Thursday, March 7, 2024

The 1892 Postal Telegraph Building - 253 Broadway


photo by epicgenius

Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1831, John William Mackay was brought to America as an infant by his parents.  They lived in the notorious and impoverished Five Points district.  Mackay's father died when he was a boy, and he survived by selling newspapers.

At the age of 20, he struck out to the West to find his fortune in prospecting.  Working for $4 a day in the Comstock Lode mine, he judiciously used his earnings to buy small claims.  In 1865 he hit a vein that earned him $1.6 million--nearly $30 million in 2024.  Not content, the formerly penniless immigrant partnered with James Graham Fair, William S. O'Brien and James C. Flood and increased their operations, emerging as three of the wealthiest men in America.

In 1884, Mackay partnered with publisher James Gordon Bennett, Jr. to organize the Commercial Cable Company to lay and operate the trans-Atlantic cable--a direct competitor of Jay Gould's Western Union operation.  When Western Union refused to relay cables initiated by Commercial Cable, MacKay purchased the Postal Telegraph Company and began buying up and consolidating other small telegraph companies until, by 1886, his firm was an equal to Western Union.

On March 23, 1892, the Postal Telegraph Company secured the land lease from Trinity Church for the northwest corner of Broadway and Murray Streets.  (The property was originally part of the tract known as "the Queen's Farm," granted to Trinity Church in 1705 by Queen Anne.)  The firm of George Edward Harding & Gooch was commissioned to design the 14-story skyscraper on the site.  The architects' neo-Renaissance design included striking and unexpected elements, like the 30-foot-wide, three-story recessed entrance; the 12th-floor loggia; and the bold copper-bronze cornice.

photo by epicgenius

The building was initially home to both The Postal Telegraph-Cable Company and The Commercial Cable Company.  The ground floor would house mainly the shipping, delivery and warehouse operations.  The second floor was designed for a bank, and the third through ninth floors held rental space.  The companies' executive and administrative offices would be on the tenth and eleventh floors, while the 19-foot-high twelfth floor would hold the switchboards and transmitting and receiving apparatus.  Atop the roof and unseen from the street, the fourteenth floor was leased to the Hardware Club.

An announcement anticipated the projected building eight months after the corner was leased.  The Sun, October 9, 1892 (copyright expired)

On October 30, 1893, a year after ground was broken, tragedy occurred on the job site.   That afternoon a homeless man, Thomas Bradley walked into the construction site.  The New-York Tribune described him as "a tall, famished, hollow-eyed creature, dressed like a scarecrow in needy circumstances."  He told the construction superintendent, Frederick Lewis Mathes simply, "My name's Bradley--I want work."  

The New York Times reported, "Not wishing to have any tramps about," Mathes ordered him out.  Bradley left, but returned six hours later.  According to the New-York Tribune, Mathes spat, "You scoundrel.  I warned you to keep away from this place!  How dare you come back?"  And with that Bradley pointed a revolver at the superintendent and fired, killing him.  The murder was followed by a shoot-out with police before Bradley was apprehended.

A week before the Postal Telegraph-Cable Company signed its lease on the property, The Home Life Insurance Company had acquired the lot next door a week earlier.  The two buildings rose simultaneously, their architects paying no heed to what the other had designed.  The disparate results angered some architectural critics, the Record & Guide complaining they were "an ill-matched couple."

The Real Estate Record & Guide captioned this rendering, "An Ill-Matched Couple" on October 6, 1894 (copyright expired)

Slowed by a construction strike, the Postal Telegraph Building was completed in the spring of 1894.  On June 19, the New-York Tribune reported, "The Postal Telegraph-Cable Company and the Commercial Cable Company, having got well settled int the big new Postal Telegraph Building, No. 253 Broadway at Murray-st, last evening invited [guests and press] to inspect the new structure."

The journalist was more impressed with the building's modern technology than its decorations.  "The building has its own dynamos, and the interior is simply studded with electric lights," he wrote.  "The elevators are of a new and improved kind, being, indeed, the first made after the design.  They are run by electricity.  A new device for signalling [sic] is used on them, so that one presses the button instead of shouting 'up' or 'down'--often too late to stop the car."

