The New York Observer, May 7, 2001

By James Verini

Last September, J.P. Morgan & Company stupefied the world of banking, and many within its own walls, when it announced that it was being bought by big, boring Chase Manhattan Bank. Not only was this most hallowed of Wall Street institutions giving up its treasured autonomy after more than a century, but it was giving it up to a sprawling, faceless “financial-services giant,” observers said — the sort of firm that Morgan, with its thick air of tradition and age-old clients, had long disdained.

But Morgan’s sale is not merely historically momentous, it turns out. It also represents a symbolic coda in the geographical life of New York City. Morgan recently announced that it also intends to sell its tower at 60 Wall Street — which, rumor has it, big, boring Deutsche Bank A.G. now intends to buy. Morgan will move into Chase headquarters at 270 Park, as well as satellite offices at 277 Park Avenue and a dozen other nondescript locations.

What’s more, the city wants to tear down the buildings around the original House of Morgan at 23 Wall Street and build a new New York Stock Exchange, leaving “The Corner,” as 23 Wall is known, intact but converted into a visitors’ center (a plan that J.P. Morgan himself would no doubt have loathed).

Without Morgan, Wall Street — devoid of virtually all the big banking houses of its illustrious past — will be little more than a symbol. The area has, like the firm itself, been losing its fabled character for years now. But once Morgan is gone, Wall Street’s descent into metaphor — its parity with the likes of Broadway and Madison Avenue — will feel somehow complete.

“There’s no there there,” said D.W. Wright, one of J.P. Morgan Chase & Company’s official consultants for history and archives, speaking of the financial district. “You see all these tourists going from pillar to post trying to find something to look at … They end up waiting on that endless line to get into the Stock Exchange.”

Of the major “Wall Street” investment banks, only Goldman, Sachs & Company will remain on the Street — actually, at 85 Broad — though its forbidding brown fortress seems designed more to repel its surroundings than to reflect them. The rest of their ilk have long since moved north: Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Salomon Smith Barney, Credit Suisse First Boston, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch (at least marginally). If they have any remaining presence in the Wall Street area, it’s usually for prestige.

The exodus from Wall Street has been proceeding, gradually, for 30 years. Smith Barney was the first to go, moving from Wall Street to a building at 54th Street and the Avenue of the Americas in 1969.

Morgan Stanley, which had split off from J.P. Morgan in 1935, left 2 Wall Street in the late 1970’s for the Exxon Building at 1251 Avenue of the Americas. Now half of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, it owns a building at 1585 Broadway and occupies a series of others around Times Square and Rockefeller Center.

Lehman Brothers left 55 Water Street for the World Financial Center in 1984. Bear Stearns, which had spent some time at 55 Water Street as well, shifted to 245 Park Avenue in 1988. Salomon Brothers, once located in a different building on the 60 Wall Street spot, was swallowed up by Citigroup and regurgitated as Salomon Smith Barney in 1997 at 388 Greenwich Street in Tribeca.

The move uptown was prompted by the boom years of the 1960’s. The bull markets of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s created the old white-shoe houses such as Morgan, Dillon Read and Brown Brothers Harriman. But the 60’s bull market brought to prominence their younger, more brazen, more Jewish competitors. Richer and bigger, the upstart firms soon outgrew the Art Deco skyscrapers lining Wall, Broad, Williams and Water streets — buildings that, in their day, had dominated the Manhattan skyline.

The money industry, transformed by technology, was changing. The firms needed more space for growing armies of traders, analysts and accountants, as well as for ever-expanding computer networks and miles of wiring necessary to process the increasing volume of market transactions.

A new breed of speculative real-estate developer responded to these shifting needs and put up colonies of giant, tech-friendly buildings — immense, metallic, characterless — throughout midtown. They built so many that, by the 1980’s, there was a glut of office space from 34th to 59th streets between Third and Seventh avenues, and Wall Street firms were easy to lure with promises of lower property taxes and rents.

