Places that Matter

Jarmulowsky Bank Building

click on image for slideshow
Place Matters
Place Matters
Jarmulowsky Bank, exterior, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Jarmulowsky Bank, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Jarmulowsky Bank, detail, photo by Molly Garfinkel
A major Lower East Side bank from 1912-1917
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, waves of immigrants from around the globe relocated to New York City. In hindsight they were united in their quest to create a better life in the United States, but contemporaneous linguistic, religious and ethnic differences led to territorial and institutional provinciality. Cultural groups settled in their own geographic enclaves and developed their own social, commercial and industrial networks. To serve and safeguard their own communities, they also established their own banks.

Between 1880 and 1910, approximately 1.1 million Jews fled from oppression in Eastern Europe and sought refuge in New York City’s Lower East Side. Amongst them was Alexander “Sender” Jarmulowsky, an entrepreneur from the Russian province of Lomza. Jarmulowsky was ordained as a rabbi, but after marrying Rachel Markels, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, he moved to Hamburg and established a trans-Atlantic shipping firm. In the early 1870s, Jarmulowsky immigrated to New York City, where he founded S Jarmulowsky’s Bank in the Lower East Side. Before long, Sender was known as the “East Side J.P. Morgan.”

A well-respected Talmudic scholar, Sender was an important patron for the Jewish Orthodox community in particular. He was one of the principal investors in the Eldridge Street Synagogue, for which he served as the first president. He also helped to organize the Association of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, and the Zichron Ephraim Synagogue.

However, Jarmulowsky was no modern Medici. He was both accountable and accessible to his customers. In this pre-regulatory period, small businessmen and low-income laborers were nervous about handing over their meager savings. Indeed Jarmulowsky experienced bank runs in 1886, 1890, 1893 and 1901, and responded by paying one hundred cents on the dollar to each anxious accountholder. He was famously honest and fiscally conservative, and known to grant loans based on personality as much as credit worthiness, a somewhat unconventional, albeit successful, strategy. Equally unusual was his decision to make his wife, Rachel, a partner in the bank.

Sender Jarmulowsky’s Bank Building was likewise extraordinary, but not so much for its time as for its place. In 1911, the New York Times hailed his decision to build a skyscraper as “an innovation for the East Side, being the first strictly high-class tall bank” in the Jewish neighborhood. When Jarmulowsky established his financial enterprise in the 1870s, he operated out of extant buildings on the southwest corner of Orchard and Canal Streets, which were named after Lt. Governon James DeLancey’s eighteenth century orchard, and the canal that drained the notorious Collect Pond, respectively.

When Jarmulowsky commissioned a new, purpose-built edifice in 1910, he decided to construct on the same Lower East Side site, whose environs were by then dominated by Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian Jews. His corner lot was in view of Straus Square, which, by the second decade of the twentieth century, contained the Jewish Daily Forward, the Educational Alliance and the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library. Straus Square thus served as the unofficial intellectual and political hub of the Eastern European Jewish community. To this assemblage of Jewish institutions Jarmulowsky added a tower of commerce.

In 1903, Sender’s sons, Meyer and Louis, had opened a private bank on East Broadway, in a Moorish building of Meyer’s own design. But Sender hired the emergent architectural firm, Rouse and Goldstone, to build his repository. Lafayette Goldstone had previously trained at a series of New York City architectural offices, and he had supervised tenement construction for the now-famous George F. Pelham. William L. Rouse also began his career building tenements in the Lower East Side, but in his brief partnership with John T. Sloan, he had also designed larger, high-end apartment buildings. In 1909, Rouse and Goldstone joined forces to establish one of a handful of Jewish-led architectural firms of early twentieth century.

Rouse and Goldstone designed Jarmulowsky a twelve-story, tripartite, neo-Renaissance bank tower. The interior of the three-story, rusticated limestone ground floor once contained a two-story banking hall appointed with marble and bronze. On the exterior, the ground floor is separated from the ornate terra cotta summit by six brick-clad floors of manufacturing lofts. The bank’s elaborate corner entrance is surmounted by a carved panel that once contained a clock. Today, the empty cavity is surrounded by carved rosettes and a helmeted figure assumed to be Hermes, the god of commerce. Hermes is also the protector of travelers, perhaps including those from Eastern Europe, whose trans-Atlantic steamship tickets Jarmulowsky brokered from this building. Above the panel an entablature bears the inscription “S Jarmulowsky’s Bank Est 1873.”

The corner site was ideal for providing double the frontage of a mid-block lot, as well as more light and air. It also offered the opportunity to find creative and dramatic way to accentuate the rounded corner, which faces toward Straus Square. Rouse and Goldstone thus crowned the roof with a circular tempietto, approximately fifty feet in height, whose colonnade supported a dome ringed with eagles. Now, this was a bank!

Although Lafayette Goldstone was the father of Harmon Goldstone, the first Chairman of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Commission did not designate the Jarmulowsky Bank Building until 2009, well after the tempietto was destroyed. But the bank was an instant Lower East Side landmark when it was completed in 1912. It was a symbol of Sender’s financial stability, but also that of the Eastern European community. Towering over the surrounding tenements, it brought the American commercial skyscraper aesthetic to the immigrants.

Sadly, Sender Jarmulowsky died within weeks of the building’s completion. Even more unfortunate, he passed his business and building on to his children. By 1914, Meyer and Louis Jarmulowsky’s own bank was failing, and to make matters worse, they had invested extensively, but unwisely, in speculative real estate. The real estate market was stagnant, and their properties devalued. They had no liquid capital to return to their depositors, many of whom attempted to withdraw their savings to send to overseas relatives caught in the throes of World War I. The Jarmulowsky name, once associated with passage to freedom, in August 1914 provoked New York’s largest finance-driven riot to date. Three thousand M& L Jarmulowsky Bank depositors gathered in front of Sender’s bank tower and demanded their savings. They then paraded to City Hall, where some were clubbed and arrested after attacking municipal clerks.

The riot frightened city officials, who assigned Judge Learned Hand to settle the claims. Hand soon discovered that the bank’s assets were tied up in real estate in East Harlem. The incident spawned several court cases, new legal precedents related to real estate, and financial legislation to prevent “speculitis.”

In 1914 the State closed the East Broadway bank, and the S Jarmulowsky Bank was closed by the State Banking Department in 1917. Despite official intervention, many of Lower East Side depositors were left with nothing. The twenty-five Jarmulowsky investment properties were auctioned in 1918, and the Jarmulowsky Bank Building was sold in 1920 for less than half of what it cost to build.

During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the building housed a variety of industrial tenants. A 1945 photograph shows a restaurant in residence on the ground floor, and upper lofts display names like Public Overall Company, All American Sportswear Leather Coats, and Rosebud Housewear Corporation. That year a piano manufacturer purchased the building, which it used as a factory until the 1960s. In 1990, when the building was still unlandmarked, the then-owner applied for exterior repairs. The façade was cleaned, the masonry repointed, and the windows were reframed. The tempietto was also destroyed at this time, the final public criminal act associated with the building, this time against the local skyline. In 2006 a new owner claimed that he intended to turn the bank into a hotel or high-end residential units, but as of 2011, several of its windows are boarded up, the grand corner entrance is entombed behind a padlocked, metal garage door, and the lower level is covered in uninspired graffiti. The building is as empty as its coffers were in the 1914 bank run.