Thursday, January 11, 2018

The 1890 Sun Fire Insurance Building - 54 Pine Street

Architect Arthur D. Pickering, whose offices were at No. 105 Fifth Avenue, enjoyed a varied practice in the 1880s and '90s.  His commissions ranged from luxurious country homes, to hotels and commercial buildings.  In 1889 he was hired by the London-based Sun Fire Insurance Company to design its new New York City offices.

Established in 1710 the firm was the second oldest fire insurance corporation in the world.  (A representative dismissed the second-place designation, noting in 1890 "As a corporation doing a purely fire insurance business it is, however, the oldest, as well as one of the richest.")  The firm had branched into New York City in 1882 and by now had 1,500 agents across the United States.  Now it looked to replace its old building at No. 54 Pine Street with a modern headquarters.

On June 7, 1889 Pickering filed the plans.  Three weeks later the Record & Guide noted the 27-foot wide building would be "constructed of Jonesborough granite and light-colored Baltimore brick."  The interiors, said the article would be of "marble and hardwoods" and there would be one elevator.

At a time when large buildings were thrown up within months, the Record & Guide seems to have been a bit impatient with the progress three months later.  "The five-story building now being erected at No. 54 Pine street, for the Sun Fire Office, of London, is not far advanced as yet.  The first floor iron beams are laid, and the side and rear walls are up to about the third story."

Construction was completed in May 1890 and the trade journal apparently felt it was worth the wait.  On May 10 the trade journal said "Indeed, it is safe to say that this building is one of the handsomest of its kind in the city."   Despite having just five floors, it was a pricey project, costing $160,000 with the land--just over $4 million today.

Pickering produced an eye-catching Queen Anne-style structure with no lack of visually interesting details.  Bands of stone contrasted with the Roman brick at the second floor, creating a striped effect.  The openings on this level were given egg-and-dart ornamented terra cotta frames.

A projecting cornice introduced the third and fourth floors where the openings were unified by a pair of complex Greek key terra cotta enframements.    Spandrel panels depicted sunbursts with faces, a nod to the name of the insurance company.  The top floor openings were grouped together within elaborate terra cotta frames.

The ground floor had little (or nothing) in common with the upper portion.  Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, May 24, 1890 (copyright expired)
Given the up-to-the-minute design of the upper stories, the ground floor was surprising.  The granite piers and entablature echoed the Greek Revival storefronts that had peppered the neighborhood decades earlier  The arched openings, as well, were holdovers from a generation earlier.

The Record & Guide said that much of the high cost of construction was "due to the quality of granite, marble, hardwoods and other embellishments used in the interior.  It pointed out "The flooring and wainscoting are of marble, and this is carried through the entire building.  Each floor is in hardwood trim, oak and quartered oak being used.  There are mantels, mirrors and fireplaces in the private offices of each suite, and all the necessary accommodations for an office building of a fire-class character have been provided, including an elevator, steam heat, electric gas lighting, sanitary plumbing, etc."

Nearly cartoonish sun faces symbolized the firm's name.

By the time the doors opened, the building was fully rented.  The basement through second floor were the Sun Fire Insurance offices; the third floor was taken up by the Transatlantic Insurance Company of Germany; the fourth was leased to insurance broker Frederick H. Parson; and the top floor to Joseph S. Spinney, a merchant who did significant business shipping goods to California.

Sun Fire Insurance would not be in the building long before it was one agent short.  In 1886 the 21-year old Charles Ackerman was hired for $5 a week.  The job, a company spokesperson later divulged, "was procured for him through the influence of H. M. Flagler."  Henry M. Flagler was, of course, a multi-millionaire partner in the Standard Oil Company.

Ackerman was more interested in enjoying a genteel lifestyle than in working.  The Sun later noted "He lived well and dressed well.  His commissioners were very small."  Describing him as "a tall, good looking young fellow," the newspaper said that he began courting "a young lady of good family" in Brooklyn, whom he married in 1890.

Ackerman's Sun Insurance manager, named Renshaw, told the reporter "during his courtship Ackerman gave his fiancee expensive presents, and his friends wondered where the money came from."  Everyone involved would find out when the firm's secretary, John J. Purcell, sent a letter to a policy holder in New Jersey asking why he was behind in his premiums.

The man appeared at No. 54 Pine Street with a receipt for $50 signed by Ackerman.  He then headed off for Ackerman's house in Brooklyn.  He waited there eight hours until the agent showed up.  Ackerman explained that it was all a huge mistake and that the man's money would be refunded the following day.

