Thursday, January 4, 2018

The City Bank-Farmers' Trust Company Bldg - 20 Exchange Place



photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On November 23, 1929 the Perth, Australia newspaper The West Australian, no doubt caused its readers to gasp when it published a rendering by New York architects Cross & Cross of a 71-story building projected for Lower Manhattan.  "When completed this will be the world's tallest building, 925ft. high, and consisting of 71 storeys.  It is being erected by the City Bank Farmer Trust Co. in New York.  The foundations will be completed early next year, and the building is expected to be ready for occupation in 1931."

The rendering released by Cross & Cross depicted a towering structure.  The Western Australian, Nov. 23, 1929 (copyright expired)
Only seven months earlier National City Bank, whose offices were at No. 55 Wall Street, directly opposite the building site to the rear, had merged the trust portion of its business with the Farmers' Loan Trust Company.  While National City Bank continued to operate under that name, its trust functions and that of its new partner became the City Bank Farmers' Trust Company.

The architects filed preliminary plans on October 2, 1929.  The $9.5 million building would fill the block bounded by Exchange Place, Hanover Street, William Street and Beaver Street.  It would replace three older buildings occupied by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, the Farmers' Loan and Trust, and the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Co.  In reporting on the filing, The New York Times made special note that "provision for twenty-seven elevators has been made."

At the time the newly-formed City Bank Farmers' Trust Company was in negotiations to acquire the Corn Exchange Bank.  That merger would have created the wealthiest bank in the world.  But the Stock Market crash, just three weeks after the building plans were filed, aborted that scheme.

Quickly Cross & Cross were sent back to the drawing board.  The revised plans chopped 240 feet off the tower and reduced the number of floors to 59.   The architects were intentionally vague about their style.  The Architectural Forum in July 1931 wrote "The architects hold no brief for any particular architectural style."  Instead, said the article, they "have been at some pains" to make both the materials and designs an expression of the location of the building--the financial center of New York--and the "mechanical and economic forces" of the day.

Contemporary critics called the style "Modern Classic;" while it is more often given the blanket description of Art Deco today.  Yet the striking skyscraper had none of the zig-zagging lightning bolts and other decorations that distinguished many of the Jazz Age Art Deco buildings rising throughout the city.  Instead, Cross & Cross relied on high-end materials (the entire structure was faced in stone, and nickel-silver, a modern white colored alloy used for details) and clever sculptured symbols of the banking industry.

Modes of transportation are depicted in the panels of the doors.
Construction on the towering skyscraper was completed within a year.  Even as it rose and despite the economic conditions, financial and legal firms signed leases.  On December 22, 1930, for instance, attorneys Conklin & Bentley took space, the same day that the legal firm of Van Doren, Dreyer & Cotton took most of the 30th floor.  The Canadian Bank of Commerce, which lost its building to this one, was a major tenant from its conception.

The Exchange Place entrance is surrounded by sculptures of coins from around the world.  At bottom left, for instance, is a buffalo head nickel.

Following the close of banking hours on Friday, February 20, 1931 "the task of moving the billions of dollars of money and securities, together with other property," into the new building (connected to No. 55 Wall Street by a pedestrian bridge) began.  The process, under heavy guard, took the entire weekend.  And then the skyscraper was ready for business.

On Tuesday morning, February 24, the doors were opened.  The New York Times reported "Visitors thronged the building all day, an hourly average of 3,851 guests passing into the new quarters through the two main entrances during business hours."

The Times called the building "magnificent" and critic Parker Chase said "The building throughout is the very last word in all that spells DELUXE."  While the skyscraper had to relinquish its earlier hoped-for title of "tallest building in the world," its owners could take solace in that it was the "tallest building with a predominantly stone facade."  The Times noted "With the exception of the first story, which is made of Mohegan granite, the building is constructed of white Rockwood Alabama stone."

The main banking room was paneled in walnut and surmounted by a dome.  The cavernous space was decorated for the opening.  "On all side were masses of flowers that had been sent by banks and business firms in all parts of the world," said The Times.

The newly-completed building towered over its nearest neighbors.  photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

It was not necessarily the stone cladding or the lavish interiors that caught the attention of newspapers internationally, but the infrastructure necessary to service the skyscraper.   The Australian newspaper The Recorder reported on May 16, 1931, "The largest private telephone exchange in the world, with 800 trunk lines, 8,000 extensions and 800 tie-line" had been installed.  "Forty men worked for eighteen months planning and constructing the great exchange and 200 workmen cut the lines over and placed them in operation."

It would not be long before the building was the scene of an exciting police sting.  On Saturday, February 25, 1932 two men, 32-year old C. J. Williams and 38-year old Arnold Nichols, entered the 9th floor offices of City Bank-Farmers' Trust and presented a $9.670 check.  It was signed by an official of a large chain store.  The men expressed that they wanted to use the check to buy $5,000 worth of municipal bonds.

The clerk explained that the check would have to clear before the bonds and balance of cash could be turned over.  He told them to come back on Wednesday.  And they did.

