Beyond Wing Tips
Published: June 2009
By Karrie Jacobs
It's no longer just gray flannel, bleary-eyed traders, and secretaries in running shoes. New York's Financial District is quietly reinventing itself as—can it be?—a bona fide neighborhood, even for people who think "blue chips" are what you get with guacamole at the Wall Street Kitchen & Bar. Thanks to an infusion of restaurants and nightspots and a soon-to-open luxury hotel, the city's oldest quarter is its newest destination
I walk through an open door, past a sleepy security guard, and find myself in an antique banking hall big enough to host an NBA game. I stand dumbstruck, gaping at Corinthian columns and an ornate dome seven stories high. It's an astounding space—especially because it is, at the moment, completely empty but for a haze of plaster dust. Two speakers, blasting opera, dangle like cheap earrings from the elegant coffered ceiling.
I feel like I am in a Wim Wenders movie.
It's hard to believe such a space exists. After all, Manhattan is not exactly terra incognita: every square foot on this skinny island has been discovered and rediscovered 10 times over. It doesn't seem possible that a room this monumental could just be sitting here, a block down Wall Street from the stock exchange.
Designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1907—built atop an 1842 Greek Revival building—the 12,000-square-foot hall bears an eerie resemblance to the waiting room of New York's old Pennsylvania Station (by the same architects), demolished in 1965. In only a few months this imposing space will become the banquet hall of the Regent Wall Street, the first luxury hotel in a part of town where the few existing lodgings are more like dormitories for itinerant stockbrokers.
The Financial District today is a lost world in the process of being reclaimed. The southern tip of Manhattan is full of architecture embodying the excesses (or what Alan Greenspan would call the "irrational exuberance") of another era—buildings that are, one by one, being retrofitted to accommodate the excesses of today. Walk through a door, one that in the past might have been closed to the public, and there's no telling what you'll find.
Think 'Wall Street' and the names that come to mind are J. P. Morgan and Michael Milken. But there's another Wall Street, a newer Wall Street, and the person I associate with it is Carol Willis. Carol isn't a broker or a trader. She's a curly-haired, bicycle-riding intellectual, an architectural historian who teaches at Columbia. She's also the founder of the Skyscraper Museum, currently located at 16 Wall. Carol is one of those people who, seduced by the neighborhood's remarkable mise-en-scène and its surplus of square footage, have gravitated toward the southern end of Manhattan, diversifying and livening up what was once a dreary, gray-flannel ghetto.
The Financial District used to be visited by no one who wasn't obliged to be there. It was—and still is—the turf of stockbrokers, bankers, lawyers, and the hordes of clerical help upon whom the Masters of the Universe depend. Cultural homesteaders like Carol are a relatively new phenomenon. Only in the last few years has the area acquired places to eat besides seedy delis and exclusive men's enclaves with names like City Midday Drug & Chemical Club. And only in the last few months have hotels opened that aren't just for businesspeople. Tourists are coming, even on weekends, when the streets are otherwise empty. Now T-shirt vendors have set up shop on J. P. Morgan's doorstep.
The southern end of Manhattan Island is, of course, where the city began. The little town that started out in 1623 as a not-especially-profitable trading outpost of the Dutch West India Co. grew northward from the Battery; the Financial District's narrow, crooked streets are among the few holdovers from New Amsterdam. Remnants of colonial New York tend to be less than authentic: Bowling Green, for example, at the foot of Broadway, has been a public park since 1733, but the pleasant European-style landscape you see today is a 1978 reconstruction.
It is the history of the 20th century, however, that is most prominently on display here. Lower Manhattan was the preeminent laboratory for the design and perfection of the skyscraper. And, with the exception of the Singer Tower, torn down in 1969 and replaced by the monolithic U.S. Steel Building, those early skyscrapers are still in use. Anyone can just walk into the lobby of the Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway—the world's tallest when it was erected in 1913—and gawk. Architect Cass Gilbert modeled the lobby after a Latin cross, just like a church, and encrusted the ceiling with an elaborately patterned mosaic. Peering from the corners are gargoyles representing Frank Woolworth, doling out nickels and dimes, and Gilbert himself, gazing lovingly at his building.
