerning whom the Waterbury Evening Democrat called the "most talked of woman in the world."
Their son, a founder of the shipbroking firm of Simpson, Spence & Young, had just married the recently divorced Wallis Warfield Spencer in London. His bride was well known for her fashion and entertaining. Syndicated journalist Laura Lou Brookman noted that Wallis Simpson was, as well, a "confidante" of Edward, the Prince of Wales. (The Simpsons' marriage would last until 1937, and Wallis's open affair with King Edward VIII would lead to his abdication.)
At the time of their son's marriage, Earl and Agnes Spencer's home was threatened. The Corn Exchange Bank & Trust Co. eyed it and the house next door at 57 West 86th Street as the site of a branch building. The properties were acquired and the architectural firm of Fellheimer & Wagner was commissioned to design a dual-purpose structure--one that would house both the bank branch and income-producing apartments.
On April 8, 1929 the New York Evening Post reported that the Corn Exchange Bank had purchased the two houses "as a site for another upper West Side branch." Construction was completed within eight months. On December 10 the New York Evening Post reported that the branch had opened. "The branch is fully equipped to do a full banking business," said the article. The Standard Union added, "this new branch on Eighty-sixth street afford even greater convenience for those who live and work in that part of the city."
The Art Deco style Corn Exchange Bank & Trust Co. building was rather spartan. The double-height first floor (with mezzanine inside) featured vast windows fronting the banking room, a cloth-canopied entrance to the bank at the west, and an understated residential entrance on the other side.
A hint of the appearance of the Simpson house can be seen at right. image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.
Fellheimer & Wagner upset the otherwise rigidly symmetric design by placing a carved panel of a wheat sheaf (a symbol of abundance) above the bank entrance, and an inset metal grill over the residential doorway.
Three centered, fluted piers that rose from the second floor disappeared into the air above the roofline, with no capitals nor other architectural elements to cap them. They interrupted the zig-zag Art Deco parapet that took the place of a cornice.
There were four apartments per floor in the building. The tenants came and went quietly over the succeeding decades, drawing no undue attention to the address.
The Corn Exchange Bank was founded in 1853 in New York State. By now it had multiple branches throughout the city, including one nearby at Broadway and 81st Street. In 1954 the bank merged with Chemical Bank, becoming the Chemical Corn Bank. It was renamed again in 1959, now the Chemical Bank Trust Company.
By the first years of the 21st century, the ground floor had become home to a J. P. Morgan Chase branch. Among its employees in 2011 was personal banker Fordin Francois, who conceived of a scheme to augment his income. He would share his clients' personal identification information with cohorts, who would then either withdraw money directly from the accounts, or transfer clients' money into their own accounts. Between January and June 2012, Francois stole more than $700,000 from multiple account holders.
When he was arrested on June 27, 2012 he had a briefcase containing the personal identification information of numerous Chase customers. The 26-year-old was charged with "Grand Larceny in the Second Degree, Identity Theft in the First Degree, Computer Trespass, and Unlawful Possession of Personal Identification Information in the Third Degree," according to District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.
When onslaught of coronavirus hit J. P. Morgan Chase hard. On March 18, 2020 Reuters reported that the bank would permanently or temporarily close "about 1,000 branches." Included was 57-59 West 86th Street. The space is still vacant in 2023.
There are still 12 apartments in the upper floors. And Fellheimer & Wagner's handsome if somewhat stoic Art Deco building survives almost totally intact.
photograph by the author
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