Female employees enjoyed electric lighting in the new building.  (original source unknown)

Two weeks earlier, the Hardware Club had opened.  On June 1, 1894, The New York Times described, "The rooms are finished in mahogany, and furnished with solid mahogany furniture.  Where not of mosaic tiling, the floors are carpeted with rich Wilton, in harmony with the ceiling and the wall decorations."  Along the Murray Street side were the club's dining rooms, capable of seating 200 persons.  "By going from room to room, one may see the entire city, bay and harbor of New-York, with portions of Brooklyn and New-Jersey," said the article.

Two years after the building's completion, John W. Mackay rehired Harding & Gooch to design a separate building for the Commercial Cable Company on Broad Street.  

George Edward Harding was an ardent promoter of concrete floors as a fire-proofing method, and had used them in the construction of the Postal Telegraph Building.  (He did the same with the Commercial Cable Company Building.)  His precautions proved well-founded in 1898 when an explosion occurred next door to the Home Life Insurance Building on the night of December 4.  The Illustrated American wrote, "In an incredibly short space of time the whole building was a seething mass of flames seeking fresh food.  They found it in the adjacent structure of sixteen stories, known as the Home Life Insurance Building."

George Edward Harding surveyed the scene a few days later, telling a newspaper that the Postal Telegraph Building was "saved by its cement floors."  The Record & Guide agreed, writing on December 10, "The fire was unable to gain any headway in the Postal Telegraph Building, chiefly owning to the incombustible nature of its floors."

Real Estate Record & Guide, December 10, 1898 (copyright expired) 

Concrete floors could not stop a blaze from beginning within the building, however (although it prevented it from spreading).  At 9:25 on the night of October 16, 1900, a fire broke out in a storeroom of the Hardware Club.  The New York Times mentioned, "The Hardware Club is one of the most expensively appointed clubs in the lower part of the city.  It leases the entire fourteenth floor of the Postal Telegraph Building.  A number of valuable rugs and paintings were damaged by smoke and water."  Firefighters fought the blaze for 45 minutes before finally extinguishing it.  

Although the Hardware Club was closed for two weeks for repairs, Gooch's concrete floors had done their job again.  Edgar C. Bradley, vice-president of the Postal Telegraph Company, told a reporter from the New-York Tribune the next day, "At 9:30 this morning we are carrying on business as we were at this hour yesterday morning.  Not a single operator has been thrown out of work by last night's fire."

In 1928, following its merger with the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, the Postal Telegraph Company left its headquarters  and moved to 67 Broad Street.   

Nine years later, on July 8, 1937, The New York Times reported that "the entire interior of the building has been rebuilt.  It now conforms to present-day building and fire regulations and offers modern, up-to-date office accommodations."  Architect Ely Jacques Kahn had designed the renovations.  The article said, "Outstanding among the changes affected on the exterior is the erection of a three-story loggia of glass brick encircled just above the first story by a six-foot, blue-glass panel."  It added, "The renovated structure will be known as the Paragon Building.

Ironically, two years later, on April 22, 1939, The New York Times reported that the Postal Telegraph Company had moved back into its former home, leasing six floors of the building from Trinity Church, the current owner.  A representative explained the firm was "returning to 253 Broadway because the building was built to accommodate the company's telegraphic requirements."

The arrangement would not last long.  When the Foreign Funds Control (the investigating unit of the Treasury Department), moved into 253 Broadway in February 1942, The New York Times reported, "The new location, a fourteen-story building, is entirely occupied by government agencies."  But that, too, would soon change.

Four years later, on November 24, 1946, The New York Times reported, "In one of the largest transactions of the year in the 'downtown' district the Home Life Insurance Company acquired the fourteen-story office building at 253 Broadway...from the Trinity Church Corporation for an indicated cash price of more than $1,700,000."  The article noted, "Ownership of the combined buildings will remove the necessity for construction of a new home office."  Joined internally, the two 1892 structures took the name of the Home Life Insurance Building.

photo by beyond my ken

The Home Life Insurance Company sold the building in October 1985 to the newly formed 253 Broadway Associates.  Purchased by the city in 1988 for $26 million, the combined buildings were designated an individual landmark in 1991.

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