Monday, July 1, 2024

The Lost New York Cotton Exchange Building - William and Beaver Streets


The Architectural Record, 1898 (copyright expired)

The New York Cotton Exchange was organized in 1870.  Historian Robert P. McDougall recalled in 1923, "Up to that time trading in cotton had been done in brokers' offices in and around Hanover Square, which still retained some flavor of the days when it was the residential site of wealthy New Yorkers and of distinguished French émigrés who had fled from the Revolution."  The new exchange met in rented rooms at 142 Pearl Street.

The Pearl Street building.  The Story of the Cotton Exchange, 1923 (copyright expired)

Two years later, the Cotton Exchange moved into India House at 1 Hanover Square.  That building sufficed until a committee was appointed on December 6, 1880 to consider sites and architects for a new headquarters.  On June 10, 1882, The Evening Post reported, "The most important private sale of the week was the purchase of the ground on Pearl, William, and Beaver Streets for the new Cotton Exchange Building."  The article said the exchange had paid $382,500 for the parcel.

Six architects submitted plans and on May 5, 1883 The American Architect & Building News reported, "Mr. George B. Post's designs for the Cotton Exchange Building have been accepted."  Five months later, The Sanitary Engineer announced that Post had filed plans for the eight-story structure.  "The estimated cost of the building is $530,000," said the article."  The combined cost of property and construction brought the outlay to more than $28 million by 2024 conversion.

As construction neared completion in January 1885, rental space was offered.  On January 29, The New York Times reported, "Little books containing elaborate diagrams of the interior of the new structure have been distributed among the members, and yesterday a circular was posted stating that a choice of offices would be disposed of at public sale on Feb. 4."

Construction was completed in 1895.  Above a three-story base, George Browne Post's neo-French Renaissance structure broke into two sections, each treated slightly differently, including the bases.  The upper floors at the corner morphed into a tower inspired by the Chateau de Chambord.  The Architectural Record said the New York Cotton Exchange building made the "bold sacrifice of rentable space to make the space which remains more useful and more agreeable to the inhabitants, by leaving large external courts upon which windows may open directly."  The article noted,

The round tower, by which the irregular angle is occupied, is an obvious resource in such a case, and Paris is full of such round towers used at the acute angles of meeting streets and avenues, but the New York business world has generally been too sharp-set for office rents to allow of such decorative treatment of its sites.

The critic felt that because of its striking tower, "the building is one of the most spirited structures in the business quarter of New York."

A hand-colored postcard highlighted the red tiled roofs.

"On a beautiful April morning, April 30, 1885," as described by Robert P. MacDougall, a band led the members of the New York Cotton Exchange from the old building to the new structure.  "The opening ceremonies were held on the great floor which was 108 feet long and 71 feet wide with a ring for trading in about the middle."  That evening, the celebrations were capped with a collation and ball.

Members were initially concerned about the acoustics of the trading floor.  On May 3, 1885, The New York Times reported, "In its present unfinished condition the board room of the new Cotton Exchange Building echoes the bids of brokers in a manner that is extremely unpleasant, if not confusing, during the busy hours."  The hard surfaces bounced the shouts of the brokers around the cavernous space, creating a cacophony.  The builders assured the members, "this will be remedied when all the window shades, furniture, and chandeliers are put in place."  

The echoing surfaces of the trading room initially caused problems.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Among the firms renting office space in the building was the insurance brokerage firm of Leonard & Moody.  Until 1884, Horace Moody's cousin William Gantz had worked for the firm, but that year he was discharged.  A reporter from The Evening World explained, "young Gantz, was brought up from infancy and educated by the Moodys."

Four years later, on August 2, 1888, Gantz appeared in Moody's office, asking for a loan of $30.  The Evening World reported, "Mr. Moody said he could not lend it to him, and as Gantz went out of the office he said that he would have it by hook or crook."  The article continued, "Mr. Moody went on a vacation the next day and when he returned found that his name had been forged for the exact amount which Gantz said he would have by 'hook or crook.'"

