- Historic Sites
A knowledgeable and passionate guide takes us for a walk down Wall Street, and we find the buildings there eloquent of the whole history of American finance
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
The bank’s first president was Gen. Alexander McDougall, who began as a leather apron in the city, became a merchant and a Son of Liberty, and then was an officer in the Revolution who took over the command of West Point after Benedict Arnold’s treachery was exposed. After the war he was the first head of the Society of the Cincinnati. Bohemians for years flocked to a street in Greenwich Village named for the estimable general but misspelled to the tune of one l.
There are no plaques on Wall Street celebrating Aaron Burr. He is, despite the novelistic revisionism of Gore Vidai, one of America’s chief villains and a figure all Wall Streeters would rather forget. However, 40 Wall, now called the “Bankers Tower” in real estate ads in The New York Times, was built in the twenties as the headquarters of the Bank of the Manhattan Company, which Burr prodded into being in 1799. Considerable wit, a fine eye for the potentialities buried in small print, and an understanding of the economic hopes of his political allies were just a few of the skills Burr brought to his task.
Federalists like Hamilton would not accommodate their Jeffersonian rivals like Burr with loans and discounts, and as long as they controlled the state assembly, no charter would be granted to a competitive group of bankers. The Bank of New York left no doubt it was a Federalist bank; it financed the military expedition to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. Then, after an outbreak of yellow fever in 1798, Burr brought forth the Manhattan Company to supply the city with “pure and wholesome” water via a charter that he guided through the assembly.
An obscure paragraph was added to those empowering the company to build a reservoir, lay pipes, and deliver water to paying subscribers. It said that the company might do anything with its surplus capital that did not contravene any laws of the state or nation. In other words, were there some spare cash around, it could be lent out, and therefore, the company, if it chose, was a bank. Hamilton was asleep at the switch, and Burr had his bank.
Number 40 itself embodies the spirit of the rivalries of a later age. In the 1920s downtown’s skyscrapers were challenged by the new spires uptown. Walter P. Chrysler wanted an uptown building in his name that would be the tallest in the world. But 40 Wall was planned to rise 927 feet taller than the first plans of Chrysler’s architect, the eccentric and theatrical William Van Alen. Van Alen was once the partner of the downtown architect H. Craig Severance, and they had split in a fury of mutual mistrust and calumny. The moment Number 40 was finished, Van Alen had his construction crews assemble the pieces of a 123-foot nickel-steel tower, which was added to the now-familiar cap of the Chrysler Building. Thus Chrysler and Van Alen outdid not only their downtown competitor but the Eiffel Tower itself. A triumph for a new industrialist, midtown Manhattan, and an architect who was known as the Florenz Ziegfeld of his profession.
When the 1913 Money Trust hearings began, an early PR man told Bernard Baruch to say he was a speculator and then describe what it meant.
Incidentally, it has been alleged that the current owner of record of 40 Wall Street, the New York Land Company, is no more than a blind or front for the real owners, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. It seems that politics and economics are forever intertwined down here.
Not all the rivalries on the Street have been strictly economic; it turns out that very few were or are. Just a few more steps to the west is the Seamen’s Bank for Savings, which stands on the site of the Second Bank of the United States Building of 1824, a lovely Greek Revival structure. After the Second Bank failed in 1836, the building became the Government Assay Office. In 1915, when a new Assay Office was going up, the old building was demolished; but the facade was saved, and today it can be seen dominating the Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A look back with the help of high school history reminds us that the Second Bank was refused rechartering in 1832, when Jackson vetoed congressional approval of a new empowering of the bank. Old Hickory hated Nicholas Biddle, president of the bank that Jackson called the “Monster” on every occasion he could, with as much passion as he hated those who criticized his military record or the virtue of his wife or the character of his friends.
These two formidably autocratic men fought over the control of the credit of the country. The Street backed Jackson because Biddle’s bank was on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia; denying its charter would probably ensure New York’s economic dominance of the country.