The Architectural Record, July 7, 1913 (copyright expired)
The New York Guaranty and Indemnity Company was founded in 1863. By the first decade of the 20th century (now known as the Guaranty Trust Company), it was a major player in the New York banking industry.
On May 6, 1911 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the bank had purchased the southeast corner of Broadway and Liberty Street. On the site was the seven-story, granite Mutual Life Insurance building, erected the same year that the New York Guaranty and Indemnity Company was founded. The article noted, "according to gossip, the new owner paid close to $2,250,000." The staggering amount would translate to more than $66 million in 2023.
On the same day the bank announced that the architectural firm of York & Sawyer had been commissioned to design the replacement bank and office building. The Record & Guide reported, "At this time it has not been definitely decided whether to erect a skyscraper or to erect a banking structure for the sole use of the trust company. Some of the directors favor one and some the other." Coming to a consensus was urgent, as the projected completion date for the structure was May 1, 1912.
The directors decided to forego a skyscraper. Instead, York & Sawyer designed an eight-story neo-Classic bank building clad in stone. The dignified design featured entrances on Broadway and Liberty Street deeply recessed behind monumental Ionic columns. Corinthian piers separated the openings of the fifth through seventh floors.
As the structure rose, the Record & Guide commented, "The building is an exceptional one in that it will be occupied exclusively by one corporation, and will, therefore, be adapted solely to its own purposes." Among those adaptations were the "wide unobstructed floor spaces," said the article. To accomplish that, York & Sawyer brought in what the Record & Guide described as "unusually long span trusses and girders." They allowed for 51-foot long spaces on the first through third floors uncluttered with columns. The public would see the results in the first floor's cavernous banking room.
Construction missed its deadline of May 1, 1912. Exactly one month afterward the Record & Guide reported that the steel framework had been completed. Part of the delay had to do with the excavation. The article explained that the foundations went 60 to 90 feet below grade, and "the surface of the rock was found to be inclined very considerably from the horizonal." The structure, completed in 1913, cost the bank $1 million to construct--nearly three times that much today.
Despite the problems, the result was an exceptionally stately structure. It won Sawyer & York the medal of honor for architecture at the American Institute of Architects dinner on February 13, 1914.
On July 15, 1916, the Imperial Russian Government opened a bank account here. Less than a year later, the it was overthrown, succeeded by the Provisional Government of Russia. The United States recognized Boris Bakhmeteff as Ambassador of Russia on July 5, 1917, and shortly afterward the Guaranty Trust Company informed the new government that its account was overdrawn. Five million dollars was deposited into the account a week later.
But more trouble was on the horizon. On November 7, 1917 the Provisional Government was overthrown, succeeded by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The United States would not recognize the Soviet Union, and so the $5 million sat in the account for nearly three decades.
In the meantime, Alexander J. Hemphill was chairman of the board of the Guaranty Trust Company in the post-World War I years. On January 22, 1920, he became ill in his office and was quickly diagnosed with influenza. The world had just emerged from the devastating 1918-1919 pandemic that had claimed at least 50 million lives world-wide. An outbreak within the building could have caused panic among the staff. Understandably, the bank took immediate action. The New York Times reported that he "was removed to his house." Happily, Hemphill's case was not severe and he recovered.
Accountant Thomas Leonard was employed here in 1929. The unmarried 23-year-old lived with his parents in Jersey City. In 1933 Leonard's mother died, "and the shock upset him," according to The New York Times. Apparently, the emotional trauma was worse than anyone suspected.
The accounting department where Leonard worked was on the top floor, nearly invisible from street level. He and his co-workers were already at their desks at 6 a.m. on July 12, 1934. While no one was watching, the young man climbed out the window. The New York Times reported, "One of the clerks looked up and saw him clinging to the window frame, his face pale and drawn, his eyes fixed on the concrete courtyard. He edged back as the other clerks stood up."
"Don't come near me. Get away or I'll jump," he warned.
One of the clerks telephoned the police and soon five squad cars and a fire truck arrived. As the commotion increased on the street, Leonard's good friend and colleague Franklin Stanley stepped out onto the ledge. He distracted Leonard while Patrolman Thomas Wilson inched closer from the other side. As Stanley calmly talked to Leonard, he gradually edged closer and closer to his friend, and so did Wilson. Finally they were near enough that both men lunged, pushing Leonard back into the office.
The top floor and the ledge on which Thomas Leonard teetered can be seen in this photograph by Irving Underhill. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
The article said, "The clerks there held him until Dr. Wittman came from Beekman Street Hospital to treat him for hysteria. Later he was taken to the psychopathic ward in Bellevue Hospital."
A merger of the Guaranty Trust Company and J. P. Morgan & Co. in 1959, resulted in the Morgan Guaranty Trust. Two years later the bank sold its building to Erwin S. Wolfson of the Wolfson Management Corporation. Little by little, that firm was acquiring property on the block.
Then, on May 28, 1963, The New York Times reported, "A 40-story office building is planned at 140 Broadway in the entire square block bounded by Broadway, Liberty, Nassau and Cedar Streets." The article noted, "Morgan Guaranty will move its offices to 23 Wall Street."
The newly-formed 140 Broadway Corporation hired the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design the skyscraper, which was completed in 1967.
many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for suggesting this post
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