Monday, June 10, 2024

The Lost Union Trust Company Bldg - 78-82 Broadway


The Architectural Record, 1898 (copyright expired)

Organized in 1864, the Union Trust Company occupied the building at 73 Broadway before breaking ground for a new headquarters slightly north at 78-82 Broadway in 1888.  Designed by George Browne Post, it would be what some critics deemed his masterpiece.  The beauty of its Romanesque Revival architecture vied for attention with its soaring height.  As it neared completion on November 16, 1889, the Real Estate Record & Guide noted:

Its gradual progress skywards has been watched with interest by the crowds which passed it by day after day, and it is now nearly up to the roof.  It is to be eight stories high, exclusive of a basement, ground floor, banking floor and roof story--in all, practically twelve floors.

A decade later, in 1899, architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler would credit Post with devising the tripartite formula for tall buildings--base, shaft and capital--in his Union Trust Company building.  The structure ran through the block, with a second facade on New Street.  They were identical other than the materials used.  The Record & Guide explained, "The Broadway front of the building is of granite, considerable iron also being used.  The New street front is to be of buff brick and terra cotta."

On Broadway, the three great arches of the base were echoed in the multi-level arches of the midsection.  Above the arcaded tenth floor rose a châteauesque mansard with prominent dormers.

American Architect & Building News, February 1, 1890 (copyright expired)

According to the Record & Guide, the Union Trust Company had paid $1,175,000 for the property and spent another $600,000 in construction.  The total outlay would translate to $60.6 million in 2024.  The journal opined, "When the building is finally completed it will certainly be one of the handsomest ornaments to the lower part of Broadway."

Construction was completed in the fall of 1890.  On October 22, The New York Times wrote:

Splendor and security go hand in hand in the magnificent structure erected by the Union Trust Company of New-York at 80 Broadway.  In its exterior the building is one of the best examples of pure Romanesque architecture extant, while its interior fittings, every feature of which was designed by the architect, George B. Post, are in perfect keeping and harmony with the general plan.

The Architectural Record remarked, "Indeed, we have no business building in New York which is more comely in design than the Union Trust."

The 30-foot-high banking room, which The New York Times said was "admirably lighted," ran from Broadway to New Street.  The article explained, "The flooring is a rich Mosaic, all the woodwork is of mahogany, the counters are of Italian marble, and all the railings and partitions are of heavy lacquered brass."  On the New Street side, looking out onto the Stock Exchange, was the Trustees Room, with "parqueted flooring, mahogany wainscoting, paneled ceiling, and silver-finished walls."

The Record & Guide reported, "The eight floors and the roof story vary in height from 12 to 13-1/2 feet, and will contain single offices and suites."

The Union Trust Company building originally dwarfed its neighbors.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Five years later, the height of Post's structure had been surpassed, but its beauty had not.  Writing in The Brickbuilder in January 1895, John Beverley Robinson said, 

The Union Trust its day was reckoned a very high building, with its ten or twelves stories, but is little to brag as far as height is concerned, alongside of its nineteen or twenty-storied neighbor.  As to other matters than height though, it is much to brag of.  I have heard it counted by those who know, and I am inclined to count it myself, as the best office building that Mr. George B. Post, the architect, ever did, perhaps the best that anybody ever did.

The Record & Guide had noted in 1889, "The construction is of a fire-proof character throughout, and there will be practically nothing in the building to burn, except it be the furniture and possibly the doors and trimmings."  The article noted the steel beam construction of the floors, wrought iron columns encased in "burnt clay coverings," and the wrought and cast iron stairways with marble treads. 

That fire-proof quality of the building would be seriously tested a quarter of a century later.  On September 29, 1914, The New York Times titled an article, "Union Trust Co. Building Ablaze / Fire Starts on an Upper Floor of Costly Structure at 80 Broadway / Soon Spreads To Roof."

A watchman discovered the fire at 3:15 in the morning and ran to the fire call box at Rector Street and Broadway.  The New York Times reported, "Before the firemen arrived the flames, which spread with great rapidity, had extended to the roof and were mushrooming out over Broadway."  The response had been rapid, the article saying, "within three or four minutes after the alarm was turned in Broadway for two or three blocks in either direction from the burning structure was filled with fire engines, hose carts, and water towers."

The firefighters met unexpected hindrances.  While one group was attaching a hose to the fire hydrant at Wall and New Streets, the hydrant "burst and sent a flood of water flowing down Wall Street," said the article.  A few minutes later, another hydrant exploded at Broadway and Wall Street, spraying the front of Trinity Church.  Nevertheless, Post's fire resistant construction worked and the blaze was extinguished without major damage.  The New York Times mentioned that inside the offices and vaults of the Union Trust Company were "millions in securities and cash."

The New Street entrance was a mirror-image of Broadway.  The Architectural Record, 1898 (copyright expired)

The upper floors were occupied by tenants like attorneys and brokers.  Among them in the post-World War I years was Nicholas F. Brady.  In December 1921, a well-dressed man entered the French Jewelry Company at 2202 Broadway and ordered four large diamonds to be made into a lavalliere (a pendant worn on a chain).  He left a deposit of $100, giving his name as Nicholas F. Brady of 80 Broadway.

On December 13, The New York Times reported, "He returned yesterday, but instead of paying for the stones, he drew a pistol and ordered Mr. Johnnides, the proprietor, to throw up his hands."  The crook then scooped up the diamonds from a safe drawer, along with a diamond bracelet and a large, unset diamond, and fled.

Expectedly, detectives paid a visit to Nicholas F. Brady's office in the Union Trust Company Building.  He did not match the description of the perpetrator and was cleared of suspicion.  "Mr. Brady's secretary said he could not account for a hold-up man using the name of his employer," reported The New York Times, "and he knew of no one who had a grudge against Mr. Brady."

At the time of the impersonation, the end of the line was nearing for the building.  Demolition began in 1929, but the venerable structure did not go without a fight.  On June 30, The New York Times reported, "the thickness of walls almost half a century old has slowed up the work of destruction."  Contractor Albert A. Volk told the reporter, "he has encountered no building walls so solidly constructed as these."  The article continued, "The walls, he stated yesterday, were four feet thick at the top, but at the bottom were more than ten feet through with brick and cement so firmly welded together ordinary methods of wrecking have been unavailing."

Eventually, though, the building once described as "perhaps the best anybody ever did" was gone, replaced with the massive, block-engulfing Irving Trust Building.

many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for suggesting this post
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