But the staff was on to their scheme by now.  While one clerk kept them busy, another called the police.  The check, it had turned out, was a forgery.  Unfortunately for Williams and Nichols, the New York City Police Department had initiated its new "radio system" the day before.  Certain police cars, called "motor patrols," were now equipped with radios.

A patrol car with officers Timothy O'Donohue and Andrew Kerrigan was nearby and responded.  "The car swerved sharply and, with siren going, headed for 20 Exchange Place.  A few seconds later the gun squad car with five plain-clothes men in it, also pulled up at the door," reported The Times.

The newspaper noted "The were the first prisoners taken in this city with the aid of the radio system."  Both professed their innocence.  While Nichols denied any involvement at all, Williams admitted he had presented the check "but maintained that he had won it in a dice game."

The iconography of the decoration is sometimes puzzling.  Here a woman pours water, surrounded by a stork, a swan, a wolf and a squirrel; while above two owls stand rigidly at attention.

A trip to No. 20 Exchange Place would change the life of 22-year old Albert Correri on September 23, 1935. The son of immigrants, the Depression had dealt a hard blow to his family, who lived on Government relief in Brooklyn.

Correri was a high school graduate and had studied one year at Columbia, hoping for a career as a journalist.  But when money ran out, he had to drop out.  Now he worked as a deliveryman for a coffee shop, making a weekly salary of $3.15 ($55 in today's dollars).


Just after noon that day his boss handed him a bag of sandwiches, saying "Rush order for 20 Exchange Place."   As he threaded his way among the crowd on Pearl Street, he noticed a package on the sidewalk between Pine and Wall Streets.  While no one else took notice of it, he picked it up.

The Times said the following day "Albert is small, Latin and unobtrusive; he is certain that no one paid any attention to this commonplace gesture."  Aware that his delivery was a rush order, he tucked the small packet into his coat pocket and delivered the lunch.

On his way out, he paused in the foyer of 20 Exchange Place and peeked inside the wrappings of the bundle. He saw a $10,000 bond.  Then, flicking through the stack, he realized he was holding $150,000 in negotiable bonds.  But he still had work to do.  "Albert kept his feet on the ground.  He went right ahead and delivered a second batch of sandwiches to 15 Broad Street.  Ham and swiss cheese on rye, he thinks there were," reported The Times.

Correri went back to the restaurant and turned the bonds over to his employer.  Before long five men, including a vice president, from C. F. Childs & Co. were in the coffee shop, "by now quite frantic," to retrieve their bonds.  They promised Correri a reward.  "Now he dreams of going on with his study of journalist," said the newspaper, "He said it had to be journalism."

In the meantime, National City Bank's president, Charles E. Mitchell, had suffered intense criticism.  His aggressive and, some would say, questionable policies are blamed by historical economists as major influences in the stock market crash of 1929.  In 1933 the Pecora Commission was formed; a Senate committee set up to investigate Mitchell.  Committee member Senator Carter Glass reported that “Mitchell, more than any 50 men is responsible for this stock crash.”

On February that year Mitchell resigned, his place taken by the James H. Perkins, president of the City Bank Farmers' Trust Company.

It was not the crime, but the circumstances surrounding that were more startling in 1937.  In November that year a well-dressed man opened an account under the name of F. W. Blackstone.  He deposited a check signed by George Workmaster for $3,000 and later another for $4,576.  The combined amount would be about $130,000 today.  When Workmaster got his statement at the end of the month he was shocked and notified authorities.

Bank staff was on the lookout for the 49-year old Blackstone, described as "245 pounds with gray hair and mustache."  When stockbroker Bertram M. Campbell walked in, he was arrested and charged with forgery.  During his trial, according to The New York Times, "a number of bank employes and others [identified him] as the man who deposited the forged checks and drew on them."  Campbell was sent to Sing Sing with a sentence of five to ten years. 

But he was innocent.

Bertram M. Campbell was a dead ringer for Alexander D. L, Thiel, also 49 years old, also 245 pounds with gray hair and mustache.   Unlike the law-abiding broker, Thiel was a professional criminal, later described by Government agents as "one of the smoothest big-time crooks and forgers in the United States."

Thiel did have a conscience, however.  Years later Assistant U.S. Attorney John J. Donovan Jr., explained "wanting to help Mr. Campbell, he determined to commit another forgery, hoping that the police would recognize that Mr. Campbell could not have forged the checks...The attempt to help Mr. Campbell failed, but the transaction netted Thiel a profit of $15,000."

Amazingly, Thiel avoided capture for nearly a decade.  Donovan said in 1945 his "forgeries were so artistic they fooled bank experts and enabled him to steal $480,000 since 1930 in various parts of the country."  $200,000 of that came from New York City banks.

As a matter of fact, Thiel never was apprehended for his forgeries.  He was arrested as a drug addict in Lexington, Kentucky in March 1945.  A suspicious FBI agent started delving into his background, undercovering one crime, then another, then another.  Finally Thiel confessed to the long list of forgeries, including the ones for which Bertram M. Campbell had been incarcerated.

