Monday, October 23, 2023

The Lost Staats-Zeitung Building - Centre Street and Tryon Row


from the collection of the New York Public Library

The German language newspaper Staats-Zeitung (State Newspaper) was founded in 1834 by a group of well-establish German immigrants.  Its success was such that in 1857 a handsome structure was erected at 17 Chatham Street.  The site was at the blunt end of the trapezoidal block bounded by Chatham Street, Centre Street and Tryon Row, and within the neighborhood populated by newspapers.

The 1857 Staats-Zeitung Building.  (original source unknown)

Only 14 years later, in 1871, the newspaper had outgrown its headquarters.  Architect Henry Fernbach was commissioned to design a larger, grander replacement.  He took inspiration from the palatial Parisian hotels and civic buildings designed in the new Second Empire style.  Engulfing the Tryon Row blockfront, it rose five stories, the top level taking the form of a dormered mansard.  Fernbach rounded the corners, affording not only entrances to ground floor businesses but additional light and ventilation.  The rusticated ground floor was clad in Quincy blue granite and the upper floors in gray granite from Concord, New Hampshire.  A two-story portico with paired columns supported a balustraded balcony at the third floor.  Here two life-size bronze sculptures of Benjamin Franklin and Johannes Guttenberg--representing  the American and German printing industries--stood upon the stone balustrade.

The Staats-Zeitung property can be seen at lower left.  Real Estate Record & Guide, December 29, 1906 (copyright expired)

Construction commenced in August 1871.  As the building took shape on November 9, 1872, the Record & Guide said the building "looms up as quite an important feature in that very prominent part of the city."  The article explained that the press rooms "and other working machinery of the establishment" would be in the cellar and basement.  Half of the first floor would hold the offices of the Staats-Zeitung, "which will be by far the largest and most beautiful newspaper office yet seen in New York."  The second and third floors were to be leased to the city for the offices of the Department of Taxes and Assessments and Counsel to the Corporation.  The fourth floor would house the newspaper's editorial rooms, while the mansard level "will be employed for compositors."  The portion of the ground floor not used by the newspaper was "intended for banks, insurance offices, and similar institutions."  Among the modern amenities in the Staats-Zeitung Building was an elevator.

A month before the Record & Guide's assessment, a series of incidents at the construction site caused the New York Dispatch to title an article on August 18, "The New Staats Zeitung Building Becoming Infamous."  The openings on the sidewalk that would eventually access the basement and cellar levels were poorly guarded.  The article noted, "On the Centre street side of the building is an opening between thirty and forty feet in depth, unprotected save by some pieces of the stone used in the work of construction and by a pole placed on top of them."

When darkness fell, unwary pedestrians could not easily discern the danger.  The New York Dispatch reported, "Shortly before one o'clock on Saturday morning, a man was found by the the basement of the new Staats Zeitung building, at Tryon Row and Centre street, into which he had fallen."  The victim was so seriously injured that he was immobile.  It was just the most recent in a string of similar incidents, two of which had proved fatal.  The article continued:

On Thursday morning an unknown man was found dead in the basement of the same building, having been killed by falling into it.  A woman named Rosanna Murphy fell into the same cellar on Tuesday night, and was badly injured.  On Friday a woman named Anne E. Devlin died in Bellevue Hospital from injuries received in the same place and manner. 

The building was completed in 1873.  The critic from the Real Estate Record & Guide was impressed.  "It is one of those structures which please by their very simplicity, and by the manifest adaption of all the parts to the end desired,--which is the ground work of all good design."  A decade later, in reporting on the architect's death, the journal called the Staats-Zeitung building "perhaps Mr. Fernbach's masterpiece."

The number of newspaper offices massed along Chatham Street prompted the Board of Assessors to make a change in 1880.  On March 2, it announced that the blocks of Chatham Street (later renamed Park Row) "from Herald Office to Staats Zeitung Office" would be known as Publisher's Row.

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

While the newspaper that erected the structure was read by German immigrants, the bank on the ground floor, the Banca Italo-American, was patronized by Italian immigrants.  On the morning of July 12, 1882, the Banca Italo-American "was burglariously entered and plundered of $6,500," reported the New-York Tribune.  The heist would equal about $192,000 in 2023.  The bank robbers, rather foolishly, continued to haunt the area.  On July 23, the newspaper reported, "Three men had been seen loitering in the neighborhood, and from the slight description given to Inspector [Thomas F.] Byrnes, he suspected the men, had them watched, and eventually arrested."  The New-York Tribune was impressed with Brynes's detective work, saying, "He thoroughly understands his business, and everything should be removed that in any way hampers him in his efforts to detect and capture law-breakers."

Near panic overtook the Staats-Zeitung Building in January 1893 when a fireman (a building worker tasked with keeping the boilers and furnaces working) was "taken down with typhus fever," as reported by The New York Times.  The situation was considered so serious that at noon on January 20 the Sinking Fund Commissioners met to discuss if it were necessary to secure temporary quarters for the Tax and Law Departments elsewhere.  Dr. Cyrus Edson, who had inspected the offices, concluded that "these rooms are so cut off from the rest of the building as to make it possible to isolate a case of contagious disease in them without danger to occupants of other rooms in the building."  Nevertheless, upon the expiration of the city's leases on May 1 that year, the civic offices moved out.

In the fall of 1899, the New Yorkers turned out in masses, and buildings were festooned with bunting and flags when Commodore George Dewey was honored with a parade following his victory over Spain in the Battle of Manila.  On October 4, The New York Times reported, "all over the Staats Zeitung building blossomed the flag of patriotism and the electric bulb of unrestrained joy...It is more than well that the festal decorations of this particular neighbor were about the handsomest in the vicinity of the big bridge, for they demonstrated cordiality and heartiness of welcome to the exemplar of the newest and best Americanism."

The building was decked with bunding and rooftop strings of American flags for the Dewey parade.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As the newspaper's 70th anniversary neared in the spring of 1905, German-Americans strategized to express their appreciation.  On April 14, the New-York Tribune reported:

On Sunday afternoon next City Hall Park will wear a different aspect from its usual weekday rush.  The German musicians have arranged a monster serenade to take place in front of the Staats-Zeitung Building, at the Brooklyn Bridge...This spontaneous tribute from the music-loving Germans to their oldest paper has evoked great enthusiasm among them.  The Staats-Zeitung Building will be appropriately decorated.

The proximity of the building to the Brooklyn Bridge noted in the article would prove its undoing.  On November 14, 1905, the New-York Tribune reported that Staats-Zeitung editor Herman Ridder denounced other property owners in the neighborhood who were selling out to the city for Mayor Hugh J. Grant's proposed extension of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In the end, however, the newspaper was nearly alone in its opposition.  On December 29, 1906, the Record & Guide reported that the city had taken two triangular blocks, including the Staats-Zeitung property, "for Brooklyn Bridge purposes."  The journal said, "Last March in order to protect themselves, the owners of the Staats Zeitung building purchased an irregular plot at Lafayette, Duane and Pearl sts...Plans have been drawn by Schickel & Ditmars."

A turn-of-the-century postcard view captured the building from City Hall Park.

Finally, on November 9, 1907, The Fourth Estate reported, "Between two issues of the New York Staats-Zeitung its plant was moved without hitch or accident last Sunday from the old building in Tyron Row to the remodeled Ledger Building...The old home of the Staats-Zeitgung, as The Fourth Estate has told, has been sold to the city and will be destroyed to make room for the new approach to the Brooklyn Bridge."

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