Here near the corner of Beekman and Nassau Streets, 15 Beekman is coming down. Brick by brick, since most of it’s brick; the rest done in iron, terra cotta, and stone.
Built in 1893, it’s almost as old as its landmarked neighbors: the Morse (1880), Potter (1886), and Temple Court (1883) Buildings. But it arguably bears the more famous designation: the title of Vanderbilt Building.
(1) 15 Beekman Street, 2021.
When William H. Vanderbilt (1821-1885), eldest son of “The Commodore” Cornelius (1794-1877), passed, his sons William K. (1849-1920) and Cornelius II (1843-1899) inherited 132 Nassau, a six-story office on the corner. That was the first Vanderbilt Building, and the brothers hoped to expand. In October 1890, they jumped at a chance, and acquired 15 Beekman from a Mrs. Sloane next door.
What’s unclear, however, is which Mrs. Sloane sold the property. Was it their sister, Emily Sloane White Thorn Vanderbilt (1810-1946), founder of the Sloane Hospital for Women at New York Presbyterian, or Eliza Margaret O’Conor Sloane (1810-1894), whose famous brother, attorney Charles O’Conor (1804-1884), represented Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), disgraced former President of the Confederacy, when he was tried for treason?
Whichever the Sloane, the Vanderbilts paid her $200,000 (about $5.8 million in today’s currency) and set off to plan their office.
They preferred 15 stories, and spared no expense. $400,000 (that’s $11.6 million today) went toward hiring their team. And they recruited the best. The best of the best.
For design, the brothers chose “star-chitect” firm of the day McKim, Mead & White. They drew up the first Pennsylvania Station and left behind such latter-day landmarks as the Metropolitan Club (1 East 60th Street), Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway), and the Manhattan Municipal Building (1 Centre Street).
For construction, it was Charles T. Wills, whose talent for assembly was high in demand. And, like the famed architects, he framed landmarks too. His company built the Bayard-Conduit Building (65 Bleecker Street), the New York Stock Exchange (18 Broad Street), and the Germania/W Hotel Building (201 Park Avenue South).
William Bradley & Son sent in the stone. One of the City’s big syndicates, they helped Wills on the Stock Exchange job and later cut materials for the landmarked Frick Collection (10 East 71st Street) and Federal Reserve Bank of New York (33 Liberty Street).
Nicols & Shipway contributed the marble. They worked with McKim, Mead & White on the Metropolitan Club and later lent a shine to the Old Scribner Building (155 5th Avenue) and West End Collegiate Church (245 West 77th Street) — both now City landmarks.
And, finally, the plumber. But not any plumber. J. N. Knight & Son were as experienced as any of their colleagues at 15 Beekman. They were partners with William Bradley & Son on the Frick Collection and later installed the drainage system in the William Ziegler, Jr. House (2 East 63rd Street) and Beverwyck/Seton Hotel (39 West 27th Street) — both now preserved in Historic Districts.
Construction began in June 1892 and wrapped in 1893. The new office was originally referred to as the “Vanderbilt Annex” — as in the annex to 132 Nassau — but eventually tossed aside. The bold, new stone-chiseled sign reading “VANDERBILT BVILDNG” above its entrance caught on, bumping 132 to side-kick status.
The brothers, however, didn’t own it very long.
In 1899, when Cornelius II died, Alice Claypole Vanderbilt (1845-1934), his widow, gained control from William K. Eight years later, she assigned it to her son Alfred G. (1877-1915), but he was downed by tragedy.
On May 1, 1915, he left Pier 54 aboard the RMS Lusitania bound for Liverpool, England. Six days later, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship off the coast of Ireland. Alfred G. and 1,188 other people drowned.
Afterward, in November 1919, his executors sold 15 Beekman to a non-Vanderbilt real estate firm.
(2) 15 Beekman, c. 1939-1941.
But thanks to William K. and Cornelius II’s crackerjack crew, 15 Beekman survived its infancy.
The builders equipped it with one of the only in-house fire pumps in the neighborhood, and added stand pipes with 2-1/2 inch, 100-foot long hoses near the elevator shafts on every floor. They even hung broad iron shutters outside most every window to defend against approaching heat. Their precautions were tested early.
