5 New York Buildings That Changed American History

The inconspicuous landmarks where the Depression exploded, modern art bloomed, and the United Nations first assembled.

Sam Roberts

Can a conglomeration of bricks, glass, wood, steel and mortar reveal the soul of a city? Maybe even a country? Forged from natural resources and assembled by human ingenuity, these buildings help illustrate how New York evolved from struggling Dutch company town into world capital. There are 700,000 buildings in the city. Here are five of the more inconspicuous yet important ones, along with the events that made them famous.

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Credit…Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

26 Wall Street, Manhattan

Do you know where Congress approved the Bill of Rights? Or where the nation first debated slavery? Or where the Supreme Court first met? It was not in Boston or Philadelphia.

The federal government was invented in New York City.

New Yorkers are so consumed by the present and the future that many residents don’t realize that their hometown was the nation’s first capital — a fortuitous choice that catalyzed the city’s revival after seven years of brutal British occupation.

The site selection was not an accident; it was the first and last time that the location of the national capital was held hostage to the demand of a prospective cabinet member: John Jay agreed to become secretary of state only if the Confederation Congress — the country’s governing body in the 1780s — vacated Trenton, N.J., and convened, instead in New York.

The old City Hall was renovated, George Washington was inaugurated, and for 531 days, in 1789 and 1790, 95 members of Congress, many of them with rival agendas, innovated, improvised and compromised to flesh out the bare bones of the new 4,500-word constitution.

After 1790, Congress decamped for Philadelphia temporarily and then to a swamp on the Potomac, freeing New York to become the capital of capital.

Federal Hall would soon be a dilapidated, century-old relic, razed in 1812 and sold for scrap. But on that site, the federal government commissioned a majestic building whose columned exterior evoked Athenian democracy and whose Grand Rotunda recalled republican Rome.

This building opened in 1842 as the Customs House, a monument to New York’s pre-eminence in maritime commerce, since the money collected from shipping alone was sufficient to support virtually all the functions of the federal government.

When it outgrew that role, it was converted into the heavily fortified subtreasury and, after World War I, became the largest repository of gold in the world.

Today, Federal Hall is best known for its steps and statue of George Washington.

280 Broadway, Manhattan

By today’s standards, this TriBeCa building, just north of City Hall Park, might be dismissed as nondescript, but in the mid-19th century, the palatial, Italianate structure was one of the most celebrated destinations in the city.

The obituary in 1876 of its owner, an Irish immigrant named Alexander Turney Stewart, made the front page of The New York Times, while the editorial page gushed that Stewart had “amassed the largest fortune ever accumulated within the span of a single life.”

Stewart, described more recently as “the most influential retailer in 19th-century New York” in the book “Invented Cities,” is widely credited with developing the first department store in the country.

Thanks to the Erie Canal, New York was booming in 1825 when Stewart invested his small inheritance in lace and other fripperies for women’s clothing.

What started as a humble dry goods store evolved into a retail emporium sheathed in gleaming white marble, which distinguished it from the earth tones of other contemporary Broadway buildings, with a rotunda and dome, elevating a commercial enterprise into a public institution and Stewart into an entrepreneurial prince.

After Stewart died, the building became the headquarters of The New York Sun. But even in death, Stewart proved to be a retailing sensation of sorts. Body-snatchers stole his corpse and held it for ransom.

68 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan

A decade before an exhibition inside the 69th Regiment Armory would redefine art in America — and accredit New York as a cultural capital — the facade of this military drill hall broke new ground architecturally.

Built in 1906 to fill a gap in Manhattan’s defense network, the redoubt at Lexington Avenue and East 25th Street was designed as a Beaux-Arts bastion in an era when other armories were still being modeled on medieval fortresses.

The 69th Regiment had been immortalized as the “Fighting Sixty-Ninth,” by Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, and as the “Fighting Irish,” by Joyce Kilmer in his World War I poem. The armory’s size reflected the Sixty-Ninth’s towering reputation.

Designed by the sons of Richard Morris Hunt, whose father made the base of the Statue of Liberty and the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum, the armory was itself a work of art. Steel trusses supported a glass roof that arched 126 feet above the mammoth space the size of seven full-size basketball courts.

The gargantuan hall would become Manhattan’s multipurpose room, the site of everything from roller derbies to Knicks games, and even a counseling center after 9/11.

But the armory would be canonized in the annals of culture by the International Exhibition of Modern Art, also known as the Armory Show of 1913, which featured some 1,300 works by 300 artists.