The Sun Fire Insurance Company would soon be looking for a replacement agent.  The Sun reported on October 21, 1891 that, indeed, he did pay back the $50; "but things were becoming very warm for him, and he departed to Chicago, leaving his young wife behind him.  This was six months ago."

Despite the size and wealth of the Sun Fire Insurance Company, its mangers showed their human side in 1894 when the firm was the victim of forgery.   After the perpetrator was caught, the circumstances surrounding the crime melted the hearts of the executives.

James E. Cowan had been working as a bookkeeper at the Norwich Fire Insurance Company nearby at No. 59 Wall Street.  But like so many other low-level workers, the Financial Panic of 1893 cost him his job in August that year and he could not find another.

He had just enough money to pay the $8 rent on the one-room apartment on West 133rd Street that he shared with his wife and 18-month old baby.  But he had nothing left for food or rent.

He forged a $40 check with the signature of  John C. Alten and went to the Sun Fire Insurance offices, saying he was the agent of Alten, who wished to insure two houses.  He received a $12 commission for the deal.  When Alten received the policy, the scam was uncovered.

Cowan was arrested and he confessed.  On October 13, 1894 The Sun reported, "Cowan, who is only 35 years old, but looks fully 50, wept as he stood at the bar."  The Evening World added "he told how he had committed the crime to get money to buy food for his wife and little girl, who were literally starving.  He had been out of work for a long time, and although brought up as a gentleman, he could not see his loved ones suffering for food."

In light of the several letters sent by officials of the Sun Fire Insurance Company "begging for clemency," Judge Cowing suspended sentence.

The firm was not so understanding when it came to George W. Holt, one of its fire insurance adjusters.   The city had been plagued with a rash of commercial fires in 1894 and early 1895.  In what seemed a remarkable coincidence, most of the cases were handled by Holt.

The disbelief on co-workers faces can only be imagined when police walked into the Sun Fire Insurance offices on June 22, 1895 and arrested Holt for arson and conspiracy to defraud.  Detective work had discovered that he was involved with a ring of "fire bugs" that included Policeman Charles H. Lenz.  The group would conspire with businessmen to burn their buildings, then divvy up the insurance settlements.

On October 16 The Sun noted that "There are seven persons charged with arson and said to be members of various firebug gangs awaiting trial now."  Among them was George W. Holt, who the newspaper said "is alleged to have made a fortune out of the business."

While Holt lost his job, he did not lose his freedom.  He was released when the jury was deadlocked for "lack of evidence."  Amazingly, he obtained a job in the New York office of the Fire Association Insurance Company of Philadelphia and immediately returned to his old ways.

On May 19, 1896, not a full year after his initial arrest, he was arrested along with Henry Vaughan and charged "with the presentation of false and fraudulent proof of loss with intent to defraud."  The New-York Tribune reported "The fire which they are alleged to have started was in the frame building owned by Max Gluckman, at No. 175 South Eighth-st.  The house was worth $1,200.  Hold was the representative of the fire insurance company."

Although the district attorney "strenuously contended that the defendants were guilty;" Judge Hurd dismissed the case in the County Court on January 6, 1897, saying it could not be proven.  The judge may have regretted his decision when three months later Holt was indicted "as an accessory after the fact to the crime of arson," according to The Sun on March 12.

Another tenant at No. 45 Pine to see the wrong side of jail bars was attorney Marshall R. Van Nostrand.  Following the death of one of his clients, Benjamin Pickman, on June 4, 1893, the administration of his $94,479 trust fund passed to Van Nostrand.  This gave him, according to The Evening Times of Washington D. C. years later, the "power to dispose of the principal by will."

Van Nostrand served as the legal adviser to the deceased man's widow, Sarah O. G. Pickman.  She became suspicious five years later and closely looked at the books.   She was displeased with what she found.

According to The Evening Times, "She asserts that he was to pay certain bequests in accordance with the will, and to invest the remainder for her benefit.  She acknowledges having received $82,494 from the lawyer, but says he has not accounted for $11,910."

The missing money would equal about a third of a million dollars today.  She filed suit for $18,070 and had Van Nostrand arrested.  The lawyer proclaimed his innocence and attributed the missing funds to "a claim against her for professional services, which, if settled, would clear the matter."

Another attorney in the building at the same time was Neville Castle, whose story outdid Van Nostrand's for drama.   Castle was doing a good business when he married San Francisco actress Mary Scott in 1899, whom The Hawaiian Star newspaper said "was regarded as the most beautiful woman on the Pacific Coast."

The bride moved to New York following the wedding and made her debut in The Princess and the Butterfly.  The New York Times mentioned, "in the role of Fay Zuliani, a debutante, Mary Scott, in private life Mrs. Neville Castle...seems to have made a note-worthy hit."

