Chris Gray recently wrote about his long search for the architect of a striking (or once-striking) Art Nouveau garage on Union Street near Prospect Park, and the relatively short resolution of that search. I too have a list of buildings for which the architect is a complete mystery. One of those is the Mechanics & Traders Bank at 144 Franklin Street (corner of Greenpoint Avenue and Franklin Street). You might recognize the building from the masthead of the latest version of Brownstoner1. The building was also recently the subject of one of Brownstoner's Building of the Day posts by the pseudonymous Montrose Morris (if you're not reading Montrose's posts every day, you are really missing out). The AIA Guide describes 144 Franklin as a "brooding but glorious Renaissance Revival" structure constructed of "Pompeian red terra cotta", brick and brownstone. Although its long facade is on Greenpoint Avenue, the building's rather unassuming entry is on the Franklin Street facade. The Greenpoint Avenue facade consists of three stories of grand windows, the lowest story raised up to create a solid wall of brick and brownstone at the sidewalk level; the top story is a grand sweep of three massively-arched windows separated by large oval lunettes. Terra-cotta spandrels separate the upper windows at each facade, and a rich terra-cotta frieze anchors the projecting cornice.
The only solid information on the building's provenance was the entry in the 1982 designation report for the Greenpoint Historic District, which says that the building was constructed "ca. 1895" as the Mechanics & Traders Bank. The AIA Guide to New York, through various editions, also lists the building as "ca. 1895", with no architect. The Department of Building's website doesn't record a New Building application, and a trip to DOB was fruitless (as I suspected, given the lack of information in the designation report).
A newspaper search yielded some information on the Mechanics & Traders Bank, much of it confusing until I figured out that there was a Mechanics & Traders Bank of Brooklyn and a Mechanics & Traders of Manhattan. The two banks had nothing to do with one another, but had enough similarity to make research difficult. The Brooklyn Mechanics & Traders Bank (the one I was interested in) was founded in Greenpoint in 1867, and had occupied the corner of Greenpoint and Franklin since then. Archibald K. Meserole 2. Archibald made his living in the coal and building supply business, but was also a prominent banker, having served as the first president of the Greenpoint Savings Bank prior to joining M&T as a vice president in 1867. He was also an organizer of the Kent Street Reformed Church. Archibald's nephew, J. V. Meserole, was the long-serving president of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. was appointed president in 1869, and served in that capacity until his death in 1892. In 1902 M&T Brooklyn merged with the Corn Exchange Bank of New York3. At the time of the merger, which appears to have been a friendly one, Henry J. Oldring was the bank's president; an Adrian Meserole, whose relationship to Archibald is unknown, served on the board of the bank.
M&T Bank of Manhattan had a nearly coterminous but far less graceful exit from the world 4. M&T Manhattan acquired Union Bank of Brooklyn in 1907 as part of larger expansion being undertaken by the Manhattan bank in the 1900s5. Union had also been expanding during this period, and at the time of acquisition, one of its eight branches was located at the corner of Greenpoint and Manhattan Avenues. So after a brief hiatus following the Corn Exchange merger in 1902, there was, once again, a Mechanics' & Traders' bank in Greenpoint. The resurrection was short lived, however, as M&T Manhattan failed in January of 1908 and was reorganized as Union Bank of Brooklyn (again) in August of that year. By April of 1910, Union Bank too had gone under.
In the midst of trying to straighten out all the Mechanics, Traders, Meseroles and Greenpoint Avenue banks, a task that took me to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York Times, New York Tribune, Wall Street Journal and a host of other papers, I finally came across one nugget about the Franklin Street bank building itself. On May 18,1889, the Eagle published an article titled "Still Going Up":
"At the northwest [sic] corner of Franklin street and Greenpoint avenue the Mechanics' and Traders' Bank will build a three story brick structure, 24x80, for bank, offices and lodge rooms, to cost $30,000" 6
The [sic] part is important, as the building we are looking at is on the northeast corner of Franklin street and Greenpoint avenue. Otherwise, the building described in the Eagle is exactly that of 144 Franklin - three stories tall, 24' by 80', and used as a bank and offices (the mention of a lodge is a new twist). The article implies that the new building application had only just been filed, and sure enough, the Real Estate Record & Builders Guide of May 18, 1889 recorded new building application #1074, also at the northwest [sic] corner, and listed A. B. Jones as the architect. 7.
