A city of modern ruins

The new Merchants’ Exchange, begun in 1836 and completed in 1842.

NORTH of the lines described by Grand and Canal Streets, surveyors under the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan laid out a warp and weft of avenues and perpendicular streets for much of Manhattan’s 12-mile length: an imaginary grid, but one destined to vanquish the natural environment and the resistance of property owners. This it did with unwonted speed, becoming the web from which the modern city would wield its power and influence.

Below the then undistinguished rectangles of surveyors’ maps, down in the crowded knot of streets and alleys where the city began, unfolded a different sequence of dramatic mutations: old New York played host to a relentless “pulling down and building up.” Its colonial defenses were among the first of many structures to succumb to demolition, including the wooden fortification that gave Wall Street its name, gone by 1699. As wealth and population grew, old houses and churches, mansions and markets–some not very old at all–yielded their ground to new construction. The City Hall, on whose steps the first American president took his first oath, was removed in 1812. Government House on Bowling Green followed three years later. Replacement of the custom house got underway in 1834, the same year John Jacob Astor began to clear a whole block of residences for the opulent Broadway hotel that would one day bear his name.

Later in the same decade, when William A. Whitehead arrived in New York to live and make his living, the city looked to observers like a scene of perpetual, even dangerous transformations. “The pulling down of houses and stores in the lower parts is awful,” merchant and ex-mayor Philip Hone complained in his diary. “Brickbats, rafters and slates are showering down in every direction. There is no safety on the sidewalks, and the head must be saved at the expense of soiling the boots.”1

The pace of change easily lent itself to what seem exaggerated descriptions. By Hone’s calculation “the whole of New York is rebuilt about once in ten years.” “So restless are the tastes and habitudes of the city,” lamented the editor of the New York Mirror; “we batter down that we may build up, and we bruise that we may beautify.” In this “city of perpetual ruin and repair,” one looked in vain “for the day when some portion of New-York may be considered finished for a few years.”2

Activity was most frenetic precisely where Whitehead went to work: Wall Street. To Philip Hone the course of obliteration and replacement in the narrow thoroughfare made its buildings resemble “the ruins occasioned by an earthquake.” At its outlet on Broadway, dust billowed from the second Trinity Church, then in a state of collapse and judged not worth the trouble to save. Along Wall Street itself, no more the tranquil residential quarter it had been in the eighteenth century, banks and counting houses were building or rebuilding on a massive scale and in monumental style. Everywhere were hoisting machines, ropes, pulleys. Mounds of marble, granite, brick, sand and mortar obstructed the path of pedestrians. A turn in Wall Street now meant physical as well as financial risk-taking: “Stocks may rise,” wrote the editor of the New York Gazette, “but stones are falling prodigiously in all directions.”3

Nicolino Calyo, Burning of the Merchants’ Exchange (1835).

The city’s endemic impatience, its bent for novelty and speculation, certainly had a part in this, but disaster too lent a hand. On the frigid night of 16-17 December 1835, New York experienced its second Great Fire (the first had doomed the prior Trinity Church in 1776). The scene of devastation, once the blaze was put out, is still hard to contemplate: it had consumed some 600 structures over 17 city blocks from Broad Street to the East River. The Merchants’ Exchange, an imposing edifice then only eight years old, was gutted in the inferno. Whitehead, whose early years were steeped in an awareness of financial affairs, gathered dispatches at a distant southern latitude for readers of his Key West newspaper, telling of “this heavy dispensation of Providence” on the far-off but essential American metropolis.4

Although some thought New York would never recover from the 1835 fire, there was little delay in the process of clearing the “burnt district” and starting to rebuild. If the steep rents are any indication, the demand for office space on Wall Street seemed only to intensify.5 When Whitehead began work there in 1839, construction of a new Merchants’ Exchange was well underway: some of its lower offices were already occupied even as the building rose stone upon stone around them.6 As one of the project’s lead investors, Philip Hone worried about the burden of financing “this costly temple of mercantile pride,” which entailed a substantial amount of foreign debt.7

The new Exchange took another three years to complete; when finished, it filled an entire irregular city block. Along its north façade on Wall Street, the first-floor substructure supported a row of twelve immense fluted columns, each carved from a single block of Quincy granite. Stone staircases punctuating the colonnade led to a recessed portico, giving entry to a domed great hall 80 feet in diameter, illuminated by a large circular skylight of Redford glass. The New York Mirror regretted only that its location, “cramped up in a narrow street,” could not display such a distinguished building to full advantage,8 anticipating the sun-starved canyons of today’s financial district.

“Hard times” token showing the old Merchants’ Exchange, “built 1827, burnt 1835.”

