Wednesday, October 4, 2023

The New York Life Insurance Building -- 346 Broadway

On April 22, 1894, the New-York Tribune reported, "The New-York Life Insurance Company filed at the Buildings Department in the last week plans for a twelve-story brick office building."  That structure would replace the firm's magnificent edifice at 346-348 Broadway, erected in 1870.  The previous year five architects--Stephen D. Hatch; Daniel H. Burnham; Babb, Cook & Willard; McKim, Mead & White; and George B. Post--had been invited to submit renderings.  Stephen Decater Hatch was awarded the commission.

In order to continue business uninterrupted, construction was to be done in two parts.  The rear portion of the 1870 building facing Elm Street (later Lafayette Street) was demolished and construction begun in June 1894.  Two months later, Hatch suffered what The Evening World described as "an attack of nervous dyspepsia" and "was obliged to discontinue his daily trips to his office."  On August 11, 1894, just three months after ground was broken for the New York Life Insurance Building, Hatch died  "in convulsions at 10 o'clock...of uremic poisoning," explained The New York World.

The New York Life Insurance Company passed Stephen D. Hatch's plans to McKim, Mead & White to complete the project, while retaining William McCabe of Hatch's office to continue the supervision of construction.  With the completion of the eastern portion, in June 1896 the remaining Broadway structure was demolished, and in April 1898 the massive, 12-story New York Life Insurance Building was completed.  McKim, Mead & White's design conformed greatly to Hatch's white marble Renaissance plans, while adding Beaux Arts touches like dripping bellflowers.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

The tower pavilion on Broadway featured a double-height portico entrance with polished granite columns.  Two other less grand entrances opened onto Leonard Street and Lafayette Street.  A prominent clock tower on the Broadway side was surmounted by a massive sculpture of two titans upholding a sphere and spread eagle.

The clock tower sculpture.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Inside was a sweeping marble staircase; bronze torchiers; coffered ceilings; and marble floors, columns and walls.  The New York Life Insurance Building was monumental enough to draw the attention of visiting dignitaries.  Li Hongzhang was a statesman and the Viceroy of Zhili.  In 1896,  he represented China at the coronation of Nicholas II of Russia, and then came to America.  On August 26, 1896, The Evening Post reported, "On Sunday Li will visit Grant's tomb, and on Monday he will visit the fleet and United States Military Academy...Tuesday at one o'clock he will meet the Merchants' Club at luncheon, in its rooms in the New York Life Insurance building."

The Director's Room (above) and the General Office.  from A Monograph of the World of McKim, Mead & White, 1915 (copyright expired)

The clubrooms of the Merchants' Association were on the ground floor.  Two months before Li's visit, The New York Press had reported the group "decided to rent the northeast frontage of the New York Life Insurance building as headquarters for visiting buyers."  The opulent rooms were not only the scene of impressive dinners and luncheons like that for Li, but of important business.  On July 9, 1897, for instance, The New York Press reported that "more than 3,000 applications from out-of-town buyers who wish to take advantage of the reduction in railroad rates to New York this fall have been received at the clubrooms of the Merchants' Association."

Other spaces throughout the building were leased to attorneys, city offices, and various business offices.  Among the tenants in 1898 were lawyer Myron H. Oppenheim, the Farragut Fire Insurance Company, the city's Board of Public Improvements, and the Street Cleaning Department.

The sculptural sphere atop the clock tower was disparaged by a critic from The World in 1899 as looking like a "rat trap."  image from the collection of the Avery Library

A frightening accident occurred on January 8, 1898.  Edward H. Holbrook was a supervising agent of the New York Life Insurance Company.  Just before noon that day, as he was chatting with an associate in the fourth floor hallway, he sat on the balustrade of the sweeping marble staircase.  The Sun reported, "Just as the friend turned away Holbrook tilted backward and lost his balance.  He turned several somersaults in his descent, and landed in a sitting posture on the marble floor at the bottom of the well."  The New York Times reported that the 35-year-old "received injuries which, it is feared, will prove fatal.  Both his legs were broken, and his body was badly bruised in many places."

