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May 11, 2010

The Real Wall Street: Where Financial Metaphors Meets Architectural Reality


"Wall Street is a treasure, and we don't appreciate its importance," Carol Willis said. Now those are words you don't hear every day.

Hers may be a minority view these days, but Willis, founder and director of The Skyscraper Museum in New York, was speaking of Wall Street and its importance in American history and architecture. The term Wall Street has come to occupy such a metaphorical realm, encompassing the sweep of investment banks and high-stakes global finance, that it's easy to forget that it's a place, too. That place -- a half-mile stretch from Broadway to the East River in lower Manhattan -- is the subject of a new exhibit at the compact museum, which is tucked into a corner of a Ritz Carlton in Battery Park City.

As "Fabulous" Fabrice Tourre and his boss, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein were preparing to testify before a Senate panel in late April, Willis paused from putting the final touches on her latest exhibit to show a visitor around. Called The Rise of Wall Street, it traces Wall Street's literal rise from a residential neighborhood of tidy row houses before 1850, to a growing financial center comprised of low-rise banks, to the great skyscraper boom of the late 1920s, and on to the present day.

The vertical ascension of Wall Street was fueled not just by money and technological advances, but also by zoning changes that allowed real estate developers to consolidate parcels for taller, wider and more profitable buildings. Often, new parcels were acquired and hastily incorporated into adjacent buildings that were already under construction. This creative destruction and consolidation mirrored the evolution of the financial industry itself, from smaller, specialized firms to today's too-big-too-fail behemoths.

Reaching Skyward, Spreading Out

Walking down the concrete canyon that is Wall Street today, it's hard to imagine the bucolic scene of May 17, 1792, when a couple dozen stockbrokers gathered under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street to create what would become the New York Stock Exchange. Nor could they possibly have fathomed the complex derivatives and synthetic collateralized debt obligations of our modern times.

Willis and her team unearthed all sorts of interesting relics (she jokes that the exhibit is partially dedicated to Google Books), including drawings of Wall Street in its pre-financial (and pre-photography) days, and a wonderfully detailed spread by Fortune magazine from 1930. A handwritten ledger on display tallies up the construction costs for 40 Wall Street, competed in 1930. Grand total: $13 million.

Forty Wall was one of several skyscrapers erected on Wall Street from 1929 to 1931 during a frenzy of Depression era construction. The 70-story building, designed by H. Craig Severance for the Manhattan Company, an early predecessor of what is now JP Morgan Chase, was to be the largest in the world. However, it was quickly eclipsed by the Chrysler Building, which itself was soon dwarfed by the Empire State Building. Forty Wall was acquired by the Trump Organization in 1995.

The last great building on Wall Street, 60 Wall, was completed in 1987 as the headquarters for JP Morgan & Co., a more recent precursor to JPMorgan Chase (formed in 2000 by the merger of JP Morgan & Co. and Chase Manhattan Bank). Deutsche Bank now occupies the 47-floor tower. A new, modernized New York Stock Exchange building was supposed to tower over 60 Wall, but the building, designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill in 2000, was never built.

Wherever They Move, Those Banks Are Still "Wall Street"

But much of what we think of as "Wall Street" actually exists at a distance from the half-mile street that bears the famous name. The New York Stock Exchange may still be there, but much of its trading has moved to diffuse electronic networks -- a factor that may have precipitated the steep and sudden May 6 drop.

Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley are all headquartered a few miles north in midtown Manhattan. Bank of America, which swallowed up Merrill Lynch, is based in Charlotte, N.C. (although it opened a new, environmentally friendly tower near Bryant Park in midtown last year).

Goldman Sachs remains downtown in the Financial District, but not on Wall Street. The embattled firm, which is charged with misleading investors and betting against them by the SEC, recently completed a move from its longtime headquarters on Broad Street to a shiny new steel-and-glass building at 200 West Street, on the north end of Battery Park City. The $2.1 billion tower was built with generous government subsidies, including more than $100 million in tax breaks and the use of $1.65 billion in tax-exempt Liberty Bonds, all intended to encourage development near Ground Zero. (No matter that the firm's $3.5 billion profit for the first quarter of 2010 would have more than paid for it, as The New Yorkerpoints out in its current issue.)

Still a Potent Idea

As the exhibit makes clear, Wall Street has been completely transformed over the past two centuries. The 18th-century icons of Trinity Church, Federal Hall and the Merchants Exchange still remain, incongruously holding their own against their towering neighbors. But on the street, you're likely to find more tourists than bankers these days.

Still, Wall Street remains a potent idea: a lightening rod for critics, a shining symbol for free market capitalists, a magnet for fortune-seekers and investors. And no doubt it will keep changing shape, both literally and figuratively, with the times. Bankers, the inhabitants of Wall Street the idea, may have fallen from grace. But let us at least appreciate Wall Street the place. "There is no half-mile anywhere in America that has a history as rich as the history of Wall Street," says Willis.



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