- 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 building, which stands on just under an acre of ground, rises sheer to a height of forty stories and contains an astonishing 1.2 million square feet of office space. The shadow it cast upon its completion, one-seventh of a mile at noon, was not just physical but ethical and political as well.
The Equitable was the creation of H. B. Hyde, a genius at marketing. He created new policies, expanded his sales force, and adopted the motto that appeared on all policies and on company letterheads, “Protector of the widow and orphan,” and built up the company to be the third-largest insurance firm in the world. In the process he overcame, with the help of clergymen like Henry Ward Beecher, a religious prejudice against insurance, which seemed to tamper with the divine will by anticipating the end of one’s days and put financial temptation before otherwise docile wives. Hyde enlisted the support of the city’s foremost Presbyterian families, who financed his company and populated its board and high offices.
His son, James Hazen Hyde, who inherited the controlling shares in the enterprise, was a dandy and an aesthete. He had none of the discipline necessary to master the business and no resources to protect his own and the widows’ and orphans’ funds (though he often thought they were one and the same) from being put at the disposal of the Wall Street speculators. It must be said for the junior Hyde—and he did say it later for himself—that pooling private and company funds was something everyone did, and he was startled to be singled out.
When the scandal broke in 1905 and an investigation, headed by the severe and very intelligent Charles Evans Hughes, was begun, it was revealed that the officers of the Equitable, and the other major insurance companies, spent much money on political corruption and ran a “House of Mirth” in Albany where compliant legislators would be treated to the pleasures of the extra-legislative life by hosts from the company and hostesses from touring musical comedies and other sources of the young and pretty. Ironically Edith Wharton’s novel of the same name came out that year and was an extraordinary success partly because many buyers expected to read a salacious exposé in the muckraking genre.
By the time the investigation was over, the Equitable was a much distrusted and a very well hated institution, and Charles Evans Hughes was on his way to becoming a progressive, reform governor of the state of New York and, eventually, Chief Justice of the United States.
Then, in 1912, a fire gutted the old building on this site. Many suspected the blaze was set to destroy records that might implicate the Equitable even more deeply in scandal. The conflagration was famous in the annals of the city’s fire department; with firemen straining at hacksaws for hours to save people trapped beneath the sidewalk level in the steel barred vaults.
When it opened in 1915, the new Equitable Building’s sheer mass touched off a huge public outcry. The next year New York became the first American city to enact zoning regulations and a building ordinance that made future Equitables impossible. The controversial giant had packed in floor space almost thirty times the site’s area; thereafter buildings would be confined to floors of just twelve times the site’s area. The building code’s requirements led to the look of the twenties: buildings with a succession of setbacks from the street so that air and light might be saved, though tall towers might be built on the 25 percent of the building plots that remained after the last required setback level was reached. Thus a grotesquely dominating building, reflecting a grotesquely mismanaged and exploited financial institution, brought the rudiments of city planning to New York.
One might say that when the public learned what was done “with other people’s money,” they rebelled and demanded that some limit be set on what might be done with other people’s space, air, and light.
It is worth walking through the Equitable Building from Nassau to Broadway to see acres of marble and barreled vaults and elegant lunettes. The interior arcade is some compensation for the brutal exterior bulk.
When we come out the other side on Broadway, we are looking across at two narrow, Gothic-style skyscrapers of twenty-one stories each, joined at the top floor by a flying corridor and framing a slender road called Thames Street. No one knows when Thames got its name or why, but I suspect it was named after one of the victories of the War of 1812.
In 1906, when the buildings were opened to renters, Bernard Baruch, by then a wealthy and well-known figure on the Street, took an office in the Trinity Building at 111 Broadway, the southernmost of the twins. Baruch’s office was at the prestige address, for unlike the US. Realty Building to the north, it had the view, the air, and the light that the north graveyard of Trinity provided, probably in perpetuity.