Equitable Building NYC: Scandals, Murders, and Innovations
The fair building in 1944.
Photo: Bettmann Archives / Getty / Bettmann
The Equitable Building is not as famous as the Chrysler, the Empire State, or even the Flatiron. But it has changed the city in countless ways – with as many superlatives, historical firsts, and tabloid headlines as a single structure can handle. (Well, two structures, but we’ll get to that.)
Completed in 1870 at 120 Broadway, the original tower is widely regarded as the world’s first office building with passenger elevators, and thousands of people have climbed to the roof for what the New York Sun called “the most exciting, wonderful and instructive vision you can have on our continent”. It was only seven stories tall, soon to be eight. The best floors were rented out to bankers and lawyers, making Equitable one of the first speculative office buildings; they ate at the Café Savarin, whose kitchens, bars, dining rooms and wine cellars were spread over all floors and which served no less than 20 preparations of potatoes. It was New York Time wrote: “a seaside resort of unparalleled magnificence in any quarter of the world.”
Photo: HATHITRUST / WIKIMEDIA
Made of granite, brick and iron, the Equitable was considered so indestructible that its owner, the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, decided not to purchase fire insurance. On an unusually freezing January morning in 1912, a fire in the kitchen destroyed the building. Pride was only eclipsed by the sinking of the Titanic three months later.
A descendant of the brigand-baron du Pont clan bought the entire site for $ 14 million. The new Fair Trade building – with 38 floors, a distinctive H-shaped footprint and enough space for 15,000 workers – was the world’s largest office building by square footage. Protests against its gargantuan proportions led to the country’s first zoning law. Tenants would include General Electric, Goodyear, Barclays, several railroads, and the state attorney general’s office. The Equitable maintained its own fire and police departments and a coal-fired power station.
Valued at $ 31 million in 1928, the tower was the city’s most valuable property. It was wired with more phone lines than all of Greece, and on the top three floors, the opulent Bankers Club claimed the title of the world’s largest private club. Winston Churchill visited, as did Otto Kahn, Charles de Gaulle, Nikita Khrushchev and Queen Elizabeth II. Reflecting this grandeur, current owner Silverstein Properties completed a $ 50 million renovation in 2019 that left the century-old bronze grates of the elevators intact.
1870s ➼ First building in the city with electric lighting.
1884 ➼ When a complex fraud collapses, a stenographer named William Scovil is revealed to have a dual identity, conspicuously working in an Equitable law firm while enjoying a reputation on Wall Street as a wealthy trader.
1905 ➼ The son of the founder of Equitable Life is drawing fire from gossip columnists for using corporate funds to finance his lavish lifestyle, including a Versailles-themed ball costing around $ 5 million in dollars. ‘today.
1916 ➼ First building to employ an elevator operator.
1920s ➼ A top G-man operates an undercover interdiction office outside of the Equitable.
1929 ➼ At Café Savarin, a waiter beats the stock market crash with stock advice passed to him at the lunch counter by his financial regulars, but a less fortunate brokerage clerk jumps out of the building when he dies. The following year, a man collapsed on the roof of a truck, killing himself and the driver.
1942 ➼ An artillery shell crashes on a ledge between the 37th and 38th floors, the result of an anti-aircraft misfire on the East River.
1952 ➼ A thief on the 32nd floor dodges a guard’s bullet before escaping with 50 cops chasing him.
1958 ➼ A cleaning lady from Mitsubishi International Corporation throws 12 vials of radioactive isotopes in the trash.
1976 ➼ Stocks worth $ 168,000 disappear from Smith Barney – and resurface about 18 months later in a scheme orchestrated by the Colombo criminal family.
1979 ➼ Man is shot in the chest during an armed robbery at a Barclays branch in a citywide outbreak.
Harry and Leona Helmsley.
Photo: Ron Galella Collection / Ron Galella via Getty Images
1987 ➼ Harry Helmsley, former owner of Equitable, and his wife, Leona, are accused of fraud; they return to the building to surrender to the authorities. In Grislier Crime News the same year, a stockbroker is murdered by his brother on the 22nd floor.
90s ➼ The Swiss Banking Company, which first rented space in the coffers of the Equitable in 1939 to safeguard gold and other valuables in the run-up to World War II, is becoming central to the efforts to return assets to Holocaust victims and their families.
2003 ➼ Jurors deliberate on the design of the World Trade Center memorial in a 20,000 square foot office on the 30th floor facing downstairs.