Friday, December 17, 2010

From the Archives: Saved Dimes Turn into Prime Real Estate

In this post, BPC's archivist, Anne Kumer, shares some history that crosses the boundaries of two BIDs, the 34th Street District, and Bryant Park. This post also appears on NYC, Circa, a history blog about New York City and its public spaces.

In 1859, a group of thirty four business men founded and chartered a mutual savings bank. They named it Union Dime Savings Institute to show solidarity with the Federal Union as well as remind people that “dimes saved increased to dollars.”  They were also the first banking institution to use the word "Dime" in its title, though others soon followed. The bank first opened a modest office at Canal and Varick Streets. In 1867, they moved their headquarters to Canal and Laight Streets, and in 1876, to 32nd and Broadway:

Broadway and Sixth Avenue, loo... Digital ID: 809713. New York Public Library
Photo, NYPL Digital Collection

This six-story white marble building was built in 1874, and in October of that year, Union Dime Savings Institute bought the title of the property from Rudolph A. Witthaus, for $275,000, nearly $70 per square foot. This was considered a fair amount of money for a neighborhood that hadn't quite achieved its desired reputation.

Greeley Square, c. 1908, with the elevated 6th Avenue train station on the right.

The front fa├žade faced Greeley Square Park and 32nd Street, and the building housed the Union Dime offices as well as apartments on its upper floors.  The bank remained there for the next 34 years before moving uptown eight blocks to the corner of 40th Street and 6th Avenue. The old building at 32nd sold for a record high price of $1,000,000, or, about $250 a square foot. Aside from making news for its price tag, the deal aroused interest because the purchasers, City Investing Company, didn’t own any adjacent property, or have any plans for the space or building, suggesting to many, an intention to flip the property for a higher price.  

At around the turn of the century, the 34th Street district was going through a massive transition. Improvements in mass transit led to the arrival of retail giants Macy’s, whose flagship store was built in 1901-1902, and Gimbels (1910).  The 6th Avenue elevated train had been operating since 1878, but the early 1900s also saw the addition of the “Hudson Tubes” (New Jersey PATH train), and the completion of Pennsylvania Station in 1910. Additionally, the Hotel Martinique on 32nd Street and Broadway finished its third phase of completion in 1910-1911, rounding out the district as a new hub for retail, transportation, and hospitality.

Regardless of the rise of the 34th Street district, in 1908, Union Dime purchased the corner lot on 40th Street and 6th Avenue, across from Bryant Park, for $1,000,000. (Many also know the block between 5th and 6th Avenue on 40th Street as the longtime home of the Tesla Society, named after the inventor of wireless communication and alternating current electricity, Nikola Tesla.) Five row houses were 
demolished to make room for what The Independent referred to as “one of the most imposing banking edifices in the city” (vol. 68, p. 664). The Italian Renaissance building was designed by architect Alfred Taylor, and featured a 96 x 85 foot main banking room with 48 foot tall ceilings.

View from Bryant Park (known then as Reservoir Square) looking towards 6th Ave. 40th Street is along the left. Photo, NYPL
View of the South side of the Union Dime building on 40th Street, looking east toward the park and the NYPL building.    Photo, NYPL

I'm not sure when this building was torn down, but it was still there in the 1930s (upper left, just behind the 6th Avenue elevated train line in the photo below):

And, in the 1950s, when this subway map was published and distributed by Union Dime:

It was probably torn down sometime in the mid-1950s, to make way for a 34-story office building designed by Kahn and Jacobs, and Sydney Goldstone. The building was completed in 1957, and is still there, looking much the same as it did in 1959, when a photo of it was published on the cover of Union Dime's 100th Anniversary booklet.

**Special thanks to Mr. Boyd Lewis at Union Dime, Inc. for his insight and interest, and a copy of the Union Dime 1959 yearbook.

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