On a summer afternoon, Carol Willis and I are having lunch in what was once J. P. Morgan's 31st-floor pied-À-terre. The restaurant 14 Wall, which opened in October 1997, is a perfect example of how engaging the new Wall Street can be. It's an airy suite of rooms, decorated with mirrored panels, antique sideboards, and the occasional fireplace. The main attraction, however, is the view. We're practically nose to nose with the faux-copper pyramid of 40 Wall Street, the 1929 tower that lost out to the Chrysler Building in the competition to be, for a moment, the world's tallest.
Over tuna carpaccio and crab cakes, Carol talks eagerly about the Skyscraper Museum exhibition "Big Buildings," which opens this month. "It's really cool," she gushes, sounding more like a teenager than an academic. "Big Buildings" will examine the phenomenon of extremely large-scale architecture and engineering, Carol tells me. Included in the show will be towers that were, at one time or another, the world's tallest, as well as "jumbos," buildings that contained twice the square footage of the average building of their day, and "super jumbos," which are twice again as big.
After lunch the indulgent staff lets us roam through the restaurant to take in all the views. We climb a small flight of stairs to the wood-paneled Breakfast Room, the best vantage point, where windows face in three directions. Carol is delighted by the panorama studded with jumbos and super jumbos—the World Trade Center, the U.S. Steel and Equitable buildings. I'm knocked out by the Art Deco-meets-Gothic spire of the 1920's office tower at 1 Wall Street, as well as the afternoon light. I make a note to return to 14 Wall for a drink at sunset.
My own fascination with the Financial District began almost a decade ago. On assignment, I spent a week in 1991 following the young stage director Peter Sellars as he filmed his first movie—a remake of the 1919 German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Sellars, known for oddball conceits such as setting Don Giovanni in Harlem, had transferred Dr. Caligari to Wall Street. He filmed scenes inside huge office buildings emptied by the 1987 stock market crash. Sellars's idea was that the streets of the Financial District were as full of weird angles and frightening shadows as the set for which the original Caligari was famous.
Sellars's movie was never released, but his dark vision of Wall Street—as an Expressionist nightmare zone—stuck with me. At that time the neighborhood was in a downward spiral: after the crash of '87, New York City lost some 400,000 jobs, many of them in the Financial District. Even as the economy slowly rebounded, the jobs stayed away from lower Manhattan. Many firms rejected the creaky old office towers for cheaper space across the Hudson in New Jersey, for more up-to-date quarters across West Street in the World Financial Center, or for more vibrant neighborhoods in midtown. By 1995, the vacancy rate in the Financial District had reached 25 percent, and many of its monumental buildings were marked by tattered FOR SALE signs. It appeared that the most historically and economically significant section of New York City might simply be abandoned, like downtown Detroit. Except that lower Manhattan was too important to too many people to let it slip away.
Help finally came in October 1995, when the city began granting tax incentives to encourage the renovation of downtown office towers, this time as apartment buildings. Incentives were also offered to businesses that relocated to the neighborhood. Stringent zoning laws were relaxed to allow, among other things, residential units as small as 900 square feet (1,800 was the old minimum) and entertainment facilities.
As the planned revival of an obsolete neighborhood, it was an unusual variation on a familiar theme. In New York and other American cities, such transformations tend to come about organically: artists move into disused industrial buildings; galleries and restaurants follow; the real estate industry takes notice; and soon a SoHo is born. In this case, city officials and local boosters jump-started the process—they created a "new" hip neighborhood through artificial insemination. But instead of planting artists in industrial lofts, they put cyberspace entrepreneurs in unused office space, seeding the neighborhood with techno-chic.
Even before the city acted, developer William Rudin had begun renovating an 18-year-old tower at 55 Broad, emptied by the demise of Drexel Burnham Lambert, Michael Milken's old firm. Rudin stuffed the building's ducts with T-1 Internet lines, fiber-optic cables, and satellite hookups, and renamed it the New York Information Technology Center. Within a year the center had attracted dozens of young electronic media firms, and was quickly marketed as the symbol of a revivified Wall Street.
