Archived Pages from 20th Century!!

One Tall Order

The City Bank Farmers Trust Building
New York, New York

Photos and text by Joanna Oltman

The City Bank Farmers Trust Building, located at Twenty Exchange Place in lower Manhattan's financial district, is a building that lives up to the "great building standard" set forth by Ayn Rand's architecture critic extraordinaire, Ellsworth Toohey. Such a building, the overly-eloquent Mr. Toohey maintains, "... is not the private invention of some genius or other. It is merely a condensation of the spirit of a people." Assuming that a communal spirit does in fact exist in a land so diverse as the United States, this spirit must be defined in order to assess the success of architecture's expressive capacity. Clearly, the time in which a building is constructed is all-important in determining the nature of the prevailing national spirit. The City Bank Farmers Trust Building is instructive in that, aside from its exceptional size on the Manhattan skyline, the building's appearance today does not seem noteworthy in and of itself. However, taken in the context of the time in which it was built, the City Bank Farmers Trust Building gains significance for its ability to express the particular mythology of the people who constructed it.

At the time of the City Bank Farmers Trust Building's 1929 construction notice, it was to be the tallest structure in the ever-increasingly skyward-striving neighborhood of lower Manhattan. As such, the building epitomized the American ideal of progress in general, and American business' exceptional push towards excellence and global domination. The very form of the City Bank Farmers Trust Building was indicative of the 1930s ethos. A contemporary account, (the writer of which was undoubtedly handsomely compensated), breathlessly described the building as a, "...majestic monument to modern finance that trusts its crest fifty-four stories above the pavements of Manhattan." The horizontal frontier, embraced by Frank Lloyd Wright's extravagantly sprawling structures, had long since ceased to be an option in America's dense urban centers. The vertical frontier became the only option for expansion: Overall square footage of usable space became much more important than the acreage. Size implied power, as it traditionally had, but this size had the new and improved metaphor-loaded benefit of stretching towards heaven. American business now joined God in his sky pad, with a vista infinite enough to facilitate the tricky art of omnipresence.

The City Bank Farmers Trust Building gave conflicting messages to the Depression-stricken nation. It provided an optimistic assessment of America's ability to get back on its financial feet by putting 5,000 men to work on its construction at a payroll of approximately $7,500,000. At the same time, however, the very fact of its construction graphically illustrated the inequity of the free market system. While people were starving and unemployed around the country, big business was still able to shell out $18,000,000 on the construction of a single shrine to commerce. It was perhaps typically "American" that no shame was felt over this inequity: No expense was spared on the interior, where there were, "...materials from the four corners of the earth--rare marbles that add to its beauty, soft woods that produce a restful effect, deft carvings that delight the aesthetic sensibilities..." In some ways, the decadence of the design was a gift to the public, who could then take communal pride in the fact that New York City's financial power resulted in a building of which it could be said, "Everything in connection with this monumental building expresses beauty, completeness and grandeur...the very last word in all that spells DELUXE." Public displays of wealth have always been encouraged as the benchmark of the American Dream.

If the interior was a flamboyant celebration of financial success, the exterior of the City Bank Farmers Trust Building represented frugality and simplicity, those backbones of the American Puritan ethic by which success was to be achieved. Critics praised the architects, Cross & Cross, for the building's unadorned and frank expression of economic and mechanical requirements, and in particular, the fact that, "...exaggeration of forms for originality's sake alone was discouraged." Its plain stone facing rose stoically over the humbler three and four story buildings still predominant in the neighborhood. The ornament that did exist on the exterior was loaded with easily decipherable meaning, thereby fulfilling the role of visual teacher of the masses as established by Thomas Jefferson, and, before him, by the church. At the first setback, enormous warrior heads looked down upon the street, symbolizing the titans of finance from Theodore Dreiser's contemporary novel. At street level, bronze window grates carried a program of the important industries that drove the banking industry, as did the panels on the entrance doors. The routes to success were plainly laid out for the benefit of all passersby.

Modernity was hip in 1932. From the rise of automobile culture, to the futurist movement, to streamlined consumer goods, everything proclaimed that it was the most up-to-date, most faithful expression of things to come, the embodiment of the future, today. Touted by its owners as, " of the most modern and impressive business structures in the entire world," one could hardly doubt the City Bank Farmers Trust Building's important role in the financial world the company set out to dominate. The City Bank Farmers Trust Building was the embodiment of the modern school that held, "The design of a modern skyscraper is not primarily a matter of aesthetic expression." Even the ornament served a mechanical function: The pierced window spandrels hid air vents, the Titans were disguised air exhaust ducts, and setback ornamentation obscured exterior trusses. Among the building's modern features that seemed especially to impress the press of the day were an elaborate pneumatic tube system, a building-wide circulating ice water system, a basement reservoir of liquid soap, (Americans, the world's cleanest people!), a new bronze substitute of nickel alloy with copper, three-way duct lines, the largest telephone exchange ever constructed, and a new-fangled double-decker elevator that serviced two floors at once. The willingness to experiment and innovate, and the eagerness to boast of these developments, is the essence of the American obsession with progress. Despite the Depression, or perhaps because of it, the American public's fragile self-identity hinged upon things getting bigger and better, and buildings such as the City Bank Farmers Trust Building did not disappoint. As the future of lower Manhattan appears to be threatened by high commercial real estate vacancy rates, the City Bank Farmers Trust Building stands as a reminder of the tall order to which Americans have always held themselves, and towards which we may again someday strive.

Return to Joanna Oltman's Historic Preservation Collection.
Return to Joanna's home page.
Contact Joanna at [email protected].