But while Mary's professional fortunes seemed bright, her husband's were not.   In 1900 his business failed.  Leaving his actress wife behind, he forged off to join the Alaskan gold rush.  On April 1, 1901 The Hawaiian Star reported "until a year ago [he] had offices at 45 Pine street.  He then lost his money, and hoping to regain his fortune, went to the Klondike."

Mary continued her stage career, while living at No. 220 West 45th Street.   In March 1901 a cousin, Mrs. Frank Goodwin, who lived at No. 467 Central Park West, gave a dinner in her honor.  Afterward Mary was supposed to attend rehearsals, but she complained of feeling ill and left for home.

She did not show up there and days later was still missing.  Newspapers nationwide reported on the search and suggested suicide.  Another cousin, Crocker Goodwin, who had been at the dinner, told reporters "In my opinion Mrs. Castle has made away with herself" and refereed a letter Mary had recently written to his wife that said "The game is not worth the candle, for the strain has absolutely worn me out."  Another cousin, Lawrence Griffith had spent two full days searching for her.  He added "She was too ambitious to be happy.  She simply wore herself out."

In fact, it may have all been a well thought out publicity scheme.  A few months later, on July 28, The Times reported "The feature at Keith's next week will be Miss Mary Scott, (Mrs. Neville Castle), who will make her first appearance in New York in vaudeville.  Miss Scott claims relationship with the late ex-President Benjamin Harrison."  No mention was made of the earlier incident.

In an interesting side note, eight years later Mary was arrested in the Waldorf-Astoria after she shot her lawyer William L. Craig in the main hallway there.  Rumors had already swirled that the two were carrying on an affair.  But she insisted that "she was not divorced nor legally separated from her husband, and that neither he nor she had any cause for divorce.  She said he was 'a Yale man and a gentleman,'" reported The Times.

Despite that, the couple was divorced within the year.

In the meantime, The Sun Fire Insurance Company had commissioned architect Richard K. Mosley in 1904 to "take out and rebuild [the] front wall" and to do interior renovations, including "re-arrange elevators."  While two of the hefty granite pilasters remained, the two openings were replaced by a yawning arch that engulfed a centered window flanked by two entrances, one to the upper floors and the other to the insurance offices.  Carved decorations in the spandrels of the arches depicted crossed burning torches--symbols of fire departments and related companies--under a heraldic shield.  An incised sunburst, symbolizing the Sun Fire Insurance company provided the background.

The corner carvings depict torches, symbols of the fire department, on a sunburst background.
One tenant in the pre-World War I years who was not involved in the legal or insurance industries was Harper Gallagher, a jewelry dealer.  He became the victim of a thug on his way home on the night of August 14, 1913 while riding on the Broadway streetcar.

Around 20th Street he felt a hand reaching for his wallet.  He grabbed the wrist of the middle-aged man sitting next to him, who pulled out what appeared to be a black-jack.  The New York Times reported "Whatever it was it landed on Gallagher's head with sufficient force to knock him from the car."

Gallagher's problems were not over by far.  As he began to get to his feet, he was struck by a north-bound street car and knocked to the gutter.  He was so battered that he was taken to the New York Hospital.  Detectives launched an investigation "to find out how the assault on the open trolley car had escaped notice."

After half a century at No 54 Pine Street and 30 years in the Pickering-designed building, in May 1920 the Sun Fire Insurance Company leased space at No. 56 John Street.   Three years later it transferred title to No. 54 Pine to real estate operator Frederick Brown.

Then, on May 1, 1926 The New York Times reported that A. G. Becker & Co. have moved their office to their own building at 54 Pine Street."   Prior to moving in, the firm had commissioned architect Lester Kintzing to remodel the interiors to "banking offices," as described in his plans.  The minor alteration to the facade was the inclusion of bronze lettering above the first floor entablature which announced the firm's name.

The Chicago-based brokerage firm filled all five floors and did business here until 1955 when it sold the property to Simon Mogeloff and the Interboro Realty Company.  A. G. Becker & Co. moved to No. 60 Broadway in December that year and the new owners renovated No. 54 to house a restaurant on the ground floor and mezzanine, with offices above.  For some reason, the bronze lettering over the new restaurant's window were preserved.

In 2000 a three-year renovation resulted in one apartment on each of the upper floors.  A restaurant is still housed at ground level.  Arthur D. Pickering's striking 1890 building is overshadowed by its soaring skyscraper neighbors.  It is nonetheless a delightful surprise on the narrow little street.

photographs by the author

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