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Background: The Bank of New York
The Bank of New York opened for business in June 1784, less than a year after the British evacuated New York City at the end of the Revolutionary War. (Details on the establishment of BNY are here). Among the bank’s founders were Alexander McDougall, Isaac Roosevelt, Gulian VerPlanck, and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton remained a member of the board and BNY’s legal advisor until he was appointed secretary of the Treasury in 1789.
BNY’s first headquarters was Walton House. According to the Columbia Historical Portrait of New York (invaluable!), Walton House was on Pearl Street between Peck Slip and Dover Street, near the present-day entrance ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge.
In 1797, BNY moved to a brand new two-story Georgian-style building at the corner of Wall and William Streets. Its cornerstone is preserved on the facade of 48 Wall Street.
Hamilton may have attended the laying of the cornerstone on June 22, 1797 … or he might have been otherwise occupied. In June 1797, James Callender accused him of speculation as secretary of the Treasury (more here). Hamilton responded with Observations on Certain Documents Contained in nos. V & VI of “The History of the United States for the Year 1796,” better known as the “Reynolds Pamphlet.” He signed it July 1797.
Exterior of 48 Wall St.
The building presently at 48 Wall Street was constructed in 1927 as the new headquarters of the Bank of New York. (BNY remained there until 1998, when it acquired Irving Trust and moved to 1 Wall Street.) Architect Benjamin Wistar Morris designed 48 Wall in a conservative style – Colonial Revival – that suited his very conservative client.
Interior of 48 Wall St.
The original banking hall (now part of the Museum of American Finance) is reached by a gorgeous marble staircase: elliptical and cantilevered.
Beneath the banking hall’s 30-foot ceilings and huge chandeliers are eight arched murals related to the Bank of New York and to commerce. J. Monroe Hewlett, an architect as well as a mural painter, completed them around 1929. The style is reminiscent of the works of N.C. Wyeth, one of my favorite 20th-c. artist/illustrators. Hewlett’s grand-daughter Angelsea Parkhurst Newman noted that Hewlett also executed a series of murals in the auditorium of the Carnegie Institution in Washington that “depict a group of heroic figures—astronomers, geographers, and explorers—typifying the researchers of the institution.” It drives me mad that I can’t find images of those online. On Hewlett’s career, see also the Lehman College Art Gallery site.
The mural sequence runs from left to right. The three across the back (north) wall honor the earliest presidents of the Bank of New York. Five more along the right-hand (east) wall, celebrate industry and commerce.
Before you look at these, please note that the photos do not do them justice. The images are rather dark and grainy, because I use a handheld 12 MP Canon Powershot that’s a couple years old. They ought to be photographed with a serious camera of 30+ MP, a tripod, and supplementary lighting. Best substitute: visit the Museum of American Finance and see them in person!
Founders’ murals (north wall)
On the first mural, the grisaille (gray-and-white) portrait relief front and center honors General Alexander McDougall (d. 1786), first president of the Bank of New York. He was a hero in colonial New York for his opposition to the Crown, and during the Revolutionary War rose to the rank of major-general. We met him in a previous post, delivering a memorial from the army at Newburgh to Congress in Philadelphia in January 1783.
The building pictured is Walton House, BNY’s first home: see the earlier image at the beginning of this post. The spectators in the foreground (anachronistically) are Dutch burghers, or perhaps early English settlers.
Beneath this painting runs the text of the advertisement of February 23, 1784, that established the Bank of New York: “It appearing to be the disposition of the gentlemen in this city to establish a bank on the liberal principles, the stock to consist of specie only, they are therefore hereby invited to meet tomorrow evening at six-o-clock when a plan will be submitted to their consideration.”
The second mural has a portrait relief of Isaac Roosevelt (d. 1794), BNY’s second president, 1786-1791. Aside from being a co-founder of BNY, he helped found the New York Chamber of Commerce and the Society of the New York Hospital (the city’s first hospital). Like McDougall, Roosevelt was a Federalist and an ally of Hamilton. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was his great-great-grandson.
The building in the background is the original Federal Hall: Washington was inaugurated there in April 1789, during Roosevelt’s tenure as president of BNY. See the contemporary engraving here. The spectators this time are proper eighteenth-century gentlemen. The figure standing near the center, with a scroll in his hand, is probably Alexander Hamilton. The face looks very much like Hamilton’s as it appeared on the $10 bill, beginning in 1929 (around the time these murals were painted).
The third mural has a relief portrait of Gulian Verplanck (d. 1799), third president of BNY, of which he was also a co-founder. Like McDougall, Roosevelt, and Hamilton, he was a Federalist.
The building in the background is the 1797 BNY headquarters at Wall and William Streets: see image near the beginning of this post. The spectators at the left and right seem to be pioneers – appropriate, since Americans began pushing West even before Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803.
Industry and commerce murals (east wall)
The fourth mural celebrates foreign trade. Docks jutted out all around the lower end of Manhattan in the 19th century.
The fifth mural celebrates agriculture and mining. The building is the original Merchants Exchange (1827), at 55 Wall Street (a block east of William). A 15-foot tall sculpture of Alexander Hamilton was dedicated inside the building in 1835. Both building and sculpture were reduced to rubble a few months later, in the Great Fire of 1835. In honor of agriculture, there’s a man with a horse and plow planting crops on Wall Street (!) and a man at left with a sheaf of wheat. In honor of mining, the man on the right pans for gold.
The sixth mural is captioned “National Credit, 1861.” In the background is Federal Hall at Wall and Broad Streets, built in 1842 as the United States Customs House. It was erected on the site of the building (pictured in the second mural) on whose balcony Washington was inaugurated. At the left is a Union soldier, at the right a black man raising a flag. Down Wall Street (go West!) bumps a covered wagon.
The seventh mural celebrates steam transportation. On the west side, the railroads may once have run that close to the docks. The spectator at right appears to be wearing America’s most enduring contribution to fashion, Levi’s jeans (est. 1853).
The eighth and final mural celebrates steel and electricity with my favorite of the eight images: a steamship passing beneath the Brooklyn Bridge (completed 1883).
- I’ve taken information on McDougall, Roosevelt, VerPlanck, and the Bank of New York mostly from the Encyclopedia of New York City, another invaluable work.
- Information on the Museum of American Finance is here, including a page on 48 Wall Street.
- Information on 48 Wall Street from the Skyscraper Museum is here (search “48”). See also “The Rise of Wall Street.”
- Since Alexander Hamilton played such an important role in the founding of the Bank of New York, you might consider this post an episode (44.5?) in my series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical. My intro to this series is here. Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. If you’ve read this far and enjoyed it, why not sign up to hear about future installments? Follow me on Twitter @NYCsculpture, friend the Forgotten Delights page on Facebook, or ask to be added to my mailing list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com), which will get you a weekly email with some bonus comments. Bottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.