New York was exploding with contradictions in the decade before the Roaring Twenties, in politics, finance and music, so why not in painting and sculpture? The organizers of the exhibition boasted of cultural sabotage committed by the works of avant-garde artists, like Marcel Duchamp’s Cubist “Nude Descending a Staircase” and Henri Matisse’s “Blue Nude.”

The novelty jarred spectators conversant with classical art and its tastemakers. “The Armory Show demolished the power of the Academy,” one critic wrote about the show that “scandalized America.”

1254 Southern Boulevard, the Bronx

People were poor when Joseph S. Marcus built this Classical limestone building in 1921. Most became even poorer less than a decade later, when immigrant, working-class depositors unsuccessfully sought to withdraw their savings from what had become the first Bronx branch of Mr. Marcus’s overextended Bank of United States.

The economist Milton Friedman would call the bank run that day “the pebble that started an avalanche.”

How regulators let the bank bamboozle mostly Yiddish-speaking foreign-born Jews from the Garment Center by approving its official-sounding name (after deleting the “the” from before “United States”) is another story.

After Mr. Marcus died in 1927, his son, Bernard, and a partner, Saul Singer, began a frenzied expansion that grew to 60 branches, 400,000 depositors and 18,000 stockholders. But they had built a house of cards, creating dummy corporations, granting loans to bank employees to buy shares, and entangling the company in real estate investments.

On Dec. 10, 1930, a jittery account holder confronted a teller at the Bronx branch and demanded to redeem his stock in the bank. He was badgered to retain his shares rather than cash out, triggering a rumor that the bank was reneging on its promise to buy them back at the original purchase price.

By midafternoon, 3,000 panicky depositors had withdrawn their money, and 25,000 ghoulish onlookers had gathered to watch, a year after the stock market crashed, the Roaring Twenties conclusively culminate with a thundering crescendo. The big banks refused to rescue Bank of United States (some economists blamed anti-Semitism).

It “became a day of monetary infamy,” Mr. Friedman would say. “The beginning of four banking crises that eventually carried America and the world into the worst economic crisis in history.”

The bank was shuttered. Bernard Marcus went to jail. The building became a laundromat. Unlike the bank on Dec. 10, 1930, the laundromat has had a working A.T.M. that dispenses cash.

2851 Paul Avenue, the Bronx

In the mid-1940s, New York was so confident of landing the headquarters of the nascent United Nations that officials didn’t even bother wooing the site selection commission in London.

Indeed, the commission liked the idea of the Metropolitan area, with one caveat: The headquarters would need to be located at least 25 miles outside of the city. In early 1946, a leafy site near Greenwich, Conn., became a serious contender until its residents voted against even a friendly foreign invasion just three weeks before the first Security Council session in the country was supposed to take place.

With alternative locations drying up, some U.N. functionaries started to worry. Maybe a place inside the city wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.

James Lyons, the borough president of the Bronx, offered the campus of Hunter College, which had relocated to the Bedford Park section of the borough from Manhattan in the mid-1930s.

College officials at the time were displeased. They had hoped the campus would be ready to accept an overflow class of postwar students in the fall. But City Hall, which controlled the college, prevailed, and an army of carpenters, electricians, telephone installers and other craftsmen descended on Hunter’s turreted neo-Georgian gym, while the State Liquor Authority convened in an emergency session to grant a license to the newly completed delegates’ lounge.

On March 25, 1946, the first Security Council meeting of the United Nations in the United States was called to order.

Before finding a permanent home on Manhattan’s East Side, thanks to John D. Rockefeller Jr., his son Nelson and the developer William Zeckendorf, the Security Council also met at the Sperry Corporation plant in Lake Success, N.Y., and the General Assembly convened in the New York City Pavilion of the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

Hunter College would eventually be returned to Manhattan. Now the campus, with the United Nations pedigree, is home to Lehman College.

One forgotten New Yorker left his mark on the inaugural Security Council session, held in what is now known as the Old Gym Building. In their final security check of the council chamber, U.N. staffers found a handwritten note, left by a Greek immigrant carpenter: “May I, who have had the privilege of fabricating this ballot box, cast the first vote? May God be with every member of the United Nations Organization, and through your noble efforts bring lasting peace to us all — all over the world.”

This article is adapted from “A History of New York in 27 Buildings,” by Sam Roberts (Bloomsbury, 2019).

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