The History of 407-409 Broadway
Tom Miller, who writes about the history of Manhattan buildings at Daytonian in Manhattan, has allowed Tribeca Citizen to create a database of his Tribeca posts. If you enjoy these, and you will, then you should definitely check out his website, which also has write-ups about buildings all over the island. And don’t miss his book, Seeking New York: The Stories Behind the Historic Architecture of Manhattan—One Building at a Time.
In February, 1864, with a capital of $1 million, the Ninth National Bank was organized. The new institution, which opened its offices at No. 363 Broadway, was immediately successful. “From the first it had the confidence of a very important share of the business community,” reported The New York Times nearly three decades later, “and its prospects were bright form the beginning… In the halcyon days of national banks it piled up its surplus and dividends at a rapid rate.”
Among the employees was John T. Hill, the first paying teller. Hill’s exemplary performance was noticed. He was a young man who would go places within the bank.
By 1870, the bank’s growth and reputation required a new building. Two lots were acquired a block north on Broadway at Nos. 407 and 409 between Walker and Lispenard Streets. A grand stone building was erected in the highly-popular French Second Empire style. It would resemble, in a much scaled-down version, the mammoth City Hall Post Office which was just being planned.
Accessed by a set of wide stairs, the bank rose four stories to a fish-scale tiled mansard roof. Here ornate dormers, a stone balustrade, bulbous finials and a handsome cap provided echoes of a Parisian boulevard for moneyed New Yorkers. Despite the paired Corinthian columns that upheld the cornices of each floor, the vermiculated bands on the flanking piers and the graceful arcades flanking the Palladio-inspired center window of the fourth floor, The Times was tepid in its assessment. In describing the offices, it said, “They are commodious, but by no means pretentious as bank quarters go.”
The bank was near the dry goods district; however it drew its depositors from various businesses, earning its reputation as a “commercial” bank. The directors sought, above all else, to maintain a conservative character, eschewing cheap marketing. The Times would note, “It has not been one of the banks which has heralded its business to the world. It has not indulged in artistic calendars, memorandum books, and circulars. Its constituents have been well-to-do businessmen, and the bank has maintained a character in consonance with theirs.”
By now the young teller John Hill had been promoted to cashier.
Offices in the building were leased to the National Revenue Reform Association, one of several reform groups that sought to overthrow the corrupt Tammany Hall. The New York Tribune reported on September 6, 1871, that “two or three Reform Associations, led by prominent and active citizens of unquestioned character and professional standing, also gave the ‘Ring’ much uneasiness, and these having now combined are prepared to give it a great deal more.” The National Revenue Reform Association offered the use of its rooms as a headquarters for the anti-Tammany movement, although the offer was politely declined.
In 1874, Thomas A. Vyse resigned from the presidency of the Ninth National Bank, focusing his energies on the firm of Vyse & Co. (It was around this time that the former teller, John Hill, received yet another promotion.) Prior to his resignation, Vyse borrowed $475,000 and gave as security a mortgage on property he owned. He requested that the transaction not be recorded.
The seemingly shady deal came to light when, early in 1875, Vyse & Co. failed. Creditors scrambled to claim their portion of the assets but Ninth National, which had never documented the loan, had a problem. “Under these circumstances the bank, it was stated, would be a loser to the full amount of the loan, and in consequence be seriously embarrassed,” reported The Times.
Indeed the bank was embarrassed. But quick damage control by one of the Directors, Barnett L. Solomon, convinced depositors that the bank was solvent. Solomon insisted that he “did not believe the bank would lose a single dollar on any of its transactions with Mr. Vyse.”
While the bank was patching its bruised public image, it continued leasing offices on the upper floors. The same year C. S. Morton, an agent for the freight railroad The Canada Southern Co-Operative had his headquarters here. By the time that the Mercantile Benefit Association moved in, one-time teller John Hill was president of the bank.
Hill became the bank’s third president in 1877. Things went well until his wife’s wealthy spinster aunt, Eliza Dayton, entrusted her finances to Hill’s brother, Charles. Unfortunately, Charles was not the best financial advisor and on a single occasion lost $68,000 of Dayton’s money. In 1884, Eliza Dayton’s estate had suffered loses so great that Charles Hill committed suicide. John Hill promised to restore the fortune of his wife’s aunt.
