- 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
Jackson was the classic man on the make, almost antiquely Roman in his fierce drive for distinction. He carried along in his wake men who were merely avaricious, the kind of men Herman Melville satirized in The Confidence-Man: boomers and land speculators on the frontier and their brokers, financiers, and propagandists in the Eastern cities. New York, because of the Erie Canal, its magnificent harbor, and the wide range of commercial services, now led by a long margin. One historian has said Jackson’s age saw the turn from liberty to a kind of economic license; Jackson liberated a new class of businessmen from the cold, prudent restraints of Nick Biddle and the older patriciate.
The 1830s were a time when the pursuers harried the possessors and Jackson upbraided “aristocracy,” the “money power,” “tyranny,” “wealth,” and “privilege” for the political exclusion they supported, justified, and rewarded. And he was, as Albert Gallatin, a more equable and classically balanced character, put it, a “pugnacious animal” who fought every fight, whether to the duelist’s code or the slack rules of barroom brawls, actually to the death. Biddle was in a struggle with a man who saw the stakes as power over the national destiny, not as a question of the management of credit, and Biddle learned, as the South Carolina nullifiers learned, that Jackson’s will was a terrible and irresistible thing. Jackson’s old wounds and fragile health had him often in bed. “Nothing but the excitement keeps me up,” he said. He told Martin Van Buren, who visited his bedside after his uncompromising veto of the Bank charter bill had been sent to Congress, “The Bank … is trying to kill me, but I will kill it.” And those pugnacious sentiments toward his enemies he kept until he left office, when he said his only two regrets were that he had not shot Henry Clay and hanged John C. Calhoun. Biddle was a gifted man, a virtuoso, and, in fact, a brilliant banker; but despite his alliance with Clay and Daniel Webster and his influence reaching even into Jackson’s cabinet, he met his match in the hard Tennessean.
On July 4, 1842, the building at 55 Wall opened for business as the new, much enlarged Merchants Exchange. The event was overshadowed by the carnival celebration of the opening of the Croton Water System on the same day. Both were bold new answers to problems that had to be solved if the city were to prosper and grow. Without fresh and unspoiled water New Yorkers would have died in the thousands. Without a magnificent new meeting place for merchants and the Stock Exchange, the life of its commerce would have been stunted.
Fires terrified all city dwellers, and the worst of New York’s visitations took place in 1835 on the night of December 16. In fifteen hours it consumed close to seven hundred buildings, including the few remaining Dutch houses and the old Merchants Exchange, with its gorgeous dome and gigantic statue of Alexander Hamilton. Businessmen subscribed for a new building, and Isaiah Rogers, who had just completed the Astor House, was engaged to do the design. He built in Quincy granite and used the Ionic order, as one can see on the first three stories. All-granite construction was as close to fireproofing as one could get in that age. It was hoped that Croton water and temperatures less freezing than those on the night of the 1835 fire might combine to protect Wall Street from another disaster.
This great private building, contemporary with Robert Mills’s Treasury in Washington, D.C., was not only the meeting place for merchants but also the home of the Stock Exchange. It became the Custom House in 1863 and thereafter the center of the Republican machine in New York State.
The collector of the Port of New York had more than a thousand employees and handled two-thirds of the national revenue. In the 1870s the post was held by Chester A. Arthur, who was known as the “Gentleman Boss.” The era and the Custom House were a byword for corruption. Arthur was a loyal henchman to the egregious Roscoe Conkling, who slanged the reformers as “man milliners, the dilettante and carpet knights of politics.” Conkling was certain his enemies favored the “snivel service” and could not understand “parties are not built up by deportment, or by ladies’ magazines, or gush.” Conkling throve after 1868, when, as Henry Adams said, “the moral law had expired, as had the Constitution.” He divided his party into his own “Stalwarts” and the enemy “HalfBreeds” and made possible the election of Grover Cleveland in 1884.
In 1907 a new Custom House was opened at Bowling Green. Number 55 was sold to the National City Bank, which engaged McKim, Mead, & White to add to the building and adapt it for private banking purposes. That the firm did, keeping the classical idea but going for the more elaborate Corinthian order on the upper three stories.
As for Chester Arthur, he was nominated Vice-President in the 1880 campaign and then astonishingly became President when James Garfield was assassinated. And then, equally astonishingly, Arthur threw in with the hated civil service reformers, goo-goos, as the mocking, unrepentant Conkling called them.