Wall Street, for all its investment in capacious shrines to commerce, continued to see much of its bartering, buying and selling take place at curbside. Wily curbstone traders and their more or less seasoned clientele thronged the sidewalks outside the Exchange; the traders kept accounts with nearby banks but otherwise conducted their business with little scrutiny. It was apparently this kind of transaction that caused such questionable practices to “flare up” at a time when Whitehead, in partnership with his wife’s cousin James C. Parker, operated a small brokerage at 46 Wall, across from the outlet of Hanover Street.9

On the last Saturday in June 1841, broker George H. Healey bought approximately $9000 in canal company securities from three small firms, including that of Parker & Whitehead, paying for the investments from a bank account that had been closed the previous day. When apprehended, Healey incriminated one of his creditors, James B. Taylor, whose notoriety for dubious land speculations and “other fancy doings” heightened interest in the case.10 Both Healey and Taylor were placed under arrest, although Taylor’s bail was soon reduced on a technicality.11

The revelations opened an unusual window on the doings of Wall Street, which rarely “penetrate the purlieus of the Police Office.”12 Even “respectable” stock traders worried about the shadow of scandal. Any financial loss sustained by Parker & Whitehead, however, was presumably repaired: Whitehead recalled his early Wall Street years as “quite prosperous,”13 and Parker & Whitehead, while it was one of many firms to fail later in the 1840s, could afford to take quarters in the new Merchants’ Exchange when the building was completed in 1842.14 After he had found another, somewhat less adventurous livelihood, the Exchange remained Whitehead’s business address, where he continued to advertise his services as a broker into the 1850s.15 Such were the vagaries of business in a volatile age.

Detail of an 1840 map showing the Financial District. The footprint of the Merchants’ Exchange is at the center. Part of the East River is seen below.

Worries that New York’s genetic impermanence would deal the new Exchange the same fate as other less worthy structures, “torn down and improved before it can be fairly finished,”16 turned out to be unfounded. The Merchants’ Exchange would earn the image of solidity and stability its projectors had hoped to convey, although it was later substantially altered in form and use. In 1907 the building doubled in size with the addition of four upper stories and a second row of columns. It has since been repurposed many times, a rare survival amid the convulsions of downtown development.

Whitehead, too, became something of an institution in his years of working on Wall Street, more from failing to conform to stereotype than from any degree of career success. The typical stock market denizen of the 1830s was marked by “anxiety, worry, fretfulness, hurrying to and fro, wrinkled brows, eager eyes, calculating looks, restless gestures, and every indication which follow in the train of ‘grim-visaged’ care.”17 Two decades later, when Walt Whitman turned his pen to the dress and deportment of sundry New York types, the Wall Street broker came out looking much the same: “mouth with a gripe like a vice; eye sharp and quick; brows bent; forehead scowling; step jerky and bustling.”18 Such thumbnail sketches don’t agree with what we know of Whitehead’s appearance and personality, to judge at least by the words of his longtime friend and eventual eulogist Samuel I. Prime.19

At first glance, wrote Prime, Whitehead’s corporeal magnetism differentiated him. He was “a model of physical and manly beauty. Without the appearance of an athlete, he filled the eye as perfect in stature, development, dignity and power,” so much so that an artist, approaching him on a New York street, once politely “asked the privilege of taking his portrait.”20

Habits of diligence and accuracy also set Whitehead apart. He regulated his working days so as to allot to every task just the space and time required to accomplish it, and took pains “to make his work as nearly perfect as it was in the power of his hand to make it.” But never was counting-house banality permitted to dull his thoughts: “Figures of arithmetic and figures of rhetoric had charms alike for his versatile and well balanced intellect. He turned gracefully,” according to Prime, “from one to the other, and found himself equally at home in the pursuit of truth or beauty.”21

Finally, in an environment, and an era, in which men holding important public trusts were so often found to betray them, Whitehead stood out: “the taint of suspicion never rested on his integrity.” To preserve such purity of spirit on Wall Street, the axis of high finance and base infidelity, where every gain was to someone’s detriment, would be an achievement of heroic proportions. Today we must look skeptically on Prime’s remarks, part of the final tribute of a loving friend, but this last observation was not, he asserts, “formal or perfunctory.” It enhances our sense of Whitehead’s distinctiveness, in the business world most of all, that in his character he bore witness to truths, or perhaps ideals devoutly to be wished were truths: that “integrity is the rule and deceit the exception”; that “it is still true that thieves are in the minority and honest men bear rule.”22

Copyright © 2020 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Bayard Tuckerman, ed. The diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851 (2 vols. New York 1889) (entry of 1 May 1839) 1:359-360.

[2] “The city of modern ruins,” New-York mirror, a weekly journal of literature and the fine arts 17:51 (13 June 1840) 407.

[3] “The New-York Gazette, Wall-street, and other matters,” New-York mirror 16:47 (18 May 1839) 375. Cf. “Arrival of the Liverpool,” New-York mirror 17:17 (19 October 1839) 135.

