A brief retelling of our building’s rich history
Along with Plymouth Rock and the Fountain of Youth, few places inspire as much imaginative reverie as the stately columns and shaded side streets of Wall Street. From its earliest beginnings in the early 1600s by Dutch settlers, when the southernmost tip of Manna-Hata Island was newly christened New Amsterdam, the trading post became an instant international magnet for commerce.
Even after the British acquired the land from the Dutch and renamed it New York, the little colony south of a certain wall and a certain street only grew as a place for trade, where merchants of all nationalities and stripes were welcome to buy and sell. Herman Melville, who lived and worked in the area, said it best: “There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf.”
The New York Stock Exchange began in theory under the name the Merchants Exchange in 1792, when a group of merchants and auctioneers signed the famous Buttonwood Agreement under a buttonwood tree at 68 Wall Street. Or at least that is the legend. But it began in earnest a few months later at 82 Wall Street — at the Tontine Coffee House, a handsome brick tavern & coffeehouse founded by those same Buttonwooders as a place to trade. They chose a clever name for their combination of a coffee house and stock exchange: a tontine. A tontine is a cooperative investment pool that functions like a trust, but one that only pays off to its last surviving member, making it both an investment in, and a gamble on, the future.
For decades, the Tontine was the center of New York’s commercial life. Deals were done on the vast trading floor upstairs, over coffee or ale or food downstairs; or auctions were sometimes conducted from the terrace outside. It was a club—a place to receive and send mail and messages. It even survived a double whammy: in 1835, when it was miraculously spared from the Great Fire that completely destroyed the whole area; and in 1836, when Merchants Exchange moved to much grander new quarters at 55 Wall Street (with a giant central trading hall that was then the largest in the world). The Tontine remained popular, not just living on as a tavern, hotel and watering hole, but as the literal first place for news. Positioned right in the midst of what had become New York’s first news and printing district, the Tontine was the place people came to get (and spread) the news first—an asset that lasted for decades more. Even when the original building was demolished in 1855 and a six-story one erected in its place (and now called simply the Tontine Building), news and coffee remained the plat du jour.
By 1900, the region’s peaked-roof colonials were giving way to a new kind of building called “skyscrapers.” One of the new architecture’s most respected firms, Clinton & Russell, Holton & George, had just completed a handsome 18-story building up Wall Street. (And they would later be chosen to design the Cities Service Building around the corner at 70 Pine Street, a New York Art Deco masterpiece rivalled in perfection only by the Chrysler Building.) A sharp-eyed real-estate tycoon saw a chance with the Tontine Building, so he bought it and built a restrained, 14-story rusticated Beaux-Arts building that would bring the ornament and tradition of the 19th century to meet the clean modern ambition of the 20th. A couple years later when the building next door came up for sale, he bought it and built an addition to the first that seamlessly melded them together. An amateur eye would never spot the difference.
For the first decades of the new Tontine Building's life, its stories were filled with the Wall Street finance and insurance firms that gave the quarter its name. But as the city grew north, so did business: midtown became the center. So when Allan Gerdau, president of the highly successful Otto Gerdau & Co. import & export business, saw a chance to house his growing empire in an entire building right on Wall Street, he leapt at the chance.
Gerdau’s father Otto had founded the company in 1872, not long after immigrating from Germany. Among the first things he imported was ivory, but soon diversified into synthetic substitutes and other products and artifacts from around the globe. He had two sons: Allan and Carl. Allan was only 19 when Otto died in 1920, leaving Allan to take care of the company himself. And for the next seven decades, he did, expanding into furniture design, real estate and more. By the 1930s, he had become the biggest importer of mother-of-pearl in the world. He controlled the entire company from his New York office. A desirable commodity made from Australian oysters the size of dinner plates, mother-of-pearl was fashioned into everything from shirt and coat buttons to ornamental details on furniture, housewares, fashion accessories and more.
After World War II ended and shirt makers had discovered the magic and low price of new buttons made of plastic, the bottom fell out of the mother-of-pearl market. But in a sterling example of making lemons out of lemonade, Gerdau teamed up with two partners, one Australian and one Japanese, to put those huge Australian oysters to even better use: he started the world’s first cultivated pearl farm to create natural, large and luminescent South Sea pearls from Pinctada Maxima. The result was something new: the largest and most expensive pearls in the world, which they could produce at nearly three times the volume—and at nearly double the value—of their competitors.
