Monday, July 3, 2017

The Lost Bleecker Street Savings Bank - 67 Bleecker Street

A Federal-style mansion still survives at the side of the marble bank building in this stereoscope slide view.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
On November 28, 1816 The Commercial Advertiser reported that "a number of gentlemen" had met to discuss the formation of a Savings Bank in New York.  The concept, already established in Britain, was ground-breaking; a bank for the poor.  The newspaper approved, saying "A more desirable mode of promoting the benefit of the poor cannot perhaps be devised."

It was not until 1819 that the Bank for Savings was incorporated.  Convincing the general public that the lower classes should have a bank was a challenge.  In June that year William Bayard, the bank's president, explained that the bank was not charity, but self-help; saying in part "It will help none but those who are willing to help themselves."

On the first day of business, the bank received $2,807 from 80 depositors, 26 of whom listed "no occupation."  Most were working-class citizens with professions like cooper, carpenter, cook, washerwoman, ladies' maid, hatter, shoemaker and chairmaker.  Two listed themselves as "spinsters."

The bank suffered a temporary setback in 1822 when, on July 17, the first case of yellow fever was diagnosed on Rector Street.  Historian Hugh E. McAtamney, in his 1860 Cradle Days of New York, noted "By the middle of July it had spread with great rapidity.  Business was suspended for the next two months, and the only sounds to be heard were the rumbling of hearses and the footsteps of nurses and physicians...The disease utterly desolated the lower portions of the City and thousands sought protection in flight."  Many of the hundreds of New Yorkers who died were the poor; depositors in the Bank for Savings.

Things eventually returned to normal and the Bank for Savings thrived.  Depositors received interest of between 4% and 5%.   But to some it seemed that the directors and officers of the bank were profiting more than their needy patrons.  An article in the Albany Register in 1854 asked "Whence comes the means to erect the splendid structures appropriated for the savings of the poor?"

The writer may have been referring to the proposed new Bank for Savings building on Bleecker Street.  On June 2, 1854 the Board had agreed to pay $38,500 for the lot and to erect a building "not to exceed $118,000."  The total cost of land, building, furnishings, etc. was $151,612.08--about $4.47 million today.

The structure was completed in 1856.  On April 12 The New York Times reported "The Chambers-street Bank for Savings was removed yesterday to the very fine new marble structure at No. 67 Bleecker-street, nearly opposite Crosby."  "Very fine" it was, indeed.   Two stories tall, it was a free-standing Greek temple to finance.  Valentine's Manual of 1858 called it "a most beautiful specimen of architecture," and Miller's New York As It Is in 1866 deemed it "the most elegant and spacious of its class in the city."

Miller's New York As It Is, 1866 (copyright expired)

Although the institution was still the Bank for Savings, it quickly was known as the Bleecker Street Savings Bank.  Typical of its depositors was Mary Ann Banks who deposited $100 here in 1860.  It was a princely sum for the 83-year old nanny, nearly $3,000 in today's dollars.

Banks had raised the children of the wealthy Samuel Skidmore family.  She was fond of retelling the story of the day she had shaken hands with General George Washington, and said that she frequently would see Martha Washington on the street.  Although the Skidmore children were grown, the family refused to put her on the street.  Mary Ann, however, was concerned that she might be a financial burden and deposited her life savings to pay for her funeral when the time came.

The new marble building sat among fine brick-faced homes of a generation earlier.  Six Irish youths between 12 to 16 years old attempted to break into the bank in August 1860.  The gang had tormented police for weeks with repeated break ins.  This time they were thwarted by an alert domestic.

The New York Times reported on August 16 "the lads confess that a few nights before their arrest they attempted to force an entrance into the Bleecker-street Savings' Bank, but were interrupted by a servant girl, employed in one of the adjoining houses, at whom one of them discharged a pistol, fortunately without doing her any injury, after which they escaped."

Ellen Gay rented a room in the house of a Mrs. Morrison, on the corner of Prince and Greene Streets, in 1861.  She had come into a small fortune of $9,800, which she deposited in the Bleecker Street Savings Bank.   Ellen would need the money after she was diagnosed with pulmonary consumption, known today as tuberculosis.  But, as reported by The New York Times, she was "defrauded of her property by a worthless husband, who then deserted her, leaving her without friends and suffering."

Somehow John S. Gay had left $1,800 in her bank account.  The newspaper reported "Her misfortunes prompted her to make away with herself, and she went methodically to work in order to carry out her intention, by purchasing a burial lot and arranging with an undertaker for the funeral."  She also purchased a quantity of poison to finish the task.  Thomas Stone discovered her depression and suicidal intentions.  He recognized the potential for a windfall.

Stone convinced Ellen to give him the $1,800, assuring her that he would then take care of her funeral; and that if her self-poisoning did not succeed he would return the money.  Instead he ran away with the last of her savings.

Domestics and factory workers could not make it to the bank during normal working hours; so the Bleecker Street Savings Bank was open on Saturday nights.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper poked fun at the scene on February 11, 1871 (copyright expired)

The Financial Panic of 1873 resulted in runs on the banks by hysterical depositors city-wide.   Newspapers ran full-page articles on the frenzied chaos as the well-do-to scrambled to recover their cash.  But things were starkly different at the Bleecker Street Savings Bank.  The New York Herald reported on September 23, "There was no rush upon the bank, and depositors showed no particular anxiety as to the security of their money.  Deposits were made in the usual way, and nothing worthy of special notice occurred in the amount drawn from the bank."

When this photograph was taken in 1892, the house next door has been converted for business and loft buildings engulf the area.  Streetcar tracks turn from Crosby Street onto Bleecker.  from the collection of the New York Historical Society.

By 1890 the Bleecker Street neighborhood was no longer one of dignified homes.   Commercial buildings crowded in, replacing the families and the Savings Bank's depositors they employed.  On March 11, 1892 The New York Times announced "The Bank for Savings in the City of New-York, the oldest savings institution in the State, and one of the oldest in the country, is to move out of its beautiful Greek temple in Bleecker Street."   The article reminded readers that for years the Bank for Savings was "known as a 'servant girls'' bank."

Bank President Merritt Trimble explained "we want to get in the midst of our patrons.  They have been moved further away from us year by year."  The trustees had purchased the corner plot at Park Avenue and 22nd Street for the new building. 

As the new building was planned, a dramatic turn of events arose concerning a long-dormant account.  In 1857 Dennis Sullivan had deposited $195 in the bank.  The following year he withdrew $30, never to be heard of again.  As the decades elapsed the funds continued to earn interest until by 1891 it had grown to $1,019.31.  That year Sullivan's granddaughter, Mary C. Sullivan, had him declared dead and received his funds.

And then Dennis Sullivan returned from the dead.

Having vanished 35 years ago, the 80-year old was back in New York in 1893 and he needed his money.  The Times noted he was "very feeble.  He does not remember in what part of the city he lived before he disappeared."   The old man sued his granddaughter for his money; but the suit was dismissed by mutual agreement when the court ruled on October 27, 1893 that there was no fraud.  "It is simply conceded to be a mistake all around."

The Bleecker Street Savings Bank decided it was not a "mistake all around" seven months later when Mary Sullivan had still not turned the money over to her grandfather.  The bank sued in City Court to recover the funds, "having become convinced it was paid to the wrong person."

In September 1897 the classic marble bank building was sold for $200,000 to the United Loan and Investment Company.  The Times reported "The work of demolishing it to make room for its taller successor will begin shortly."

In the place of the magnificent Bleecker Street Savings Bank rose another masterpiece--Louis Sullivan's 1899 Bayard-Condict Building.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

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