Within time he did just that. The family honor restored, he continued the life of a successful banker. He loved exotic flowers and built a fine conservatory on his property. He owned at least a pair of valuable horses and was fond of riding. The Times remarked, “He led a quiet life, was not socially inclined, and his wife and daughters are domestic in their taste.”
The façade of the upstanding and honest bank president would crumble upon his death at the age of 55 in 1891. To restore Eliza Dayton’s extensive financial loses and to continue his comfortable lifestyle John H. Hill had constantly embezzled from the Ninth National Bank from 1884 until his death.
When a borrower would repay his loan and receive his collateral, Hill would pocket the money and the bank’s books would show the loan still outstanding. In place of the collateral he would put an envelope with the records of the loan. When a bank examiner would visit, he would transfer securities into the loan envelopes until the investigation was completed.
Hill contracted consumption in 1889 which worsened a year later to the point that he was mostly bedridden. Still, he “managed to get down to the bank at all critical junctures in his affairs and to accomplish the necessary juggling of the securities which kept his crime a secret until after his death,” reported The Times. “It was not,” said the newspaper, “until after his death that the big defalcation was discovered.”
The president who had risen from teller had robbed his own bank of $400,000—nearly $10 million today.
Amazingly, the bank recovered. On August 4, 1891, five months after Hill’s death, the bank announced itself “to be in a very prosperous condition now, and to have pretty fully recovered from the effects of the Hill scare.”
The bank took yet another hit, albeit much smaller, a year later when Johann C. K. Davidsen forged checks totaling $2,700. Davidsen was a bookkeeper at A. James & Co., commission merchants “in the South American trade,” earning $10 a week. While acquaintances noted the disparity of the clerk’s income and style of living, he brushed it off saying he had “private means.”
“Private means” meant he was simply signing and cashing checks on his employer’s account at Ninth National Bank. When the crime was discovered, Adolph James, one of his employers, remarked that he “did not know of this ornamental side of Davidsen’s career.” The bank, which was responsible for the stolen amount, offered a $500 reward for the arrest of the 30-year old forger.
In November, 1901, the bank merged with the National Citizens’ Bank. That bank had been founded in 1858 “during the California ‘Gold Fever,’” according to King’s Views of New York City. The two competing banks were now one and Ninth National gave up its familiar name. The arrangement would not last long, however.
Less than three years later, in March 1904, the National Citizens and the Central National Bank consolidated. Once again the bank’s name was changed; but this time the merger would mean leaving the building at Nos. 407-409 Broadway.
By August the Netherland State Railway of Holland had leased the front portion of the building vacated by the bank. The firm was still in the building when an advertisement in The Sun announced the upcoming auction of the property on April 19, 1906. It was purchased by Olin G. Walbridge.
Walbridge had little time to develop his new real estate. He died within the year leaving an estate of $326,236 including the old bank building on Broadway. His will divided the estate equally among his various heirs, resulting in a two-year court battle among family members that finally resulted in son Francis Walbridge acquiring the building.
Walbridge was successful in returning the structure to its original banking function with Columbia Bank taking over the business floors. The same year that Francis Walbridge died in 1917, however, the bank opened a new branch at No. 415 Broadway and discontinued business at Nos. 407-409. Five days after the announcement that the bank was leaving, the building was sold again at auction to Max Marx on May 6, 1917.
The old Ninth National Bank building would never again be used as a financial institution. Instead it became home to firms marketing the up-and-coming typewriter. The Irving Typewriter Company established its offices here, as did the Morse Typewriter Exchange Co.
In July, 1924, Marx sold the building to Frank Hillman for about $160,000. The jazz age had roared into New York and the Great Depression was still years away. Popular taste turned to sleek, clean lines and the Victorian dowager at No. 407-409 Broadway was decidedly out of style.
Although the building was no longer fashionable for a bank, the location certainly was. On May 8, 1927, The Manufacturers Safe Deposit Company announced it would open a branch on the site. Within five months the old Ninth National Bank was gone and in its place was a new modern two-story building designed by A. F. Gilbert.
407 Broadway in 1930 by Wurts Bros. courtesy the Museum of the City of New York [x2010.7.1.7272].
Photo credit: The Museum of City of New York.