But while Gerdau’s fortunes continued rising through the 1950s, this was not the case for the Financial District. With a major percentage of firms having decamped for midtown, Wall Street and indeed much of Lower Manhattan began to feel abandoned in places. Right around the corner from the Tontine Building, artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana and Jasper Johns could rent huge, cheap painting studios.
Gerdau tried breathing some new life into the area. In 1965, he opened the Tontine Emporium in the building, packed to the rafters with chic European furniture and exotic furnishings he imported. “I subscribe to the theory expressed by Confucius: behave toward everyone as if receiving a great guest,” Gerdau told the New York Times.
Wall Street continued to change; the Tontine Emporium did not survive Gerdau’s death in 1986. By the 21st century, the stock exchange existed more on the internet than on Wall Street, where the stock exchange interested tourists more than brokers. But the spark of new interest in the area following the September 11th attacks slowly caught on, and a wide variety of creative businesses started moving into the neighborhood. Famous business skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building, One Wall Street and 70 Pine turned residential. It became common to see stylish city people dashing for the subway or the new ferries. Although the once-sleepy financial district was changing, it was still missing something. But what?
Back in the late 1980s, Allan Gerdau’s death caught the interest of the legendary Paspaley family, who had been one of the world’s foremost companies of pearl collecting and trading for almost a century. Run by a family dynasty in Australia since 1919, the Paspaley Pearling Company is today a staggeringly high-tech operation seeding and extracting thousands of pearls a day from the waters off Australia’s northwestern coast.
The estate Allan Gerdau left behind was maddeningly complicated to unravel, so the Paspaleys came in and bought all of it—lock, stock and barrel—expanding its pearling territory both under the sea and across it. This transaction also delivered the Tontine Building to the Paspaley family, whose members weighed, imagined and deliberated for years what if anything to do with it. But seeing the dawning of a stylish new age for the Financial District finally gave them the idea that they should give the neighborhood something it very badly needed.
In a dinner-plate oyster shell, this was the lustrous vision behind The Wall Street Hotel: to create a place that embodies Allan Gerdau’s dream of “an oasis of charm and culture,” and to meet the flawless standards of luxury that the Paspaley family holds all its ventures to. The Wall Street Hotel was conceived from the start to provide the neighborhood with a welcoming and colorful central location right at the neighborhood’s crucial intersection. A place where professional people and global travelers could find relief, comfort and life. Where friends and colleagues could meet for a meal, a caffe latte, or a drink at any time. A place to be happily together or blissfully alone. All the style, smarts and sociability of a hotel on the Upper East Side, all the discreet chic of an elegant SoHo gem — this is the pearl that is The Wall Street Hotel.
A far cry from the selfish arrogance of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” The Wall Street Hotel is now a heartily vibrant place that is just steps from the newly popular and redesigned Seaport as well as the most historic and fascinating buildings and legends that New York has to offer. It welcomes artists and architects as well as stockbrokers and hedge-funders. It is a place that subscribes to Confucius’s saying: “Behave toward everyone as if receiving a great guest.”
Past & Future: 300 Years of Wall Street History
With New York business and busy-ness drifting to the east end of Wall Street and the waterfront, John Dunks opens a tavern called the Jamaica Pilot Boat on the northwest corner of Wall Street and Water Street (then Burnet Street).
The mariner Daniel Bloom, having been robbed in the West Indies by pirates, decides to try land for a while: he buys Dunks Tavern and opens the Merchants Coffee House. Coffee houses were just starting to catch on as popular daytime spots for trading, other business and news catching.
After a profitable 23 years, Mr. Bloom sells the coffee house to a smart businesswoman, Mrs. Ferrari, who increases trade in the Merchants Coffee House so much that 12 years later she moves it to a bigger and better space across the street, where it becomes an even more crucial social hub for news and discussion in the tense run-up to the Revolutionary War.
After the war, the city’s merchants want to trade someplace more professional. A coalition of 37 merchants purchase and tear down the former Merchants Coffee House and build a stately and spacious four-story brick building. Its owners call it the Tontine Coffee House and create the ownership of it a tontine — a special kind of long-term trust popular then.