Edward Holbrook survived the fall, but 12 years later he would not be so lucky.  On August 31, 1910 he was on the 26th floor of the Park Row Building, doing business with the Preferred Accident Insurance Company.  He "either fell or jumped" from the window to his death," according to The Yonkers Statesman.

The monumental Broadway entrance. 

In reporting that Remington Brothers, a prominent newspaper agency, had moved into the building in March 1899, The Call noted, "This is said to be the finest office building in the world."  The same month, the law firm of Howe & Hummel moved in.  The Morning Telegraph called their new offices, "commodious and magnificent quarters."

By 1908, however, The New York Life Insurance building was seeing an influx of a much different type of tenant--underwear manufacturers.  That year the New York Men's Wear Directory listed no fewer than 20 underwear merchants at the address.

The underwear makers were replaced by glove firms at the end of World War I.  In 1920, Fairchild's National Directory and Digest of the Textile and Apparel Industries listed nine glove manufacturers here, along with various other textile and apparel related firms.

On November 18, 1928, The New York Times reported, "The New York Life Insurance Company started last week to transfer its documents and property from its old quarters at 346 Broadway to its new building on the site of the extinct Madison Square Garden."  

With The New York Life Insurance Company gone, and as the apparel makers moved northward, the building filled with various governmental offices.  By 1946 the Veterans' Administration offices were in the building, the following decade the New York Regional office of the Public Housing Administration operated here, and in the early 1960s the regional offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was at 346 Broadway.

The Leonard Street entrance carries on the Italian Renaissance design.

The City of New York acquired 346 Broadway in 1967.  By then, the bronze globe atop the clock tower had disappeared.  Along with various offices, the building became home to the Criminal Court's Summons Part.  The city's treatment of the magnificent marble, mahogany and bronze interiors fell short of sympathetic.  In reporting on the criminal court's daily operations on May 17, 1988, Newsday columnist Bonnie Josephs described the environment as "lowly."

Nevertheless, much remained.  On July 25, 1993, The New York Times journalist Christopher Gray described 346 Broadway as "one of the most imposing 19th-century skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan, a marble palazzo with remarkably intact interiors, good light on four sides and designed by McKim, Mead White."  He described the "huge, columned General Office" as "rich and Roman" and said, "even the typical halls have an Edwardian elegance about them, with marble wainscoting, marble floors and elaborate metalwork."

Even so, Grey lamented, "the building still looks thoroughly abused.  The vulgar brown aluminum windows look like the work of a fly-by-night loft converter.  And, although much of the building's grandeur survives on the interior, it is either neglected, scrawled with graffitti [sic] or just covered over with linoleum or sloppy partitions."  Fluorescent lights hid the ornamented ceilings.  Fred Winter of the Department of General Services explained that the cost of restoring the structure would be $32.6 million, (about double that in 2023 dollars).  

The rear of the building on Lafayette Street was given an marginally less grand appearance.

Two decades later, the city was looking for a buyer for the venerable and "troublesome landmark," as described by Christopher Gray on February 24, 2013.  A year later, in December 2014, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a residential conversion of the building by developers Peebles Corporation and Eland Group.  Because the important interior spaces had been landmarked, the firms necessarily relocated the president's office suite and several stairways.  A heated battle revolved around the plan to turn the clock tower into a private apartment--which would mean removing the manual winding mechanism and replacing it with an electronic operation.  The preservationists won and on March 31, 2016 the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the Landmarks Preservation Commission had the power to mandate that the clockworks be preserved.

The renovated entrance.  rendering via DBOX

The conversion, completed in 2018, resulted in 150 apartments with the new address of 108 Leonard Street.  

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I still miss Christopher Gray in the Times. He left us too soon.