A young man had cashed the two $15 checks at Delmonico's restaurant across the street.  His description matched William Gantz.  Moody had his cousin arrested and Gantz was positively identified by the Delmonico employees.  

Although Gantz insisted he was innocent, he was locked up in the Tombs awaiting trial.  A conviction would result in a sentence at the state prison.  But then, a third attempt to cash a check at Delmonico's occurred.  Seventeen-year-old Charles E. Keeler was arrested.  He, too, had been employed by Leonard & Moody and had been fired in the spring.  

The Evening World reported on August 25, "Keeler, whose mental balance is not the most stable, confessed his guilt and acknowledged the uttering of the checks for passing which Gantz was in prison."  William Gantz was exonerated and the Delmonico's manager and cashier tepidly acknowledged their embarrassing mistake, saying, "they cash so many checks for their customers in person and by messenger that they may have been mistaken."

Another tenant in the building was W. R. Grace & Co.  It was headed by former Mayor William Russell Grace.  On October 29, 1890, The Sun remarked, "Mr. Grace has a big office in the Cotton Exchange building, and there are one or two smaller offices opening into it."
Like Leonard & Moody, Reinhard Sidenburg & Co. was the victim of forgers.  But in this case, the crime far exceeded the $45 drawn against the former's accounts.  In September 1893, $500 in cash went missing from a safe in the Rieinhard Sidenburg & Co. offices.  It triggered an inspection of the books that yielded shocking results.  About $20,000 was missing--nearly $700,000 in today's money.

On Saturday night, September 23, the firm's bookkeeper, Ernest J. Greene, was arrested at his Brooklyn house.  The cashier, John F. Collins, was arrested at his desk on Monday afternoon.  Both men confessed to the embezzlement.  The New-York Tribune explained how they perpetrated the crime.

Either Collins or Greene would erase by acids from checks made out to a customer the name of the payee, and substitute "bearer."  The dishonest employe[e]s would get the checks cashed and pocket the money.  They took care to intercept such checks and destroy them before they could be seen by any member of the firm when returned.

To cover up their crimes, false entries were made in the books.  The newspaper said that had they not stolen the cash, they could have gotten away with the scheme longer.  Collins and Greene were just 24 and 23 years old respectively.

Amazingly, just ten years after the Cotton Exchange Building was completed, on February 13, 1905, The Wall Street Journal reported, "Plans for the new Cotton Exchange building are to be voted on next Wednesday."  The demolition seemed to be confirmed, the article saying that the new building would cost "about $1,500,000."  Something derailed the plans, however, but the project was resurrected seven years later.  On September 25, 1912, The New York Times reported, "It is planned to tear down the old Cotton Exchange building at the corner of William and Beaver Streets, and to erect a new building at a cost of $1,755,000."  This replacement structure was proposed to rise 22 stories.

But, once again, the plans were scrapped.  Among the tenants in 1919 were the classrooms of the "commercial courses" of New York University, as described by the New York Herald on November 27.  

At the time, the world was suffering through the Great Influenza epidemic.  It broke out in 1918 and killed 675,000 Americans that first year.  And so occupants of the Cotton Exchange Building were no doubt panicked when 40-year-old commission merchant Vincent E. Mitchell died of influenza in January 1920.  The New York Times noted on January 17, "His wife died a few hours later, also of influenza, and his mother and two small children are ill with the same disease."  Happily, the disease did not spread throughout the building.

The streets of the Financial District were quiet in this postcard from the turn of the last century.

On December 16, 1921, the New York Herald reported that the Cotton Exchange would be renting space in the New York Produce Exchange building "from May 1, 1922 to May 1, 1923, while its new $3,000,000 building is under construction."  This time the demolition plans would happen.  Three weeks later, the New-York Tribune reported that Donn Barber's plans for a 24-story replacement had been accepted, noting "construction of the building was delayed for various reasons."

Donn Barber's replacement structure survives on the site.

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