- 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
Number One Wall Street shines and glitters, even on the darkest winter day, in its curtain wall of beautifully worked limestone. The Irving Trust Company moved into the architect Ralph Walker’s flamboyant fifty-story building, the last to be built directly on the street, in the glum year of 1932. The banking room, a riot of red and orange tiles, is so exuberant that one forgets that this is, after all, a trust company, priding itself on fiduciary restraint. Designed in the “New Era” of the twenties, this jazzy, Art Deco style did not seem as frivolous as it might have just a decade earlier—or later, as the Depression-ridden thirties settled in.
The site of the banking room itself was once 3 Wall Street, where Washington Irving lived in 1808, while he was writing A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. Irving, in the days when Wall was still a modest commercial and banking center, was the first American professional writer. He also became our first expatriate when he left Gotham, as he dubbed New York, and its love of the “almighty dollar,” a phrase he coined, to serve in diplomatic posts abroad. But he had linked himself securely enough to New York City for the bank above his vanished home to bear his name.
It was a disappointment to me, who grew up knowing Irvings as pharmacists, butchers, and furriers or as bespectacled and reedy young men bustling through the Bronx High School of Science, to learn that the bank was not named after an Irving who had scaled the height of finance. But they never christen banks with someone’s first name, do they? Some of Washington Irving’s ironic flippancy easily rubs off on viewers of Ralph Walker’s extraordinary building.
Washington Irving’s Peter Stuyvesant, “tough, sturdy, valiant, weather-beaten, nettlesome, obstinate, leathern-sided, lion-hearted,” fourth governor of New Netherland, dedicated servant of the Dutch West India Company, would not have taken my lightheartedness lightly. In 1653 he commanded that a fortified wall be built from the East River to the Hudson. The wall was no more than a “curtain of planks,” which, alas, did not prevent the British from forcing Stuyvesant in 1664 to surrender without firing a shot. In the 169Os the British finally tore the wall down and used the wood to put up the first Trinity Church and a new City Hall. New York was marching uptown.
The old wall was intercepted by New Street, the first street the English incised into the street pattern of the old Dutch settlement. New runs north-south, while most of the older streets run eastward, gently sloping to the East River.
The greatest of the north-south streets was Broadway, the “route of heroes,” the street New York set aside for its greatest parades. Up from the Battery they marched to City Hall, where the mayor gave the keys to the city to Charles Lindbergh, or Gertrude Ederle, or Marie, queen of Romania. The skies filled with ticker tape and torn telephone books, and that man-made blizzard became a signature of the city and a symbol of the peak of success and acclaim.
Number One Wall Street shines and glitters, even on the darkest winter day, in its curtain wall of beautifully worked limestone.
No one parades up New Street; it is too narrow. And nobody paraded anywhere in the city in March 1888 after the Great Blizzard had brought the city to a standstill. The best photographs of the aftermath were taken on New Street, forested with telephone poles that carried not only the dits and dots of telegraphers but also stock-ticker reports, the gold ticker, telephone signals, and Mr. Edison’s live electric wires. After the blizzard the city forced the wires underground, and one of the enduring wonders or annoyances of Wall Street’s life is how much and how often the streets are torn up to get at the tangled lifelines beneath the asphalt.
Halfway between New and Broad there is a wall plaque that memorializes the site of old 15 Wall Street. Here in 1889, twenty-two years after the stock ticker had gone into use, one year after the paralyzing blizzard, and three years after the miraculous first million-share day on the exchange, Charles H. Dow and Edward B. Jones first produced The Wall Street Journal, then only a trim gazette of quotations and financial news and now, of course, the largest-circulation national newspaper.