Some further research in directories and elsewhere eventually identified A. B. Jones as Alonzo B. Jones, a relatively obscure architect who (according to the Times obituary), at the time of his death in 1907 at age 60, was better known as a yachtsman. (The Chicago Tribune refers to him as a "noted designer and ardent yachtsman", and adds the exact cause of death - a fall from his bed onto a china cuspidor 8). Of Jones' architectural career, little is known. He appears to been active in Philadelphia between 1868 and 1881. While there, he joined the American Institute of Architects, and even served as the Secretary of the local chapter there in 1876 9.
Despite a long career, Jones' work output seems to have been fairly limited. In fact, Jones gets more recognition today for two buildings he didn't design than for any building he did design: he was one of ten architects to be cited for "meritorious submissions" in the 1873 competition for the design of the Library of Congress; and in 1888, he is mentioned as a participating architect (with Charles Clinton and Lamb & Rich, among others) in the design of the 8th Regiment Armory at Park and East 94th Street in Manhattan.
Of Jones' built work, he is credited with the design for the former Aldine Hotel in Philadelphia (1877, demolished 1914) and Ingerich's office building on Front Street in the same city (n.d.) (Tatman). By 1884, Jones had relocated to New York City, but other than the 8th Regiment and M&T, the only other reference to Jones in New York I have come across is an 1882 entry in the Real Estate Record for a row of four brick dwellings at the corner of Broadway and 54th Street. It does appear that Jones continued to work in Pennsylvania, as he designed the 1894 St. Johns-in-the-Wilderness Episcopal Church in Eagles Mere, a small town northeast of Williamsport in the central part of the state.
No doubt there is more to be known about Jones' architectural career, though searching for an architect named "Jones" is needle-in-a-haystack kind of exercise.
1. An interesting branding choice, given that the building is neither a Brownstone nor in Brownstone Brooklyn
2. Archibald K. Meserole was a scion of one of Greenpoint's oldest families (prominent enough that not one but two streets in North Brooklyn are named for Meseroles, something that has confused truck drivers for generations). Archibald was born in 1816 on the family homestead, which stood on Lorimer Street between Meserole Avenue and Calyer Street, at about what today is the location of the Manhattan Avenue Rite Aid. For most of his life, he lived at 91 India Street (although his Times obituary incorrectly puts him at 49 India Street "Thomas Sterry Hunt" [obiotuary], New York Times, February 13, 1892.
3. Through a series of mergers, Corn Exchange Bank eventually became Chemical Bank and survives today in the guise of JP Morgan Chase
5. "Proposed Bank Merger Engineered by Thomas," New York Times, 26 December 1906: p. 9.
6. "Still Going Up," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 May 1889: p. 1.
7. "Projected Buildings," Real Estate Record & Builders Guide, Volume 43, 18 May 1889: p. 716. The Real Estate Record was published beginning in the late 1860s, and was a record of just about every type of real estate transaction, from conveyances to new construction, alterations to mortgages and commodity prices. The digitized Real Estate Record is a tremendous asset, but the search function leaves a lot to be desired - prior searches for the building address and the bank name turned up nothing. It was only with a pretty specific date in mind that I was able to find the actual record I was looking for.
8. "Fall From Bed on Cuspidor Fatal to Aged Architect," Chicago Tribune, 17 May 1907: p. 1.
9. Tatman, Sandra and Roger Moss, Biographical Dictionary of Philadelphia Architects, 1700-1930; Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.