At the same time, proximity to Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station grew in importance, as more and more of the young professionals needed for an expanding work force were drawn from the suburbs.

All of this occurred as the banking industry endured — as it still does — near-constant paroxysms of change. Mergers national and international, deregulation, the rise of the financial-services giants and electronic banking have left the few cramped, cavernous blocks between Water Street and Broadway, with their marble colonnades and carved moldings, woefully obsolete.

“The mergers had an effect that was exaggerated by changes in banking itself,” said Carol Willis, director of the Skyscraper Museum on Maiden Lane. “We’ve seen fundamental physical and functional differences in the way banking operates. Banks don’t need big, impressive banking halls anymore. With A.T.M.’s and credit cards, the need for a physical space where people come and ask for a loan or apply for a mortgage or even stand in line to get change is gone.”

“Every major firm had to have a floor trader who needed to be near the exchange,” said Charles R. Geisst, professor of finance at Manhattan College and author of Wall Street: A History. “Of course, with computers, that’s no longer the case.”

The exodus created room for other large concerns — rather anonymous ones, for the most part. The insurance giant America International Group, for instance, is currently one of the largest holders of Wall Street property. But in the early 1990’s, worried about all the space going vacant, the city began to sell Wall Street as a viable residential neighborhood, and those efforts have been, by most accounts, successful. Wall Street has become, ironically, one of the more popular residential areas for young professionals whose parents’ flight from the city once helped spur its decline.

Meanwhile, for those in love with the history of New York, Wall Street’s nonexistence is disheartening.

“Every time [Morgan] saved the market, you could hear the cheers from the exchange floor from across the street at 23 Wall,” Mr. Geisst, the Wall Street historian, said wistfully. “There was something tangible there … Now it’s just a matter of who’s got the biggest computer network, the fastest trading system.”

Power in the Air

Yet, for all the cheap clothing stores, delis and apartment buildings among the tall, dark towers, Wall Street is still impressive. An odd but undeniably mystical atmosphere still prevails down there.

And nowhere is it more palpable than at the old House of Morgan. A marble and bronze vault, its unmistakable cater-corner entrance facing the Greek temple of Federal Hall to the north and the bustling Stock Exchange to the west, 23 Wall Street exudes a lingering sense of place.

“[The building] was the preeminent example of Italian Renaissance revival style, and it was a complete reflection of the personality of Pierpont Morgan,” Mr. Wright said. In fact, J.P. Morgan (1837-1913) closely oversaw the design in the last year of his life.

“Unlike Rockefeller or Carnegie, he was not interested in piling up money,” Mr. Wright continued. “His influence was way out of proportion to his wealth. He was not the rags-to-riches type … Morgan strived not so much for money as for excellence.”

Founded in 1861, Morgan was not the first bank in the area, nor the first famous one. Since New Amsterdam was established in 1625, merchant banking houses had lined the streets radiating from the port. In 1787, Alexander Hamilton founded the headquarters of the Bank of New York at 48 Wall Street, next to Morgan’s current address, and two years later Aaron Burr set up his rival Manhattan Company, an antecedent of Chase, at 40 Wall.

The Customs House was down the street at 55 Wall, where it would soon be replaced by First National City Bank, which would evolve into Citibank.

Wall Street was a “constellation of civic and federal institutions,” said Carol Willis.

J.P. Morgan purchased 23 Wall for $3 million in 1912 from his father’s former partner, the Drexel family (yes, that Drexel), in what was reportedly New York’s most expensive real-estate deal up to that point. He tore down the existing building, but rather than put up a magnificent skyscraper, he built — in what many still consider the most colossally hubristic building project ever attempted in Manhattan — the diminutive Corner. Just three stories in height, it was not so much a banking house as a monument to the Morgan empire. The legions of traders, crammed into the Stock Exchange’s tight quarters across the street, no doubt thought it exemplified the famous arrogance of the old man, whose looming top hat, bulbous nose and immaculate spats very few of them had ever actually seen. Yet they were willing to let it slide; only five years earlier, during the scare of 1907, he had bailed out the faltering market and almost single-handedly saved them from ruin.

