Wednesday, July 3, 2024

The 1923 Bowery Savings Bank Building - 110 East 42nd Street


photo by Epicgenius

Chartered in 1834, the Bowery Savings Bank was named after the street upon which its building stood.  As the turn of the century approached, the bank was highly successful and in 1893-95 erected a grand Roman-inspired building at 130 Bowery designed by McKim, Mead & White.  Its jaw-dropping banking room was based on the Basilica of Constantine in Rome.

When the new bank building opened, the Grand Union Hotel had stood on 42nd Street across from Grand Central Depot since 1869.  The hotel was torn down in 1916 and the massive lot sat vacant until 1920, when York & Sawyer filled the southwest corner of 42nd Street and Park Avenue with the Pershing Square Building.  The following year, the firm would be hired by the Bowery Savings Bank to design its new headquarters next door.

On March 12, 1922, The New York Times reported, "Work on the new fourteen-story building which the Bowery Savings Bank is erecting on part of the old Grand Union Hotel plot at Forty-second Street and Park Avenue, to be used as an uptown branch of the bank, is progressing."  York & Sawyer had put W. Louis Ayres in charge of the design.  The Times said, "The exterior of the building is of Italian Romanesque style and built of variegated Ohio sandstone."  The New York City Guide would later note, "Among the symbols represented in the rich architectural detail of the building are the bull and bear of Wall Street, the lion for power, rooster for punctuality, and the squirrel for thrift." 

The Architect, October, 1923 (copyright expired)

The New York Times reported, "The banking room will be one of the largest used by a savings bank in New York."  Indeed, it soared 44 feet upward, and (like the 130 Bowery banking room) was basilica-like.  In its July 1923 issue, The Savings Bank Journal called it, "easily the most sumptuous of its kind in the country."  Twenty-five-foot tall polished marble columns, depending on their colors, were imported from France, Italy, Greece, and Belgium.  The intricate marble mosaic floors and beamed ceiling were illuminated by six bronze chandeliers inspired, according to architectural critic William P. Comstock, by "the hanging lamps of S. Sophia which are somewhat similar in general effect."

Two views of the banking room.  Architecture & Building, January 1923 (copyright expired)

William P. Comstock, the editor of The Architect, felt Ayres may have gone a step too far, however.  In the magazine's December 1923 issue, he called the banking room "sumptuous," but said, "I kept experiencing a strange feeling that I was not properly dressed.  I kept expecting to hear a blare of trumpets and see Charlemagne borne in on a portable throne."

Architecture & Building, January 1923 (copyright expired)

The glass mosaic ceiling in the office corridor was created by Heinighe & Smith.  Ayres's chandeliers (top) have been replaced.  bottom photograph by Elisa.rolle.

The building was completed early in the summer of 1923.  Moving the bank's assets would be a tricky maneuver.  On June 24, The New York Times reported, "Fourteen armored motor cars, with portholes bristling with sub-machine guns, followed each other in rapid succession yesterday afternoon through the crowded streets of Manhattan, transferring $202,000,000 in negotiable securities from the old to the new home of the Bowery Savings Bank."  More than 100 police were used to clear the route as the armored cars--timed at five minute intervals--moved uptown.

William E. Knox had much to be proud of in the new building.  Hired as a clerk in 1887, he was elected president of the bank in March 1922.  He had pushed hard for an uptown branch and in reporting on his new position on March 14, 1922, The New York Times said he "is about to see his efforts realized."

Knox's vision proved a shrewd one.  On April 4, 1924, The New York Times reported that in the nine months the 42nd Street branch had been opened, deposits had increased by $25 million.

Two years later, three bank tellers were arrested for embezzling about $45,000 "over a considerable period," according to The New York Times.  The amount would translate to three quarters of a million dollars in 2024.  The trio used the money for betting on horse racing over a period of months, assuming that they would win enough to replace the funds and enjoy their winnings.  When they realized they were in too deep, one teller, 31-year-old C. Russell Morton, fled to Canada.  But then, stricken with remorse, he returned to New York and confessed to William Knox.

