Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

The “Street” remains the center of our global economy. Although not all roads lead to Wall Street, practically every subway line in New York City will get you there. While Wall Street lives for the moment, caught in the perpetual present, gazing hungrily into the future, it is nonetheless remarkable how the past holds on there, perhaps more so than any other place in the city. Wall Street is one of the oldest streets in the New World and the oldest one in New York. This is, after all, where the city began back in the early 17th century and memorials are everywhere.

Stone carvings of sailing ships, whaling vessels, and fighting fish arch over the entrance to 74 Wall Street, recalling the maritime origins of the street’s liquid wealth. A plaque records that Edward Livingston, once a mayor, an ambassador to France, a Secretary of State, and grandee from the Livingston dynasty, once lived here during the formative years of the republic. Another bronze marker outside the home of the oldest bank in the city, the Bank of New York, founded by Alexander Hamilton before there was a United States of America, commemorates the erecting of the wooden wall that gave the street its name back in 1653. Six years later, according to another inscription, a “Lutheran nobleman” built the colony’s first Latin school at the request of Peter Stuyvesant. In a colonial-era square, an iron stanchion marks the ground where Captain Kidd lived, briefly, before he was hanged in London for piracy and murder. Kidd, the disreputable exotic, a privateer, seems to belong on a street known for its thousand-and-one varieties of financial privateering. But so too does the life-sized statue of Abraham De Peyser, an Anglo-Dutch merchant prince and potentate who in the course of his career held virtually every official post that mattered in the city and colony. Across the street from De Peyser’s stone likeness stands India House, the home of the original Hanover Bank and the sole surviving remnant of mid-19th-century financial architecture that still exudes the aura of Knickerbocker refinement. Below ground level, however, India House shelters “Harry’s of Hanover Square,” an eatery reminiscent of those described by O’Henry, celebrated less for its cuisine than for the take-no-prisoners high stakes wheeling and dealing taking place around its tables.

Four buildings in particular form a brick-and-mortar metaphor of Wall Street’s iconic place in American history.

Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street at the corner of Broad Street recalls the nation’s reverence for Athenian democracy with its graying, Parthenon-like columns. This is where George Washington was inaugurated in 1789. A statue of Washington, dressed in civilian garb, stands guard as if his vigilance might be necessary to ward off the foes of democracy gathering in the neighborhood. Over the years Federal Hall has been the site of frequent demonstrations, perhaps most notoriously the hard-hat riots of 1970 when construction workers then erecting the twin towers stormed an anti-Vietnam War rally on the steps of the hall.

Across the street from Federal Hall at 23 Wall Street stands the Morgan Bank, long a symbol of Wall Street’s immense economic power. It is no longer owned by the Morgan financial interests and may in the future be converted into residential apartments. But the physical structure remains. For decades, 23 Wall Street, known as “the corner,” was an address recognized around the world. It is a dense, squat building that exudes the understated self-confidence of the Morgan dynasty that for generations epitomized the financial elite. Indeed, its almost absurd shortness—a four-story bunker—was a deliberately blunt assertion of financier J.P. Morgan’s preeminence. He felt neither the need to assert dominance by erecting the tallest skyscraper on the block nor the urge to exploit the “air rights” over his extraordinarily precious piece of real estate. If you visit, take a close look at the building’s façade. One summer day at lunch hour in 1920 a bomb exploded just outside the bank, killing and wounding scores of people. It was alleged to be the work of anarchists convinced that the Morgan empire was a dire threat to democracy. If you walk up the few steps leading to the front door, you can still make out the shrapnel scars on the building’s face, preserved there on orders from Jack Morgan Jr., who saw them as vivid proof of the bank’s refusal to be intimidated.

Across Broad Street from the Morgan building stands the New York Stock Exchange. There were earlier headquarters for the stock market, but this building has been there since 1903. Six Corinthian columns support its Greek revival façade. At the top, a triangular pediment inscribes in stone a soothing mythology. At the center, a female figure stretches forth her arms to embrace the laboring figures on her left, representing mining and agriculture, and the laboring figures on her right, representing industry and invention. She is “Integrity” and beneath her solicitous gaze a harmonious commerce reigns. Until September 11, 2001, visitors were allowed inside to participate in a self-guided tour of the exchange’s history and to watch the “frenzy of the trading floor” from a visitor’s gallery overhead. Concerns about security have closed off the exchange to outsiders, but the building itself is still worth seeing.

The exchange’s sculpted allegory notwithstanding, the “Street” has never been known for its harmony. Standing at the western head of Wall Street (on Broadway) is Trinity Church with its paneled bronze doors, its fabled clock and chimes, and its serrated steeple piercing the sky. The soul of probity and decorum, its graveyard the resting place of founding fathers and other American heroes, Trinity peers eastward at the “Street’s” temples of commerce, offering a mixed message of benediction and censure. For two hundred years it has reminded writers and preachers, journalists and cartoonists, politicians and businessmen that the doings of Wall Street now and again transgress the moral order. The recent meltdown of our financial system has confirmed that impression with a vengeance.

Finally, there are two museums worth visiting in the financial district. One is the newly remodeled Museum of American Finance (212-908-4110, at 48 Wall Street in the old headquarters of the Bank of New York. It is one block east of the New York Stock Exchange and now functions as the de facto visitors’ center for the exchange. Its exhibits focus on the history of financial markets, money, banking, and entrepreneurship. The museum is open Monday through Friday from the 10 a.m.–4 p.m. and costs $8 for adults, $5 for seniors.

A new exhibit sponsored by American Express highlights more than 150 years of the company’s history. The exhibit uses a mix of original artifacts, an electronic interactive timeline, and video footage from the past and present. It includes, among other items, the first travelers check from 1891, the first American Express Card from 50 years ago, and original employee magazines from 1916 to the present. The exhibit is located in the lobby of the American Express Tower at 200 Vesey Street, is open seven days a week from 7 a.m.–7 p.m., and is free.

Steve Fraser is a writer, editor, and historian and a member of the Local Arrangements Committee. He is visiting associate professor at New York University during the academic year 2008–09. His most recent book is Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace published by Yale University Press.