This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.
At the base of 48 Wall Street are two humble artifacts dating to the dawn of American finance: a tablet salvaged from the first United States Branch Bank and the “Corner Stone” of the city’s first bank – The Bank of New York. Founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1784, the latter bank acquired the corner site in 1796 and was active at this location for nearly two centuries. During the prosperous 1920s, many local banks, including The Bank of New York, erected new headquarters, transforming the Lower Manhattan skyline with slender setback towers. Often conceived as investments, these visually prominent buildings not only contained dramatic spaces for banking, but the upper floors were often leased to outside tenants to generate revenue.
The Bank of New York was designed by Benjamin Wistar Morris, a socially prominent architect who married a cousin of financier J. Pierpont Morgan. In addition to the 1928 annex to The Morgan Library on East 36th Street, he was responsible for a number of existing structures in the financial district, including the Cunard Building and the Seamen’s Bank for Savings. For this project, Morris worked in the neo-Georgian style, combining classical style features associated with the time period when the bank originated, such as curved broken pediments, arched fenestration, and rusticated stonework. Completed in 1929, the 32-story (513 feet) limestone-faced tower ascends in six stages, crowned by elaborate four-sided cupola flanked by iron lamps. At the apex is an 11-foot-tall bronze statue of an American eagle with outstretched wings.
A decade after The Bank of New York merged with the Irving Trust Bank Corporation (now BNY Mellon) in 1988, the building was sold. The second story main banking hall, reached by a pair of curving marble stairs, is now home to the Museum of American Finance, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Founded in 1988, it relocated to 48 Wall Street in 2008. The main exhibition space contains eight colorful murals by J. Monroe Hewlett. Shaped like an arched window, these images are painted in an illustrative style, depicting the history of American finance and the history of The Bank of New York. The Alexander Hamilton Room, containing exhibits devoted to the life and achievements of the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and the bank’s founder, occupies a small classical-style interior that originally served as the office of the bank’s president.
– Matthew A. Postal