On November 8, Morton recounted his story to the district attorney in his eighth-floor office on Centre Street.  Morton then rushed to a window, crashing through it.  He was caught around the ankles by detectives.  The New York Times reported, "His watch and other things that he had in his pocket fell with the broken window glass to the sidewalk.  The gathering crowd below, attracted by the fall of glass, saw Morton's body nearly three-quarters out of the window."  He was pulled back in and the following day he and his cohorts were indicted.

Although the incident was embarrassing to the bank, no damage was done to its reputation and depositors were not affected.  Nonetheless, it weighed heavily on William E. Knox's mind.  Three months later, on February 4, 1927, Knox went about his business seemingly as usual.  That evening he was to be the guest of honor at a dinner at the Union League Club.

On the third floor was a "resting room" where executives slept when working late at night.  At around 1:30 that afternoon, Knox said he was going there to take an hour's rest and that he did not want to be disturbed.  About 20 minutes later, Walter E. Frew, president of the Corn Exchange Bank telephoned for Knox.  An attendant went upstairs, knocked on the door and told Knox about the call.  "I'll come immediately," was the response.  When he did not come down, the bank's secretary Percy G. Delamater, went up.  He found Knox dead with a bullet wound through his heart.

In August 1931, the Bowery Savings Bank brought York & Sawyer back to design a five-story addition to the east.  The New York Times reported, "The cost was estimated at $650,000."  

The New York Times published York & Sawyer's rendering of the addition on August 16, 1931.

Called "the chapel," the four-story addition followed Ayres's original design with matching stone and Italian Romanesque arcades.

In 1946, the Bowery Savings Bank made a step forward in gender equality.  On November 14, The New York Times reported, "The Bowery Savings Bank, for the first time in its 112-year history, has promoted two women to officers' posts...Miss Hilda M. Hoffman and Miss Myrtle M. Hunt, both principal executive assistants, were named assistant secretaries."

Joan Dugan was 23-years-old in 1968 and worked as a teller here.  On April 30, a young man "wearing a black fedora with a red feather in the band," walked up to Dugan's window and passed a note:

This is a stickup.  Don't be a hero or I'll start shooting.  Put all your hundreds, fifties, twenties and tens in an envelope quickly and quietly.

Dugan did as the note demanded, but she also pressed an alarm button.  Douglas DeWitt Boyce ran out of the bank and down the subway stairs with two bank guards on his heels.  The guards yelled at two Transit Authority detectives, "Stop that man!"  Boyce (who, incidentally, did not have a gun) was apprehended and taken back to the bank for identification.  He told Joan Dugan, "I'm sorry I did this.  I didn't mean to scare you."

photo by Jim Henderson

A much less heroic guard was Charles Harper, hired in 1969.  For two and a half years, he "had a reputation for going out of his way to assist blind customers with their deposit and withdrawal slips," according to The New York Times on October 13, 1972.  Among those customers was Juliette Silvers.  On October 3, she made a deposit and Harper confirmed that her balance was $2,857.  She wrote the figure down in Braille. 

A week later she returned.  Harper was not working that day so another guard helped her.  He told her her balance was $169.65.  An investigation revealed that Harper had been withdrawing funds from the accounts of blind customers.  He was arrested on October 12.

In 1990, the Bowery Savings Bank was acquired by H. F. Ahmanson & Co.  The Greenpoint Bank moved into the banking spaces in 1995, and in March 1998 S. L. Greene purchased the building.  Speaking of the banking room, which the Greenpoint Savings Bank would be vacating later that year, he was quoted by The New York Times journalist John Holusha on March 29, "The place has an old world charm; there is nothing like it in New York."

The space was purchased (the building was now operated as a condominium) by Arrigo Cipriani, whose family already operated several restaurants, including the one in the Sherry-Netherlands hotel and the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center.  In reporting on Cipriani's plans, The New York Times architectural columnist David W. Dunlap commented, 

Lofty as the ceiling may be, it is almost impossible to take one's eyes off the floor, a mosaic expanse of marble that looks as if dozens of carpets had been laid edge to edge, with vivid, interwoven patterns of diamonds, circles, hexagons and stars.

image via

Because both the banking room and the exterior of the Bowery Savings Bank building were designated individual New York City Landmarks in 1993, the building that the Works Progress Administration's 1939 New York City Guide described as "the masterpiece of York and Sawyer," survives wonderfully intact.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Tom, for another well-researched and written article.