[4] “From Charleston,” Key West (Fla.) inquirer 2 January 1836 2:4-3:1. In one of Whitehead’s scrapbooks is a clipping of the Merchants’ telegraph nameplate (probably from 1828) showing the old Exchange. Whitehead wrote below the image “Merchants Exchange Wall St New York Built 1827,” and beside it “Burnt Decr 17, 1835.” “Scrap Book No. 3 … 1829 & 30,” 70. New Jersey Historical Society, Manuscript Group 724, John Whitehead and William A. Whitehead Papers.

[5] The evening post (New York, N.Y.) 21 January 1839 2:1.

[6] “The progress of dilapidation in New-York,” New-York mirror 17:3 (13 July 1839) 23.

[7] Diary of Philip Hone (entry of 17 November 1841) 2:98. On the location and cost of the new Exchange cf. ibid. 1:201, 2:139.

[8] “Wall-street,” New-York mirror 17:30 (18 January 1840) 239. For contemporary notices of its construction see, inter alia, “The new Merchants’ Exchange,” New-York (N.Y.) commercial advertiser 9 September 1836 1:7; “A fire article without a phoenix,” New-York commercial advertiser 29 December 1836 2:1; New-York as it is, in 1837; containing, a general description of the city of New-York, list of officers, public institutions, and other useful information (New York 1837) 22; “The fair,” New-York commercial advertiser 20 October 1837 6:4; “Pillars of the Exchange” New-York mirror 17:10 (31 August 1839) 79.

[9] Whitehead dates the formation of the co-partnership with Parker to 1839 in his memoir “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” of which a transcription is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; pages 46-47 of the transcription contain the reference. However, a newspaper notice indicates that the arrangement was not finalized until 1840, with the dissolution of Parker’s existing partnership with Charles W. Lynde: New-York commercial advertiser 1 April 1840 3:1. The first city directory to list the brokerage of Parker & Whitehead was Longworth’s American almanac, New-York register, and city directory, for the sixty-sixth year of American independence … (New York 1841) 547.

[10] See “Legal Intelligence,” Morning herald (New York, N.Y.) 8 December 1838 2:4. “Fancy” stocks were those regarded as having no worth other than as speculative instruments. Cf. [Frederick Jackson,] A week in Wall Street. By one who knows (New York 1841) 82-83.

[11] “A Wall street Affair,” New York (N.Y.) daily express 30 June 1841 2:4; New York (N.Y.) evening express 30 June 1841 3:3; “A Wall-street Affair,” New York (N.Y.) daily tribune 30 June 1841 3:4; “The defaulting broker,” The sun (New York, N.Y.) 30 June 1841 2.2; “The Wall-st. Defalcation,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 30 June 1841 2:2; New York daily express 3 July 1841 2:3; New York evening express 3 July 1841 3:1; “Wall Street,” The evening post (New York, N.Y.) 3 July 1841 2:8.

[12] “A financial affair,” The new world (New York, N.Y.) 3 July 1841 15:2. The damage was seen as due in part to bankers’ practice of opening accounts for the street traders, “fifty or sixty irresponsible men … in no wise connected with the regular moneyed operations of the city.” Taylor was one such man, not a broker but “a kind of street hanger-on.” “Commercial record. Money market,” The weekly herald (New York, N.Y.) 3 July 1841 345:3-4.

[13] “Childhood and youth” 48.

[14] Longworth’s American almanac, New-York register, and city directory, for the sixty-seventh year of American independence … (New-York 1842) 476.

[15] See, for example, Newark daily advertiser 17 July 1852 3:1.

[16] “The city of modern ruins.” Cf. “The New-York Gazette, Wall-street, and other matters.”

[17] “Wall-street,” New-York mirror 14:17 (22 October 1836) 136.

[18] “New York dissected. V. Street yarn,” Life illustrated. A journal of entertainment, improvement, and progress 2:16 (16 August 1856) 125.

[19] Samuel I. Prime, “Memorial of William A. Whitehead,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, ser. 2, 8:4 (1885) 183-202. Prime’s “Memorial” was delivered in an address before the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark on 21 May 1885.

[20] Prime, “Memorial” 196.

[21] Prime, “Memorial” 197-198.

[22] Prime, “Memorial” 199-200.

Images: 1) Merchants’ Exchange: Gleason’s Pictorial 3:24 (11 December 1852) 369, via Wikimedia Commons. 2) Nicolino Calyo, Burning of the Merchants’ Exchange, New York, December 16th & 17th, 1835. Museum of the City of New York 52.100.7. 3) Token. Photograph © Wolf Konkel via Numista.com. 4) Map detail. Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain), New York (London: Chapman and Hall, 1840, 1844), via David Rumsey Collection.

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