Then again, Morgan had played no small part in creating the speculative craze that led to all the scares — and eventually, the crash of 1929. It was from his office in the back of 23 Wall, after all, that nearly the entire railroad industry was monopolized. It was in his office at 23 Wall that Morgan and Charles Schwab created America’s first billion-dollar corporation, U.S. Steel. It was beneath the glittering light of 23 Wall’s Louis XV chandeliers that the rise of General Electric, General Motors, AT&T, DuPont, IT&T and Con Edison were engineered.

If the masses on Wall Street could forgive a three-story building where a skyscraper should have been, New York’s liberal elite likewise could look the other way about a few rapacious business dealings, given that they were orchestrated by such a prolific patron of the arts. While Teddy Roosevelt was busy busting trusts by day, with one eye trained on 23 Wall, he was attending the Metropolitan Opera, where Morgan was a founding member and patron, by night. If Walter Lippman filled his New York Herald Tribune columns with dire warnings about America’s concentration of wealth, he also doubtlessly was himself filled with appreciation for some of the 17,000 pieces of art Morgan donated to the Metropolitan Museum.

Morgan’s presence was ubiquitous — at parks, libraries, clinics, exhibitions, all sorts of places that were recipients of gifts from the J.P. Morgan Charitable Trust. (This year J.P. Morgan Chase will donate $84 million to various causes, according to the trust’s annual report.)

“We’re still living in the era of his contributions,” said Mr. Wright.

It was the House of Morgan’s unrivaled centrality to all forms of power and glamour that has preserved its mystique to this day. History and tradition can only carry a bank so far, however.

Adhering to J.P. Morgan’s well-known disdain for the cruder aspects of banking and for the stock market, the relevance of the House of Morgan, if not its name, has faded since those momentous days. After passing over the 1960’s bull market, Morgan pretty much missed the boat on the extremely lucrative mergers-and-acquisitions and takeover fads of the 1970’s and 80’s, as well as the recently deceased tech-underwriting market. The bank was never in any serious trouble, of course — Chase did pay $31 billion for it. But the prevailing wisdom is that, had it not been sold, Morgan would face obsolescence in a banking landscape increasingly dominated by Citigroups and, ahem, Chases.

Morgan moved into 60 Wall Street in 1990. The building was not designed for Morgan, although it seems to have been. It feels at once imposingly modern and pretentiously neoclassical, with alternating horizontal stripes of pink granite and smoky black glass.

Like 23 Wall, it is an inviting place. A recessed plaza and public winter garden-like space beckon the Wall Street tourist — even if they can’t get past the lobby. In a symbolic nod to the past, the luxurious executive suite sits not on the top floor but on the 20th — just below the middle.

And the views from 60 Wall are magnificent. From outside the archives on the 37th floor, one can see most of lower Manhattan. One can see such stone behemoths as 2 Wall, 55 Water, 15 Broad — the old homes of Wall Street rulers. One can look down upon the red tile roof of 23 Wall and, behind it, at an Art Deco — lite residential building where the tenants are up in arms because it, too, will be torn down if the new NYSE is built.

One can see the austere tower at 14 Wall, the former home of Bankers Trust. An Equinox Health Club now sits in what was reputedly the most magnificent of the old banking halls. And there’s the soaring 40 Wall, the old tower of the Bank of the Manhattan Company, predecessor of Chase. At one time it vied with the Chrysler Building for dominance of the skyline. Now it’s a Trump property.

The ornate 48 Wall — the home, for more than 200 years, of the Bank of New York — is being renovated after a year of vacancy. And as for the beautiful neoclassical temple at 55 Wall, the birthplace of Citigroup: It’s now a Regent hotel.