Tinos green marble is a vivid green-blue with wide white veins, mined from the quarries of a small mountainous Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Briar Hill sandstone is an earthy stone of warm red, rust, brown, and buff-colored tones taken from quarries in Glenmont, Ohio. Missouri is the source of Napoleon gray marble, while Rouge Royal is a stone from Belgium of reddish-pink hues with gray and white veins.
These materials with intriguing names come from places hundreds, even thousands of miles apart. You may not get to all of these places and tramp upon their lands. But you can see them all, and more, in one place: the Bowery Savings Bank building on East 42nd Street in New York. We know the phrase “a world in a grain of sand,” but the phrase “a world in a single building” is equally true. Many parts of the earth come together in a single one of our most wondrous buildings.
It’s difficult to grasp how many different kinds of stone and marble and other fine materials those who planned and built the Bowery Savings Bank brought together. Both the exterior and the interior of the bank building, at 110-120 East 42nd Street in Manhattan, are designated as New York City landmarks.
The building doesn’t call as much attention to itself as other beautiful, eye-catching landmarks in the city. Still, it looks like a piece of an Old Europe city tucked across from Grand Central Station, with its grand rounded arches, detailed stone carving, and a rock-solidness that feels centuries old though it was constructed in the early 20th century.
The building contains all of the materials cited above – the Tinos marble, Ohio sandstone, Napoleon gray marble, and Rouge Royal marble – and much, much more variety. The word “rich” doesn’t so it justice, though it’s not flashy like casinos and other temples of today. Those who designed and built the bank and created the stonework let their dreams come true, it seems. Just consider that in the main banking hall, those responsible for this great place brought materials for the floor from the marble quarries of more than a half-dozen countries. For the six thick, gorgeous columns on the main banking room’s east wall, for instance, the marble for each column is from a quarry in six different places, from the south of France and the Italian Alps to Belgium.
Ghosts of Bank Lines Past
Where part of the old Grand Union Hotel stood, Bowery Savings constructed a proud new bank in the early 1920s. It came at a time when it was important, in the bank’s view, to encourage the masses not only to save but to have faith in saving. (“A mutual institution chartered 1834 to serve those who save” is carved in stone above the arch of the main entrance.) “The Bowery” was one of New York’s oldest and most venerable banks.
By the early 20th century, it was a prosperous, growing bank situated in a Classical Revival building – a popular style for many banks in those days – on Grand Street. As Manhattan’s commercial district kept moving uptown from Lower Manhattan, the bank wanted to also expand to where the action was and purchased a site on East 42nd Street.
If you were to walk into the great banking hall today, you’d still see the bronze windows and tellers’ counters where thousands of banking customers lined up to deposit their dollars. Part of the landmark designation of the interior is the preservation of this fine metal grill work. The building is a savings bank no more — its main space is now Cipriani 42nd Street, an upscale catering hall for events such as weddings, with offices above.
Picture, however, the era in which this building was born, the booming early 1920s when people already here in the city and many thousands of immigrants were earning money in the factories, stores, ports, and offices. Creating a new bank building in those days was a big deal. Today, we have banks seemingly on every corner of New York City and dozens along suburban highways that are nondescript, plastic and concrete, and indistinguishable from a chain store. Many of us bank through computers and the Internet, and the important weekly or daily bank trip is no more.
However, when the Bowery put up its new building in 1921-1923, banks were of a different ethic and experience. As more people began to deposit their money into banks in those days, it was important to convey that savings banks were strong, solid, prosperous, and secure enough to hold your savings. And yet there’s something more than simple solidity. Bowery Savings’ architectural firm, York & Sawyer, already was renowned for designing many grand banks in New York and outside of the city.
In the Bowery Savings Bank, York & Sawyer created a building that conjures up saving money as an important ritual, as the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) notes in its research. You could feel almost like royalty walking into a building such as this one at the time and depositing your $2. A customer walked through a vestibule with a low ceiling out into a vast banking hall with 65-foot-high ceilings and the most beautiful marble and granite of the world.
The Bowery Savings Bank departs from the predominant classical styles of banks in the early 20th century that were more like Greek temples. It is Italian Romanesque style, drawing from the form of a Middle Age church in the Emilian region of Italy, marked by its arched entranceway to the banking room, as the LPC noted. York & Sawyer chose this style as a way to seamlessly combine a tall office tower with soaring rounded arches – like a fortress tower – with a central banking space.
