Monday, January 8, 2024

The Lost 1907 Chemical Bank Building - 270 Broadway


The New York Architect, 1907 (copyright expired)

Established by six businessmen in 1824, Chemical Bank got its name from the New York Chemical Manufacturing Company, founded by the same men a year earlier.  The bank's success was such that in 1850 it moved into a new building at 270 Broadway.  That, too, soon proved inadequate.  In 1872 a lot to the rear on Chambers Street was acquired and an extension built, and in 1887 a second addition on Chambers Street was erected.

The 1850 structure.  King's Handbook of New York. 1892 (copyright expired)

But, once again, "The quarters that in 1887 had seemed ample for all future growth had become too cramped and inconvenient for the satisfactory conduct of the Bank's business," according to the 1913 History of the Chemical Bank 1823-1913.  The writer explained, "finally in January, 1905, it was decided to put a new building on the old site at 270 Broadway."

Chemical Bank moved its operations temporarily to 303 Broadway and commissioned the architectural firm of Trowbridge and Livingston to design "a home that would be a credit to its reputation, and a building that would be a permanent addition to the architectural beauty of New York," according to the History of the Chemical Bank.  

On June 20, 1905, The Evening World reported that the plans had been filed, noting, "The new building will be a four-story and basement edifice of granite, classic in design, with a facade adorned with engaged columns and spanned by a great dome."  The L-shaped plot wrapped the National Shoe and Leather Bank building on the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street.  The site of the narrow Broadway building would become an impressive, 91-foot-long, single-story corridor that opened into the soaring banking hall.  Placing the construction costs at $350,000 (approximately $12 million in 2024), the article promised, "The building will be completed by 1906."

The Chambers Street elevation.  The New York Architect, 1907 (copyright expired)

That completion date turned out to be optimistic.  The brownstone cornerstone inscribed "Chemical Bank" from the 1850 building was salvaged and reused in the new structure.  It was laid on July 12, 1906, and a second copper box placed inside containing "papers, records, coin, and bills."  Five months later, interior finishing details were being installed, including the four large murals by Taber Sears.

On December 30, 1906, The New York Times described the great dome over the "lofty hall," which was "supported on large arches, between which are pendentives suitable for decorations."  In each of those spaces Sears was at work painting allegories of the elements--Water, Earth, Air, and Fire.  He was also responsible for the long corridor, which was unlike anything in New York.  The article said it "is lined with white clouded marbles and has a vaulted ceiling painted by Taber Sears in the Pompeiian style--red, black, and buff, with figures in compartments standing on pedestals--like the original wall paintings from Pompeii."

Two of Sears's circular allegories can be seen in the spandrels below the dome.  photo by Byron company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Quietly, on Saturday, April 20, 1907, trucks guarded by uniformed and plain-clothed officers transported $7 million in cash from the temporary offices to the new building.  The following Monday the bank opened for business.

On April 23, The New York Times declared, "The new building is one of the finest of its kind in the United States.  Some of the visitors yesterday said it was the equal of the National Park Bank Building in Broadway...hitherto the show place among the city's banking institutions."  The vestibule, said the article, was finished in Pavonazzo marble, and the corridor in "white-veined statuary marble."  The banking room was 70 feet by 170 feet and rose 85 feet to the stained glass dome. 

The 91-foot long corridor decorated in Pompeiian motifs led from Broadway to the banking hall.  photo by Byron company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The four-story section held the officers' and the employees' dining rooms.  While providing its workers with on-site meals may have been a perk, the trustees may have had a less altruistic purpose, as well.  Now, said the article, "clerks do not leave the bank from the time they arrive in the morning until quitting in the late afternoon."  

Joseph B. Martindale had begun with the bank as a junior clerk in May 1878.  When the new building opened, he had been the bank's president for three months.  It was a prestigious position, with Chemical Banking rated as one of the 100 largest banks in the United States and resourced of just under $50 million (more than a billion in 2024 dollars).

In June 1917 Martindale was hospitalized, and he died a month later.  Vice President H. K. Twitchell supervised the next accounting of the bank's books, only to uncover an unsettling secret.  

Twenty-five years earlier, wealthy spinster Ellen D. Hunt had entrusted Joseph Martindale with the management of the fortune left to her by her uncle, Wilson G. Hunt.  It was estimated by The New York Times to be "several millions."  Twitchell discovered that "a practice existed by which, under Martindale's orders, the teller would bring to him the statements of the [Hunt] account.  This aroused suspicion at once, and resulted in an investigation."

What was uncovered was shocking.  Over a period of 16 years, Martindale had skimmed funds from Ellen Hunt's account.  In September, the Controller of the Currency in Washington issued a statement that said in part:

Investigations recently made show that J. B. Martindale, the late President of the Chemical National Bank of New York City, who died in July, 1917, was an embezzler and forger to the extend of about $300,000.

The defalcation did not affect the bank's operation nor even its reputation.  The money was paid back from its surplus, and before long the disquieting incident was essentially forgotten.

The New York Architect, 1907 (copyright expired)

In March 1920, Chemical National Bank merged with Citizens National Bank.  The Sun reported that the consolidated institutions would keep the Chemical National Bank name and operate from "the Chemical's long established headquarters, 270 Broadway."

The merger created a familiar issue, however--space.  On January 29, 1921, The New York Times reported that Chemical National Bank had purchased the abutting, 13-story Shoe and Leather Bank building.  The article noted, "The institution has been somewhat cramped for room since its merger with the Citizens' National Bank, and this was one of the reasons for purchasing the corner property."

On April 3, 1922, Aubrey R. Tarver, described by The Evening World as "a young farmer from Wellsburg, near Elmira," walked into the Chemical National Bank to apply for a loan.  He needed the funds to invest in stock of the Corn Products Company.  It was the amount of the loan that surprised bank officials--$11 million.  Tarver was told it was too large an amount for the bank to handle and he left.  There was most likely no lack of chuckling among the staff afterward.

The matter ceased to be amusing two days later when Tarver returned.  The Evening World said, "he became insistent to-day."  Not wanting to cause a scene, Samuel Shaw Jr., the cashier, told the young man he would call "other financiers" and see what he could arrange.  Instead, he telephoned the Beach Street police station.  Plain clothes detectives arrived and told the farmer they could take him to "a man who could help him."  Unknown to Tarver, that man was Magistrate McAndrews in the Tombs Court.  The Evening World reported, "Tarver was committed to the Tombs on a technical charge of disorderly conduct until his family can be heard from."

The stained glass dome was 85 feet above the marble floor.  photo by Byron company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Eighty years after acquiring 270 Broadway and 21 years after it moved into its magnificent building, on June 12, 1928 The New York Times reported that Chemical National Bank had sold the southwest corner of Broadway and Chambers Street to the newly organized 270 Broadway Corporation.  The article said, "the buyers plan to erect a fireproof office building of approximately twenty-four stories."

The replacement structure designed by E. H. Faile & Company, which turned out to be 28 stories, survives.

The replacement building is seen in this photograph behind the Tweed Courthouse photo by CommonsHealper

photographs by the author
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