- 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
When the infant Congress issued bonds, some found it worthwhile to trade them exclusively. They were the first stockbrokers.
The buttonwood tree is gone now—and so, for years, was everything else at 60 Wall. The site stood empty for a long time, but at last a buyer was found for the reported price of fifteen hundred dollars per square foot. Now rising on the site is the rust red skeleton of a building that will become the new headquarters of J. P. Morgan & Company.
Beyond the girders are Pearl Street and a squat and powerful building, Number 74, whose rugged facade is dominated by a huge Romanesque arch at its entrance, decorated with a frieze of nautical symbols: anchors, fish, sailing ships, and the like. Number 74 Wall was built for the Seamen’s Bank for Savings but was taken over by the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. Williamsburg is a neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn across the East River. Until 1855 it was an independent city, but in that year it was annexed by the city of Brooklyn, losing its independence and the old h at the tail end of its name. As homage to the old days of what was also known as the Eastern District, the bank retained the old spelling. Only the Williamsburgh branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, now in the heart of Hasidic north Brooklyn, retains the sign of political independence.
Another plaque, this one on the northeast corner of Number 74, is a testament to the lengthy and full political career of Edward Livingston, brother of the chancellor Robert R. Livingston, who held the Bible and administered the oath of office to George Washington. Edward lived in a house on this site from 1784 to 1795. He moved to Philadelphia and served in the House of Representatives from 1795 to 1801 and returned to be appointed mayor of New York; he was simultaneously appointed United States attorney for New York, which may bespeak a shortage of dependable Democratic-Republicans in the city at that time. He left for Louisiana when a scandal hit his administration (in the end, although he had no legal obligation to do so, he made good money that had been swindled from the city by a clerk he had appointed).
In Louisiana he continued his political career, alienated from Jefferson, who was convinced that Livingston had connived to help Burr win the 1801 presidential balloting in the House of Representatives after the tie vote in the Electoral College. In time Livingston, who helped organize the defense of New Orleans for Gen. Andrew Jackson, became a stalwart of the new democracy and served as Secretary of State and minister to France for Old Hickory.
Livingston was a rival of Hamilton and believed in limited government but not in limited public service; the abbreviated list on the plaque attests to that. Born at Livingston Manor in upper New York State, the seat of his family’s great estates, he was a patrician and a democrat opposed to the citified finance of men like Hamilton. Although he long made Wall Street his home, Livingston looked toward the great stretches of mainland where Main Street in time would dominate.
A very short block brings us to the southwest corner of Wall and Water, where the brand-new Barclay’s Bank Building stands on the site of the Merchants Coffee House. There, in 1784, the very young Alexander Hamilton founded his specie bank.
The Merchants Coffee House was replaced in 1794 by the bigger and better Tontine Coffee House directly across the street at Number 82, where the stained and rather nondescript turn-of-the-century Tontine Building carries on the name.
It was here that the brokers who signed the Buttonwood Agreement more or less found their first permanent indoor home, where twice daily auctions or calls were held, and it was here that they dealt in that first important national government issue of eighty million dollars.
Coffeehouses were a mixture of social club, political meetinghouse, insurance exchange, commodities market, post office, and newspaper city room; and men living with the hazards of commercial life, political upset, and more than a few plagues and contagions were given to adding to the ordinary budget of uncertainties by betting outright on prices, wars, or anything that might make a horse race, including horse races.
These men who were so at home with the commercial vagaries of slaves and rum and molasses, who dealt with each other a few hundred feet from the sailing ships that were beginning to bring the wealth of the world to the East River piers, seem an incredible distance from the men and women who study the busy electronics of today’s exchange. But the eagerness is the same, and so are the rivalries. And so is the risk. Perhaps this is not a bad place to leave our tour, amid the banter and shoptalk of a Wall Street two centuries gone.
But I prefer to walk back west through those crowded blocks for a last look at Federal Hall and at the statue of George Washington in front of it.