From across East 42nd Street on its north side, I stand back and admire the way 10th century Italy came to 20th century New York. What thrills me even more is how so many exquisite materials from around the world converge in a single building. “In but few buildings have the architects made such generous use of stone and marble and in but few have designers acquired so pleasing and decorative effects,” wrote Stone Magazine in August, 1923. William Bradley & Son was responsible for the building’s marble and stone.
The first thing I notice is the grandness of the outside entrance to the bank’s main hall, with the variegated stone blocks in rich brown, red, and warm pink. The archway is bordered by rope-like “archivolts,” the ornamental moldings carved in floral, spiral, and chevron patterns. I think about the hundreds and hundreds of people walking through the grand entranceway to open savings accounts – 2,500 did so on the bank’s opening day in 1923!
The customer’s walk through the low vestibule into the grand banking hall was like the entrance of a church or other important space, and this was no accident. As the Landmarks Preservation Commission noted, this gave the sense of savings as an important ritual of life, and the place as a trusted sanctuary for this ritual.
World Geography at a Glance
Consequently, no expense was spared and no effort lost in creating the banking hall, which has 60-foot ceilings. The 16,000-square-foot Romanesque-Byzantine room gives the experience of walking into an Italian basilica, in which your eyes are uplifted toward such splendor. This is where it’s most evident that the architects and builders truly brought a world together. On both the east and west walls, for instance, are six 98-foot-tall columns, each one of a different marble from throughout the world – Rouge Jaspe from the south of France; green marble from the Italian Alps; Campan Melange from the Pyrenees Mountains; Rouge Royal from quarries in the north of Belgium; Tinos marble from the Greek island of Tinos; and Levanto marble from the Apennine mountain range.
What kind of effort did it take to bring so many glorious, beautiful materials from many distant places? I marvel at how all it converges in this huge space. The walls are massive variegated blocks of sandstone from Ohio, known as Briar Hill sandstone and Buff Mountain sandstone, in rich, earthy tones mixed in with Buff Indiana limestone. Looking downward, one sees a floor of buff-colored marble inlaid with geometric-patterned mosaics. For this floor, the stone company brought together marble from the quarries of a half-dozen countries.
Continuing to gaze around the interior is similarly like a geographic tour. As Stone magazine described in its 1923 article heralding the new bank, the oblong-shaped ventilators between the pillars are of Napoleon gray marble from Missouri. The lower portion of the tellers’ counters is of Levanto marble, from quarries near Carrara, Italy. Adjacent to the main banking hall is the elevator hall, with walls and carved gargoyle figures under the dome in St. Genevieve golden-veined marble, also from Missouri.
“The Immigrants’ Bank”
A lover of the marble, limestone, and other materials from the earth could spend hours studying this building. Since it is not used as a bank today, the peek must be fairly quick, however – unless you are one of the lucky people at a catered affair here. I walked into the old banking hall and inquired about the catering business there today, then started chatting about the Bowery Savings Bank’s illustrious history with the doorman/guard.
“This was the immigrants’ bank,” the guard said. “My grandma had her money ripped off in Poland, so she’d put it in a mattress. But when you built a bank like this, it gave people confidence that they could put their money there.”
That faith would be tested — and in many banks’ cases, trammeled – by the stock market crash and Great Depression less than a decade after the opening of the building on East 42nd Street. As during prior panics and depressions, the Bowery weathered the Great Depression. The bank erected a six-story addition to the building in 1931-1933. In 1934, the Bowery marked its centenary with a celebration. In the office at 110 East 42nd Street, Bowery Savings displayed one of two small leather trunks in which the bank had stored its first savings and security deposit boxes in 1834. One hundred years later, in 1934, it had 400,000 depositors.
Today, the Bowery Savings Bank is no more. In the 1980s after bank deregulation, its earnings could not keep pace with payments to depositors on higher interest-rate savings accounts. The bank was sold less than two years after a rescue by a group of investors, according to The New York Times.
Is there irony in the fact that a place building much of its prosperity on small savings deposits is now a swanky banquet hall? Perhaps there is. The Bowery, however, still pays out to those who spend a moment or two to treasure the beauty and magnificence of the Earth’s richness as captured in this one building. That’s priceless.
Note: A thank-you to Peggy B. Perazzo and Pat Perazzo, who have created and compiled a site, Stone Quarries and Beyond, for aid in research by providing the Stone magazine articles.