On the night of February 11, 1898, sparks burst from the Nassau Chambers Building one block south on the corner of Ann and Nassau Streets. They quickly leapt from neighbor to neighbor. According to the New York Press, the conflagration grew so high it could be seen from as far away as Brooklyn and Jersey City. Embers went everywhere, flying west toward the steeple of St. Paul’s Chapel and landing on the train tracks of the 6th Avenue Elevated. To make matters worse, water was scare. Neither the hydrants nor the water tower nearby worked, so the flames ripped onward. When they reached the Vanderbilt Building, they set upon its top five floors.
But there wasn’t much to kindle. The shutters barred most of the passageways and the structure’s stone skeleton protected the rest. The only floors to bear any charring were the 9th and 10th, mostly due to a paper storage company whose offices there were completely gutted. But what really choked the fire’s advance were the building’s emergency features.
According to the New York Times, when firefighters arrived at 15 Beekman, the building’s superintendent gave them access to six floors’ worth of hoses and standpipes. Attacking then from the Vanderbilt’s high casements, they soaked the blaze with over 24,500 gallons of water. Two hours later, the flames were doused. All told, 14 properties were breeched and damages tallied about $8 million in today’s currency. Other than the paper company’s office, the biggest blow to 15 Beekman was the ruin of its “costly glass doors.” The firefighters bashed them out when they first entering the building.
(3) Nassau Chambers Building fire, 1898.
Once restored, 15 Beekman became one of the City’s most valuable properties. In fact, it was considered so essential to the landscape, the Real Estate Record and Guide sought fit to include it on a list of “Principal Building Assessments” published in 1922. With an appraisal of $1.9 million — about $30 million today — it held its own among estimates for other notable landmarks like the Flatiron Building, St. Regis Hotel, Carnegie Hall, Macy’s, and the University Club.
But forty years later, honors didn’t matter to a thing more menacing than fire: urban renewal.
In 1964, Mayor Robert J. Wagner, Jr. (1910-1991) labeled the neighborhood just south of the Brooklyn Bridge a “neglected backwater,” so it had to be leveled. Milton Mollen (1920-2017), chair of the Housing and Redevelopment Board, the agency that would do the flattening, went even further.
Despite finding the streets “notable for [their] daytime vigor,” he declared that the buildings there were “largely substandard and blighted.” This prompted the Board to map out a “Brooklyn Bridge Southwest Urban Renewal Area” — the phrase “urban renewal” now softening the sound of its “slum clearance” predecessor.
The City Planning Commission and Board of Estimate approved, so here’s what they laid out:
(4) Plan of the Brooklyn Bridge Southwest Urban Renewal Area, 1964.
Yet for all the big plans, their sketch belied a truth: None of the new shapes were drawn on empty land.
According to the New York Times, 171 industrial or commercial structures between Nassau and Pearl Streets would have to be eviscerated for the project. That meant 700 businesses would lose their leases. Some 15 people would be evicted from their homes. In other words, where the City saw blight, an entire ecosystem was already operating.
When the wrecking crews arrived, though, barely anyone noticed. Cast iron buildings, produce stalls, tanneries, warehouses, manufacturing centers, and even a church — they all fell to the swinging of steel. Bricks were strewn across now vacant lots. Thankfully, we know there were bricks because of Danny Lyon, the only photographer who recorded the loss.
In The Destruction of Lower Manhattan , his book of prints, he captured them everywhere. Here’s how Lyon described what he saw:
For a hundred years [these buildings] have stood in the darkness and the day…. Now, in the end, they are visited by demolition men. Slavs, Italians, Blacks from the South, American workers of 1967 drinking pop-top soda on their beams at lunch time, risking their lives for $5.50 an hour, pulling apart brick by brick and beam by beam, the work of other American workers who once stood on the same walls and held the same bricks, then new, so long ago.
In the end, 15 Beekman was spared, but just barely. Buildings both across the street and two doors down from it where taken. What’s obscured, however, is why it wasn’t. Did the Housing and Redevelopment Board not think it blighted? Did J. W. Realty Co., LLC, the entity that acquired it in 1966, have some pull? Or did City officials recognize its value, like the Morse, Potter, and Temple Court Buildings nearby that were also excluded from the renewal zone?