Since the beginning of 1996 more than 3,800 apartments have been carved out of beautiful pre-war office buildings and a handful of newer glass-and-steel towers. Ordinary New Yorkers, who long regarded the Financial District as a sort of Forbidden City, are moving in. The original idea was that the unorthodox location would make these apartments a bargain, but the boom economy has driven prices up; one-bedrooms here now rent for an average of $2,400 a month.
Still, some residential conversions of office towers—only a handful of which are protected by landmarking laws—are merely a way for the landlords to make money until a more lucrative use for the building or the land comes along. The planned expansion of the New York Stock Exchange, for example, scheduled to begin in a year or two, will very likely require the demolition of at least one residential building—probably 45 Wall, an early residential conversion that still advertises apartments for rent in the newspaper. (When the Dow is soaring, the NYSE is not the best neighbor.)
Surprisingly, only two small areas around Wall Street have been designated historic districts, protected from demolition: the Fraunces Tavern Block and the nearby Stone Street Historic District, a vestigial fragment of pre-skyscraper New York. Tony Goldman—an early developer of SoHo, who in 1996 turned south and opened the Wall Street Kitchen & Bar in the former home of the American Bank Note Co.—now owns a number of the properties along Stone Street. Goldman claims that this small-scale enclave will become the "central destination" that the Financial District now lacks. "This is the Village of Wall Street," he says about the crooked lane that will be refinished this fall (using federal and city money) with old-fashioned cobblestones and lined with faux historic streetlamps.
It's odd that the city and developers like Goldman feel a need to apply "historic" charm to an already quaint street. In fact, what's best about the Financial District is its enduring usefulness. In other historic districts in other American cities, the neighborhoods' original functions became extinct, leaving behind mere husks of buildings, often converted into food courts and Ye Olde Mini-Malls. But here, some of the most glorious spaces are still used for everyday purposes. The great hall at 25 Broadway (the former headquarters of the Cunard Line) is the maritime equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, with ancient sailing vessels painted on the ceiling. It's now used as a post office branch. At 1 Wall Street, while Bank of New York employees work at their desks in the spectacular Red Room just inside the main entrance, tourists stare in astonishment at the red, orange, and gold floor-to-ceiling mosaics.
Despite all the recent activity, spending a Saturday in the Financial District is like escaping to the country. The streets are eerily silent: you can stand for minutes in the middle of lower Broadway and not get hit by a car.
I've come downtown with my friend Jon for an afternoon and evening of exploring. We saunter along Battery Park City's waterfront esplanade, and I lead Jon to the prettiest spot in all of New York: the southernmost corner of Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, where the view of the harbor—including the Statue of Liberty—is uninterrupted and magnificent.
Relaxed and tranquil, we zigzag through deserted streets in search of our dinner destination, Bayard's, an elegant new restaurant in an 1851 Italianate palazzo known as India House, after the private merchants' club that still meets there for lunch. Jon, who has lived in New York for 20 years, is completely lost, and finds it hard to believe that I'm not.
We finally find the restaurant, and climb the staircase beneath the watchful eyes of Glory of the Seas, a ship's figurehead. Once inside, we discover that ours is one of three occupied tables in a dining room that seats 110. It's Saturday night in the Financial District.
"We're usually busier than this," our waiter assures us, as he presents a purée of split peas and fresh snap peas, with a few pieces of lobster secreted at the bottom of the bowl.
"Spectacular!" Jon exclaims. This from a Midwesterner whose highest praise for food is generally "Yummy."
We feel as though we are somewhere very far from Manhattan—the dining room of a traditional resort, Saratoga maybe, in the off-season. There is no music playing. There are no people to watch. We don't know quite what to do with ourselves.
Later we drift off to the Greatest Bar on Earth, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. On Saturday nights, there's a $5 cover charge, which we pay to a woman sitting at the Continental Airlines counter near the elevators. Unlike Bayard's, TGBonE is packed. A swing band called Dem Brooklyn Bums is the center of attention. On the dance floor, a beefy longhaired man keeps tossing his sylphlike partner over his head or flipping her between his legs; they know what they're doing. Other couples are just doing a cheap variation on the polka.
