Monday, April 8, 2024

The Lost Commercial Cable Building - 20-22 Broad Street


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

John William Mackay was brought to America by his parents as an infant.  Destitute, they lived in the impoverished and dangerous Five Points district.  The immigrant boy who initially survived by selling newspapers made a massive fortune mining in the West, emerging as one of the wealthiest men in America.

Mackay organized the Commercial Cable Company with James Gordon Bennett, Jr. in 1884 to lay and operate the trans-Atlantic cable.  It was a direct competitor of Jay Gould's Western Union operation.  When Western Union refused to relay messages initiated by Commercial Cable, Mackay bought 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.

In 1894 Mackay moved both companies into his new Postal Telegraph Building, designed by George Edward Harding & Gooch at 253 Broadway.  It was a temporary arrangement and a year later ground was broken for the Commercial Cable Building, designed by the same architects.  The site, just south of the New York Stock Exchange, extended from Broad Street through to New Street. 

The Commercial Cable Building was designed to impress.  On November 27, 1895, The Electrical Engineer described the rendering as showing "a handsome and imposing twenty-one story structure, above which rise two towers surmounted by domes representing the two hemispheres.  The towers will be connected by a mansard roof more than three hundred feet above the street level."   While the journalist said, "The general style of the building is the Italian Renaissance," the architects liberally lavished it with Beaux Arts decorations.

George Edward Harding & Gooch included the latest in conveniences and technology.  There would be six "fast electric elevators," as well as lavatories and "retiring rooms" on each floor.  The Commercial Cable Company would occupy the entire ground floor "which will be of unusual height," said The Electrical Engineer and "will be furnished entirely in marble."  The building included nineteen stories of rental offices.  The "total investment in land and structure will represent an outlay of at least $2,000,000," said that article--just under $72 million in 2024.

The architects' 1895 rendering depicted fenestration along the southern side--a feature that would cause troubles later.  Record & Guide, June 6, 1896 (copyright expired)

The Commercial Cable Building was completed in 1897 to general acclaim.  On December 24, the New-York Tribune, saying the structure "lifts its head far up into the clouds," called it "an ornament to the street."  The article added, "It is handsome in design, and represents some of the best ideas of modern building."  But while both the exterior and interior were considered beautiful, the building's function for the Commercial Cable Company was paramount.  "The lines of the Commercial Cable Company diverge to all parts of the civilized world, and the best possible service is furnished both at home and abroad," said the article.

The Architectural Record's critic was less enthusiastic, saying the designer "has put a huge brass knob at either end of the top, giving his skyline two competing features in place of one dominant feature."  He decried that the Commercial Cable Building, "reeks of a rowdy picturesqueness like cowboy slang."

The building had barely opened when it was the scene of an unusual suicide.  On September 24, The Sun titled an article, "Cat Suspected of Suicide" and explained that the janitor's "well-known cat named Thomas" had recently been intimate with a female tabby that disappeared.  The article said, "Yesterday morning Thomas was seen about the lower floors of the building.  Shortly before noon one of the elevator men saw the cat go upstairs.  That was the last seen of it alive."  Before long, Thomas "dropped from the roof of the Commercial Cable Building into New street."

American Architect and Building News, December 11, 1897 (copyright expired)

The tenants on the southern side of the building enjoyed sweeping views of New York Harbor.  But that was threatened in January 1902 when the property next door was sold to Blair & Co.  On May 16, the New-York Tribune reported, "Many of the tenants of the Commercial Cable Building are angry, because much of the light and air on the south side of the building is soon to be cut off by the erection of a new home for Blair & Co., bankers."  When the property was purchased, the Commercial Cable Company was promised that a light court would provide light and air.  But now, said the New-York Tribune, "The plans for the building to be put up by Blair & Co. call, however, for a court, but it will be within instead of outside the building."

Blair & Co. erected its building inches from the Commercial Cable Building, greatly reducing the rental values of the offices on that side.  

photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

John Borowski was hired as a window cleaner in May 1905.  He aspired to be an elevator operator and four months later, when he could make time, began learning.  On March 25, 1906, the New-York Tribune reported, "Yesterday he started to practise [sic] with one of the elevators in the annex.  On the twelfth floor he left the car for some purpose, and when he came back evidently started it before he was well in the car."  The young man was crushed between the floor of the car and the top of the door.

Such accidents in the decades before the invention of elevator safety devices were not uncommon.  Less than two years later, on January 13, 1908, the newspaper reported that 15-year-old Harry De Freis "was killed yesterday afternoon by falling down the elevator shaft."  He had opened the grate and looked down to see where the car was, and lost his balance.

Photographer Irving Underhill captured the Commercial Cable Building from between the cornices of two structures in 1903.  King's Views of New York, 1903 (copyright expired)

Bootleg liquor and liberated flappers of the Roaring '20s visited the Commercial Cable Building in 1921 with nearly disastrous results.  Florence Rogers, a 21-year-old telephone operator, was invited to what she described as "an after-hours party in a brokerage office" on the 16th floor here on August 3.  Milton Roth, a clerk in William H. Kemp & Co., had a key to the offices and arranged the party.  There were three men and three women.

The New-York Tribune reported, "In the office cocktails were served, Miss Rogers said, and there was violin and harmonica music.  But things got ugly.  According to her, "she drank cocktails because she was told that if she did not swallow the liquor it would be forced down her throat."

At about midnight the two young women and one of the men left.  Things then became worse for Florence Rogers.  The men, one of whom had a pistol, attacked her, tearing off her blouse.  When she attempted to get to the telephone, one of the men disconnected it from the wall and Florence was "struck on the face."  Luckily, her screams attracted the attention of late-working employees in the building and as they came down the corridor, the two men fled.  When police arrived, "they found Miss Rogers in such a hysterical state that an ambulance was called."  (Not surprisingly, Milton Roth was fired the next day, however it does not appear he was arrested.)

In its November 1926 issue, The Commercial Telegraphers Journal reported that the Postal Telegraph Company was leaving its Broadway home and moving into the Commercial Cable Building.  "It is now felt that greater operating efficient will result from having both land lines and cable systems terminate under the same roof," said the article.

The following year, the New York Stock Exchange leased three floors in the building, including the coveted first floor--heretofore the bastion of the Commercial Cable Company.  Then, on October 4, 1928, The New York Times reported that negotiations were nearly completed between the Mackay Companies and the New York Stock Exchange for the purchase of 20 Broad Street.  "The Stock Exchange, it is understood, plans to take over the building as an annex to its present quarters at Wall and Broad Streets."  The article added, "There is a possibility, it was said yesterday, that if the Exchange buys a building it will raze it and build an annex especially to meet its needs."

That did not happen, however.  The negotiations fell through and The New York Stock Exchange, instead, continued renting space in the Commercial Cable Building.  In 1941, when the Exchange renewed its lease of five floors, The New York Times commented, "The building is not in use above the fifteenth floor."

What seemed inevitable came to pass in 1954 when The New York Times on August 16 announced that The Hanover Bank had purchased "more than half of the Broadway blockfront from Wall Street to Exchange Place."  The bank planned a 400,000 square feet skyscraper on the site, said the article.  "It is expected to be completed in 1956."

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  1. Doug Floor Plan
    I found a reference that stated Irving Underhill's photograph was taken from the court of the Mills Building, which, at that time, was an L-shaped building which fronted both Broad and Wall Streets.

  2. Wondeful piece. Clear as a bell.