Whatever the reason, the building remained.
So how could a structure with such bona fides be falling today?
Quite easily, actually. All it took was the participation of an entity more familiar than most with urban renewal.
(5) 15 Beekman debris on the 132 Nassau lot, 2021.
One of the main beneficiaries of the Brooklyn Bridge Southwest clearing was Pace University. It had been based in the New York Times Building at 41 Park Row since 1951. Thanks to the nearby condemnations in 1966, it was able to swell.
But while the University chose to re-purpose the 77-year old Times Building as its Graduate School of Business Administration, it was not as kind to the 91-year old Tribune Building.
(6) Brooklyn Bridge Southwest Urban Renewal Area, 1984.
Standing on the corner of Spruce and Nassau Streets in the footprint of Pace’s new super-block extension, the Tribune was marked for bulldozing.
One of the City’s first skyscrapers, the building took its moniker from the New-York Tribune which was published there from 1875 until the 1920s. The edifice itself was trimmed in red brick and granite, with black brick forming geometrical designs among its upper stories. A clocktower topped its mansard roof. Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895), the architect, who designed such City landmarks as the main wing of Metropolitan Museum of Art and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, also did mansions for both Cornelius II and William K. Vanderbilt.
But instead of adapting the Tribune for educational use, or welcoming its architectural lineage, the University let it drop. So today’s just 1966 repeating itself.
(7) Tribune Building, 1966.
For the past few years, the Pace has been “identifying properties and options” to help “meet the growing needs” of its “21st century students.” During the process, it determined the east end of its campus near Gold Street would have to move, but where?
Speaking to the Pace Press, Vanessa J. Herman, the University’s Assistant Vice President for Government and Community Relations, said, “15 Beekman.” She explained
This particular location was brought to us as an ideal site for a new university building that will one day house a new residence hall, dining facility, library, learning center, classrooms, and academic and common spaces. This will unlock the full potential of our master plan without disrupting our campus life.
But the University didn’t mean to take this “ideal site” as is; it meant to destroy it. Actual renderings haven’t been made public yet, but this is an approximation of what’s to come:
(8) 15 Beekman/132 Nassau lot concept, 2020.
Some faculty members were outraged. For example, one professor told Pace Press:
I am ashamed and astonished by the plans to demolish the historic and iconic Vanderbilt Building and the neighboring building. Some Pace faculty, myself included, believe that the façades of historic buildings should be preserved….
The interiors of the buildings can be renovated to suit the needs of landlords and tenants.
But neither the faculty nor students were able to persuade University brass. On December 11, 2019, the Board of Trustees approved plans to replace 15 Beekman-132 Nassau with a “27-story campus hub of dorm rooms, dining facility, classrooms, and library.”
It’s unclear who first “brought” 15 Beekman to the Board’s attention, but it could have been SL Green Realty Corp.
SL Green, a publicly traded REIT, and one of Manhattan’s largest office landlords, first worked with Pace to bring dorms to the area in 2013 and 2015.
In January 2020, the REIT announced it signed a $30 million, 99-year lease with J. W. Realty Co., LLC for the buildings at 15 Beekman and 132 Nassau. (J. W., who paid $865,000 for both the land and buildings in 1966, made a tidy profit.)
Three months later, when SL Green obtained permits to raze the buildings, it drew scrutiny from local residents. How did it get them so quickly? And, with the City in mandatory lockdown because of Covid-19, how could anyone actually vet what was happening?
In May 2020, Manhattan Community Board 1 addressed the permits. By a vote of 29-5, it passed a resolution calling on the Landmarks Preservation Commission to immediately calendar (that is, consider landmarking) 15 Beekman. The Board reminded the Commission that “a groundswell of community support has existed [to designate the building] since 2002.” It was even “identified as worthy of preservation in a comprehensive area survey after [the terrorist attacks of September 11th].”
Representatives in attendance from SL Green and Pace, however, asked for the resolution to be tabled. They wanted to be “part of the [landmarks] discussion.”
Yet many were skeptical, including the Fulton-Nassau Historic District Committee. It launched a petition on change.org delineating some concerns. According to the Committee,
The Vanderbilt demolition project has been planned by Pace (and its developer partner SL Green) in complete secrecy. There was no community engagement [or intent to engage] whatsoever. Project plans were briefly posted on the Pace website, then mysteriously taken down with no explanation.