The scene here is weirdly pleasant. No one is working at being hip. There are no velvet ropes or VIP areas. It's as if a floor of one of the world's tallest buildings had been converted into a friendly, boisterous roadhouse somewhere in Texas. I add it to my list of places to have a drink at sunset.
On Monday morning I set out on a power tour of the neighborhood, beginning with breakfast at the Fraunces Tavern Restaurant, the 1719 landmark where George Washington chowed down. While the museum upstairs is a magnet for tourists, the dining room is full of men in suits from 7 until 9:30 a.m., when the market opens. It's the perfect spot to bring my friend Daisann, who has lately moved from buying antique vases on E-Bay to buying stocks on E-Trade. She is, like so many people these days, obsessed with the stock market.
The tavern's $14.95 prix fixe breakfast doesn't get you much more than $4.95 would at a local diner, and the food is solidly mediocre. But the setting is splendid. Either no one has bothered to fix the place up in a very long time or the decorator is a genius at faking seediness. We sit in green leatherette wing chairs that have been patched many times over, with cushions so flaccid I feel I need a booster seat. On a nearby window ledge is a bust of a man with a self-satisfied smile who might be Julius Caesar, but I prefer to think of him as a hotshot from Goldman, Sachs. Above the mantel is the portrait of Washington that hung in every classroom of my elementary school. What the tavern does provide is a rare sense of coziness, untempered by difficult concepts such as quality or style.
It's a short walk from the restaurant to the New York Stock Exchange. In the visitors' gallery overlooking the trading floor Daisann and I stand, noses against the glass, transfixed by the sight of hundreds of men in primary-colored jackets, scurrying like ants on an anthill. Every trading-floor kiosk is now outfitted with computer screens, perhaps to make the NYSE seem as technologically savvy as NASDAQ, where technology stocks are traded electronically. But the layering of cybergadgets atop booths better suited for candy-apple vendors at a state fair reminds me of the movie Brazil, in which computers were tethered to manual typewriters.
Daisann, meanwhile, is fixated on the ticker, fretting about her AOL shares ("The little arrow is red and pointing down," she announces glumly). I decide that we'd be much happier at the New York Mercantile Exchange, where commodities such as crude oil, natural gas, gold, and silver are traded. As far as I know, Daisann owns no natural gas wells and her gold interests are confined to a few pieces of jewelry.
While every tourist in the Financial District makes a beeline for the NYSE, few of them find their way to the New York Mercantile Exchange's new headquarters near the Hudson River. It's their loss. On the lively NYMEX trading floor, men in garish jackets that suggest Elvis in Vegas stand in tiered circles and scream at one another. You can hear them—almost feel them—through the glass. They signal with a flurry of hand gestures; they scribble transactions on scraps of paper and fling them to a clerk sitting calmly in the center of the trading pit, the eye of the storm. The process looks positively medieval.
That afternoon we join a tour of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Florentine-style fortress that houses more than a quarter of the world's monetary gold reserves (worth approximately $11 billion). Naturally, everyone on the tour is here to see the vaults, 80 feet below street level, where some 9,000 tons of gold is stored. But what people don't understand, our guide tells us, is that the real business of the Fed today has little to do with gold.
"This is what monetary policy is all about," he says, pointing through a big window at a fluorescent-lit room on the ninth floor, filled with men and women staring dully at computer screens. "Trillions," our guide says. "Trillions of dollars move through those computers each week."
What money is "all about" these days, in other words, has more to do with computer screens than with gold. That's one reason the Financial District emptied out in the first place: the business of moving money around had become an abstract, "virtual" undertaking, even before on-line trading turned the floor into a charming anachronism.
My power tour ends with a visit to the just-opened Holiday Inn, four blocks north of Wall—the first new hotel to open in the neighborhood since 1991. Every guest room has a high-speed T-1 link to the Internet, plus a fiber-optic connection to a full-service business center, on call 24 hours a day. Atop each desk is a dictionary, thesaurus, stapler, paper clips, pocket calculator, erasers.