Even eight years later, said The New York Times, Campbell "resembles Thiel in a remarkable degree."  He asked Governor Dewey for a full and complete pardon and his lawyers began work "to sue the State for recovery for false imprisonment."

Coincidentally, Governor Thomas E. Dewey had operated his legal practice in 20 Exchange Place before his election in 1941.  Following his victory reporters had swarmed the hallways for months.  Finally, on December 7, 1942 he held a press conference in his offices to lay out his inauguration day plans.  His ceremony, he said, would be very simple, because during wartime "we should save as much of expenses as possible."

A Spanish coin sits above this Exchange Place window; its bronze  railing including a lion-faced fasces flanked by a woman holding a sphere and a man with chisel and pick-ax.

Early 20th century skyscrapers did not have the safety procedures in place--like non-opening windows--which we are accustomed to today.  That proved tragic in the fall of 1951.   Robert A. Roth was a member of the law firm of Erich, Stock, Leighton & Holland which had offices on the 37th floor.  The 30-year old attorney went to the men's room just before 9:00 on the evening of October 24.  He opened the window and jumped out.

By now the City Bank Farmers' Trust Company had dissolved and No. 20 was a branch office of the First National City Bank.   The institution was known for providing extra benefits for its employees, like its in-house art classes.   Of the after-hours art students, an instructor said "They just slug it out in class and sometimes surprise themselves by the way it turns out."

The banking room was the scene of an employee art show of 164 oils and watercolors in September 1956.  The Times commented "A girl who cuts coupons in a vault has painted 'When Day is Done,' a scene far removed from the financial district.  A credit men is showing pictures of 'Old Trunk' and 'Discarded Guitar.'"

The architects included decidedly American motifs in the rear service door--a bison head and two coiled rattlesnakes.

In 1961 significant interior construction was taking place within the skyscraper when fire broke out on the 7th floor on November 16.  It started in a pile of construction materials just after noon causing the evacuation of about 4,000 terrified employees.  But 25 persons, mostly women, were on a three elevators when they short-circuited and jolted to a stop.  They were rescued by firefighters and only two, both elevator operators, suffered injuries.  Overcome with smoke they were taken to Beekman-Downtown Hospital and released.  The fire was extinguished after about 30 minutes.

When the now-historic building was sold in late 1997 to a partnership of Witkoff Group and Kamran Hakim, real estate operators and preservationists wondered about the new owner's plans.  There were possibilities of conversation to residential use, adapting part of the building as a hotel, or simply remodeling it for continued office purposes.  The answer came when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation signed a lease for 130,000 square feet--about four full floors.  Offices it would be.  And in January 1999 the owners announced a $25 million "improvement program to restore it to a status in keeping with its history."

But that idea was short-lived.  Just five years later the building was sold to developers Nathan Berman and Ronny Bruckner.  Although the skyscraper was almost fully occupied, Berman told The New York Times on March 20, 2004 "the vision is to retain the base of the 57-story structure for commercial use and over time transform the tower to 250 condominiums."

On this sunlit day the upper floors, seen from Beaver Street, seem to disappear into the atmosphere

The conversion preserved the banking hall and, of course, the landmarked facade.  Known as Twenty Exchange Place, in contains 350 residential spaces.   The distinctive tower with its striking sculptural details is among the most prominent structures in the Financial District, an icon of 1930s skyscraper design.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Peter Alsen for suggesting this post

3 comments:

  1. Its construction (or at least the sign announcing its space for rent) inspired a painting by Bernard Boutet de Monvel. On the link scroll halfway down the page - on the right).

    http://www.stephane-jacques-addade.com/en/bernard-boutet-de-monvel/biography


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  2. This was an extraordinarily informative post. I am the Leasing Manager at Twenty Exchange, leasing the now 767 apartments that were created. As such, I am responsible for our Facebook @twentyexchange and Instagram @twenty.exchange pages. I regularly include as much historical material and pictures as I can. It is rare that I come across an article that tells me so much information I did not know about a building I know pretty well.

    Thank you so much for this!

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  3. Luis Vazquez (FiDi Fan Page)January 5, 2018 at 12:11 PM

    Yes, great article. I would add that the office portion was subsequently converted into rentals resulting in the total of 767 apartments noted above. The building is now almost entirely residential, save for the ground level banking halls which are refuently used for film and TV shoots. Another incredible feature is that the amazing stone sculptures decorating the midpoint of the tower invoke the "Gotham City" of Batman fame. It is no accident that the Fox series "Gotham" has filmed at 20 Exchange many times. This building is one of FiDi's architectural gems. Thank you again for spotlighting it. ! Also, thank you for finally focussing on the treasures of the Financial District. I look forward to many more as the area is an architectural and history treasure trove of important sites. I have a Facebook page devoted to all of the great things about and happening in the Financial District called FiDi Fan Page. Feel free to join.

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