The Buttonwood Agreement is signed in May and establishes the New York Stock Exchange; the Tontine Coffee House becomes its first official home—and thus one of the most important social and financial watering holes in the newly triumphant United States of America.
The Tontine continues to grow in stature as one of the first places to get new newspaper editions, since many were just up the street. The first notice of Alexander Hamilton’s death, from a duel with Aaron Burr, is posted at the Tontine, solidifying its hold as a center not just for business but for the most important and timely news.
Due to its strategic location equidistant from the finance houses and the seaport, the Tontine is leased by a new proprietor, James Bryden, and re-envisioned as a coffee-house and hotel. He introduced special messenger & mail services for guests and visitors, including leased letterboxes for seagoing merchants, further cementing its popularity. Historical engravings even show the area around the closest docks being named “Coffeehouse Slip.” Wall Street Slip would have to wait.
Two newsmen from Boston, the Hudson brothers, move their fast-growing business, the Merchant's Newsroom, into the Tontine building. Luckily for them, when much of downtown New York is destroyed in the Great Fire of 1835, the Tontine narrowly escapes demolition due to extraordinary efforts from the fire brigade.
The Hudson Brothers Newsroom is taken over by James Hale. (The restaurant downstairs was run by Charles Ridabock; it was said “he had the dirtiest restaurant and the best oysters in the city.”) Though he ran a news shop, Hale was best known to history for his innovations in mail—pioneering the earliest successful models for both express mail and package mail.
As the waterfront area along Water Street blooms into New York’s first real printing district, George F. Nesbitt leases the building to house his business as a stationer, bookbinder, printer and machinery-cut wood type manufacturer. (There is still today an old, fully functioning replica 19th-century print shop down the street at Water and Fulton.)
With the city spreading north and much of the shipping business moving to docks on the Hudson, the Tontine building’s location becomes less central but still well-situated for the growing financial and business world. A silver merchant named William H. Aspinwall buys the original Tontine building, demolishes it, and starts construction of the first Tontine Building, a handsome six-story Italianate structure designed by James Renwick.
Out of the first 203 investors who had funded the Tontine Coffee House in 1792, only seven are now left; the trust is thus disbanded and distributed to its last seven remaining beneficiaries.
William K. Aston purchases the Tontine Building property at 82 Wall Street from the estate of Peter J. O’Donohue, demolishes the six-story structure, and builds a new Tontine Building—13 stories in a reserved Beaux-Arts style, designed by Clinton Holton & Russell. When an adjacent plot at 80 Wall Street becomes available, Aston purchases it and builds an addition in an identical style, which looks just like it was always part of the first. The same architects would go on to design one of New York’s most beautiful buildings, the Art Deco 67-story Cities Service Building, later called 70 Pine.
The first few decades of the 20th century saw many financial firms abandon the maze-like warren of Wall Street for the gleaming modern skyscrapers of midtown. Even the new modern skyscrapers downtown, like the Cities Service Building, couldn’t stanch the exodus. But the seaport was still the seaport. So for Allan and Carl Gerdau, the co-heads of the import-export company Otto Gerdau & Co. (started by their father in 1872), it was the chance of a lifetime—to have a whole building just an oyster’s throw from the docks and their arriving antiquities.
Having started working for his father’s company at 16 and then taking it over at 21, when his father dies suddenly, Allan has the magic touch. He has a sixth-sense for artifacts from all over the world—there is always something special about what he brings to market. He also expands the company’s inventory: in the late 1940s, in Northern Australia, he starts one of the first natural pearl farms to produce high-grade pearls (a feat which greatly impresses a local pearling dynasty, the Paspaley family). In the 1950s, Gerdau adds a line of midcentury furniture to the company—you can still find Otto Gerdau pieces at auction. And in 1965, he founds his own emporium in the Tontine Building. The New York Times calls it “an oasis of charm and comfort.”
When Allan Gerdau dies in 1986, his complicated, tangled estate is acquired in one fell swoop by his old pearling rivals—the Australian Paspaley family, who had over the past 70 years become the world’s foremost producer of the highest quality South Sea pearls. Included in that sale is the Tontine Building. But what to do with it?
After a long period of weighing different approaches they could take, the Paspaleys decide to take advantage of the Tontine’s fascinating heritage, location, and spirit and open a one-of-a-kind hotel.