"Workaholics will have a wonderful time here," boasts sales and marketing director Mark O'Day. When and if the stock exchange extends the trading day until midnight (a plan actually being discussed), O'Day expects that a lot of brokers will be looking for a place to take a lunch-hour nap. The Holiday Inn will be happy to oblige.
It occurs to me that, while the Regent Wall Street and restaurants such as Bayard's want to steep customers in some mythic Wall Street past, today's version is better represented by the Holiday Inn: total connectivity combined with sleep deprivation.
I finally have my sunset drink, but not at 14 Wall or the Greatest Bar on Earth. Instead I end up at the Wall Street Kitchen & Bar, a cavernous two-story room just down Broad Street from the NYSE. And instead of a glowing sunset, I've got CNBC projected above the bar on a giant screen with ticker quotes running along the bottom.
The place is jammed, but hardly anyone is actually sitting on the barstools. Men with their ties loosened, as well as a handful of women, stand around in tight clusters, shouting into one another's ears, much as they do on the trading floor—except now they're eating buffalo wings and drinking pints of Brooklyn Lager.
Without thinking, I head for the balcony, lean on the railing, and watch. It occurs to me that the new Wall Street isn't so different from the old Wall Street.
I wonder what J. P. Morgan would think of buffalo wings.
For an indispensable guide to the Financial District, pick up the free TrailsMap (published by Heritage Trails New York), available at 25 locations throughout lower Manhattan.
Long before the Financial District's revival, New Yorkers who otherwise never ventured south of TriBeCa would make pilgrimages to Century 21, the legendary department store across from the World Trade Center. A friend of mine calls it "a feminized Mercantile Exchange": three stories of discounted designer merchandise that puts Filene's Basement to shame. For the fashion-conscious, Century 21 is a shrine, albeit a very frenetic shrine. It's also famous for having only a few dressing rooms; the aisles are packed with women clad in body stockings, shimmying into Gigli or Moschino. Like the floor of the Merc, it is not a place for the bashful.
1 Wall Street (1931) Currently home to the Bank of New York. The beautiful reception hall is covered from floor to ceiling in screaming red, orange, and gold Art Deco mosaics.
Woolworth Building (1913) 233 Broadway. The original Cathedral of Commerce, with vaulted ceilings, mosaics, and terrific gargoyles.
70 Pine Street (1932) The onetime Cities Service Tower, now headquarters of the American International Group. Don't miss the lobby, a showcase of rippling marble and aluminum trim.
25 Broadway (1921) Formerly the Cunard Building. Today the great hall is used as a post office; murals depict the history of seafaring.
Trinity Church (1846) Broadway at Wall St.; 212/602-0872. This Gothic Revival landmark is the third Trinity Church on the same site. Astonishingly tranquil inside. The churchyard's 17th- and 18th-century gravestones make good reading.
St. Paul's Chapel (1766) Broadway at Fulton St.; 212/602-0872. Manhattan's oldest public building still looks like the country church it once was. George Washington's pew remains, although its furnishings and canopy are long gone.
Skyscraper Museum 16 Wall St.; 212/968-1961. May relocate this fall, so call ahead.
Federal Reserve Bank of New York 33 Liberty St.; 212/720-6130. Guided tours (free; reserve at least two weeks in advance) take in the gold vaults, the computerized trading room, and a museum. Great ironwork inside and out.
New York Stock Exchange 20 Broad St.; 212/656-5165. The viewing gallery above the floor is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Mercantile Exchange 1 North End Ave. (west of the World Financial Center); 212/299-2000. Two trading floors and a clever little museum are open to the public.
Century 21 22 Cortlandt St.; 212/227-9092. Chaos theory for shoppers.
Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian In the old U.S. Custom House, 1 Bowling Green; 212/514-3700. Sophisticated exhibitions of American Indian culture, and two great gift shops. Check out the Custom House's beautiful rotunda.
