Jonathan Cohen

Jonathan Cohen

Posted on 07/10/2015

Photo taken on April 29, 2014

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MSI Building
Manhattan Savings Institution
Romanesque Revival architecture
Bleecker Street
Greenwich Village
New York City
New York
United States
Bleecker Tower

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The MSI Building – 644 Broadway Broadway at Bleecker Street, New York, New York

The MSI Building – 644 Broadway Broadway at Bleecker Street, New York, New York
The MSI Building, located at the north east corner of Bleecker and Broadway is one of New York City’s greatest buildings. Designed by architect Stephen Decatur Hatch, who was responsible for several Manhattan buildings, most recently the monumental New York Life Insurance Company Building at 346 Broadway, it was built in 1889-90.

An earlier MSI building was the site of the 19th Century’s biggest bank robbery. At around 6:10 on the evening of October 27, 1878 thieves, commanded by George Leonidas Leslie, the so-called "King of the Bank Robbers," broke into the building. The gang included such notables as Jimmy Hope, Shang Draper, Red Leary, Johnny Dobbs, Worcester Sam Perris, Banjo Pete Emerson and Eddie Goodie Gearing. They made off with over $2.7 million – approximately $50 million by today’s standards. Unfortunately for the robbers, all but $12,000 of the loot was in non-negotiable bonds.

A decade later the heist was nearly forgotten and the Manhattan Savings Institute was preparing for a new, larger building. The bank moved into temporary offices while the old structure at 644 Broadway was razed and construction started on the new one. For the new headquarters, Hatch used a harmonious mix of Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles and a medley of materials: carved and rusticated sandstone, terra cotta, brick, copper and cast iron. Hatch took advantage of the corner site, crowning the building with a copper-clad tower visible for blocks from either Broadway or Bleecker. It remains one of the most ornate surviving 19th century buildings in Manhattan.

The façade is a visual feast of bays, pseudo-balconies, pilasters, arches and small-bracketed courses. In the pediment of the Broadway side the Institute’s monogram, MSI, stands in bold copper relief. In a drastic diversion from traditional European decorative motifs – gods and goddesses, or allegories of continents or the arts, for instance – Hatch turned to the uniquely American. Beavers, ears of corn, and Native American faces adorn the keystones and cornices.

Construction was completed in 1891 and that year the History and Commerce of New York wrote that "The banking rooms are handsomely furnished in all respects, and amply provided with improved fire and burglar-proof safes and vaults, which gives the greatest possible security…A valuable and increasing list of patrons is drawn to its counters…"

The Manhattan Savings Institute eventually went out of business and the Bleecker Street neighborhood became industrial. By the 1970s, after decades of neglect, the building was in severe disrepair. Pieces of stonework was disengaging from the façade and falling to the sidewalk below. In the 1980s the old Manhattan Savings Institute building was converted to luxury loft apartments and renamed the "Bleecker Tower." The owners had "patch repairs" made to the facade in 1987 and again in 1992; however seven years later it was obvious that a more substantial restoration was necessary for the aging structure. Walter B. Melvin Architects, LLC, was contracted to stabilize and restore the façade. Specially formulated coatings were applied to unify the façade and prevent water intrusion. The cast iron balconies were removed, stripped and rebuilt with stainless steel joints.

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