Furthermore, initial [Department of Buildings] filings indicate that Pace and SL Green may be seeking expedited demolition permits, in the midst of the current Covid-19 crisis — a deeply disturbing way to proceed.
Over 1,700 people signed the petition, but their impact was muted. The Preservation Commission ultimately refused the Community Board’s request.
Responding for the Commission, Kate Lemos McHale, Director of Research, wrote
Based on our research and evaluation, [15 Beekman Street] is an elegant and early tall building that is comparable to other contemporary examples that the [Commission] has included in Historic Districts. However, the Building is not considered a significant example of McKim, Mead & White’s work, and does not rise to the level of an Individual Landmark.
She didn’t mention its other all-star craftsmen.
Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic District Council, was baffled. He told the Tribeca Citizen that the architects involved should be reason enough for a Landmarks designation:
[15 Beekman’s] a very early example of McKim, Mead & White doing tall buildings, which they really didn’t do that often. They didn’t like tall buildings. [They’re arguably] the most important architectural firm in American history. [They’re] an integral part of understanding how buildings look, and why buildings look the way they look today.
Behind the scenes, though, SL Green was advancing its project.
Between July 2020 and April 2021, it spent $125,000 soliciting real estate permits and approvals across the City. Among the officials its lobbyists approached were decision-makers who could directly affect 15 Beekman: Margaret Chin (City Council Representative, District 1), Tammy Meltzer (Chair, Manhattan Community Board 1), Melanie La Rocca (Commissioner, Department of Buildings), and Sarah Carroll (Chair, Landmarks Preservation Commission).
So emboldened, perhaps, by McHale’s missive, SL Green didn’t pursue landmarking talks with Community Board 1. Neither did Pace. Instead, Pace signed a lease for 15 Beekman in July 2020. The terms weren’t disclosed, but the intentions were.
On the day of the lease, SL Green took out a $125 million construction loan from the Bank of China. But to help with the financing, it brought on a partner. Mertiz Alternative Investment Management, a real estate fund from Seoul, Korea, received an 80% stake in the future Pace facility. SL Green retained 20%, including construction oversight and building management.
(9) 15 Beekman, the 132 Nassau lot, and the Temple Court Building (L to R), 2021.
But before all that comes the scaffolding and nets, the green shed with lightbulbs, the ladders and stairs. When the workers leave, there’s just cold air and earth, wafting the mustiness of history about. Somebody’s grandfather’s father was here, cutting a stone or smearing mortar between bricks, polishing the floors or shining the windows. But now, it’s all furiously quiet. The people are gone.
Perhaps Danny Lyon captured the foreboding best when he wrote this about Beekman Street a long time ago:
The men were all dead, but the buildings were still here, left behind as the city grew abound them…. The houses of the dead, new buildings of their own time, [now awaited] demolition.
In their last days and months, they were kept company by bums and pigeons.
(1) Photo by Rick Stachura. 15 Beekman Street. April 1, 2021.
(2) Photo by the New York City Department of Taxation. 15 Beekman. From the New York Municipal Archives. Circa 1939-1941.
(3) Drawing by Unknown. Nassau Chambers Building blaze, northeast corner of Nassau and Ann Streets. From The New York Press, Saturday Morning Edition, Page 2. February 12, 1898.
(4) Map by Unknown. Plan of the Brooklyn Bridge Southwest Urban Renewal Area. From The New York Times. January 10, 1964.
(5) Photo by Rick Stachura. Rubble from 15 Beekman on the 132 Nassau lot. May 14, 2021.
(6) Map by Unknown. Brooklyn Bridge Southwest Urban Renewal Area. From The Atlas of Urban Renewal Project Areas by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. 1984.
(7) Photo by John Feulner. Tribune Building (154 Nassau Street). From the United States Library of Congress. 1966.
(8) Concept by Unknown. Rendering of new Pace facility on the 15 Beekman/132 Nassau lot. From The Tribeca Citizen. September 17, 2020.
(9) Photo by Rick Stachura. 15 Beekman, 132 Nassau lot, and the Temple Court Building (3-9 Beekman). May 14, 2021.