Museum of American Financial History 28 Broadway; 212/908-4110. Artifacts of life on Wall Street, including a special exhibition, "Rockefeller Rediscovered." Call about special September events such as "Culinary Riches of the Robber Barons," a food tour.
Museum of Jewish Heritage 18 First Place; 212/509-6130. A six-sided building filled with materials and literature documenting the history of European Jewish culture before Hitler, life during the Third Reich, and Judaism after the war.
South Street Seaport Museum 12-14 Fulton St.; 212/748-8600. The best thing at the seaport. A $6 fee gives you access to three historic ships and the museum's galleries.
14 Wall Street Restaurant 14 Wall St.; 212/233-2780; dinner for two $70. Stunning views are the highlight of this new restaurant in what was once J. P. Morgan's pied-À-terre. Go for an elegant breakfast or evening drinks.
American Park Restaurant Battery Park; 212/809-5508; dinner for two $100. Excellent seafood (especially the crab salad wrapped in nori), great oysters, and uninterrupted views of the harbor.
Tiffin 18 Murray St.; 212/791-3511; lunch for two $18. Indian vegetarian prix fixe meals. Order baingan bharra tori kadhi—zucchini stuffed with roasted eggplant in a yogurt-and-chickpea sauce.
Mangia 40 Wall St.; 212/425-4040; lunch for two $25. The most beautiful salad bar on earth: try roasted vegetables, filet mignon salad, or a "pizzette" with fennel and butternut squash.
Carmine's 140 Beekman St.; 212/962-8606; dinner for two $35. This atmospheric Italian seafood joint has been here since 1903. Great for green-pea clam chowder and steamed lobster.
Bayard's 1 Hanover Square; 212/514-9454; dinner for two $120. Specialties include Hudson Valley foie gras, and Chilean sea bass with a saffron-and-orange broth.
Fraunces Tavern Restaurant 54 Pearl St.; 212/269-0144; breakfast for two $30. The food at this cozy, threadbare, Colonial-era outpost was probably better in Washington's day.
Delmonico's 56 Beaver St.; 212/509-1144; dinner for two $80. Italian food, steak, and power brokers in a handsome historic (1838) dining room. Stop into the dark, woody bar for a hamburger or a dozen oysters.
Wall Street Kitchen & Bar 70 Broad St.; 212/797-7070; dinner for two $40. A popular after-work spot for Wall Streeters, especially on Thursdays. Impressive selection of wines by the glass and draught beers. Simple American menu.
Wild Blue 1 World Trade Center, 107th floor; 212/524-7107; dinner for two $70. A casual New American restaurant atop the city's tallest building. The adjacent Greatest Bar on Earth (212/524-7000) has live music most nights and swing bands on weekends; good for sushi and a sunset martini.
Edward Moran Bar & Grill 4 World Financial Center; 212/945-2255; dinner for two $25. On warm weeknights the plaza outside this joint fills up with hundreds of traders drinking longnecks and eating from troughs of calamari and buffalo wings. Interesting anthropological site.
Regent Wall Street 55 Wall St.; 212/845-8600; opening late 1999. The theme at this new luxury hotel is big: gargantuan banquet hall; rooms larger than most New York apartments; "deep-soaking" bathtubs; giant TV's hidden inside massive armoires. The restaurant will have a terrace bar overlooking Wall Street.
Holiday Inn 15 Gold St.; 800/465-4329 or 212/232-7800; doubles from $159. Opened in June. Rooms feature comfy chairs, big desks, and information-age wiring—T-1 lines, infrared keyboards, guest E-mail—plus dictionaries and paper clips.
Millenium Hilton 55 Church St.; 212/693-2001; doubles from $135. Across the street from the World Trade Center, with sweeping views from the highest floors. Good weekend rates.
Wall Street Inn 9 S. William St.; 877/747-1500 or 212/747-1500; doubles $175-$500. A 46-room "B&B"—the neighborhood's first—with plenty of extras (health club, business center, marble baths), housed in a 19th-century building.
Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park Terrific views of the harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island.
Bowling Green The city's first park, founded in 1733 and relandscaped in 1978.