THROWBACK THURSDAY

The most important building in American financial history may become a bowling alley

First off, no, we’re not talking about the New York Stock Exchange.

Sure, it’s been the site of some notable doings, say, the Crash of 1929. But to be clear, trading in stocks has always been something of a distraction from the real business of American finance. (They call it a secondary market for a reason.)

Since the mid-1870s, the center of that business—organizing the capital that financed America’s then-nascent industrial might—was located catty-corner to the exchange at the corner of Wall and Broad streets. This was, very literally, the House of Morgan, the New York home base of the banking empire built by John Pierpont Morgan.

And now it might become a bowling alley.

Well not just a bowling alley.

Morgan, you old rogue! J.P. in 1904.
Pierpont would not be pleased. (AP Photo)

The plan is to turn the historically freighted financial district site into an entertainment complex featuring “a bowling alley, arcade, restaurant, concert venue and movie theater,” according to a recent report. That’s right, if all goes according to plans, the center—likened to a “cruise ship on land”—will open within the year. (Whether or not that will happen given New York’s notorious crushing approvals process as well as vocal concerns from residents of the well-heeled part of Manhattan, remains an open question.) The company behind the push, Latitude 360, owns a string of such venues across the country.

If there’s a hallowed spot of ground on Wall Street, this has to be it. It was at this address, 23 Wall Street, that the forerunner of J.P. Morgan and Co.—Drexel, Morgan, & Co. a partnership between the powerful Drexels of Philadelphia and the son of Junius Morgan, America’s pre-eminent banker in London—established itself, building a six-story structure that towered above its neighbors. Thomas Edison himself—who had raised money for his electric company using Morgan bankers—attended the ceremony marking the electrification of the building in 1882.

“It’s one of the famous addresses in American capitalism and finance,” said Richard Sylla, a financial historian at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “The idea that it would have a bowling alley there, you know, Morgan would probably roll over in his grave.”

Within spitting distance of both the US subtreasury building and the stock exchange, the location was essentially the early 20th century version of what we today call co-location. That’s the industry practice of traders paying top dollar to the place powerful servers that dominate electronic stock trading as close as possible to the exchange machines that actually execute trades, in an effort to shave fragments of seconds off the time it takes to trade. Success on Wall Street has always depended on being an insider.

But Pierpont never worked in the the structure that stands there today, though his son, J.P. “Jack” Morgan Jr. spent decades there as a Morgan partner. The small, mysterious Italian renaissance-style building was completed in 1914, the year after his the elder Morgan’s death. Emulating the low-profile elegance of traditional London merchant banks, the building bore no signs indicating it was the seat of the banking empire.

JPMorgan-1920-bombing-Wall Street
23 Wall St. still bears the scars of the 1920 bombing. (Quartz/Mia Mabanta)

Despite the precaution, the building found itself at the center of several moments of high financial drama. It was targeted in a 1920 bombing—anarchists were suspected but no one was charged—that killed more than 30 in one of the first terrorist attacks to strike the US. (The blast marks remain visible on the exterior walls today.) It was in 23 Wall St., where a cocky Irish American stock market operator named Joseph Kennedy—progenitor of the political dynasty—arrived unannounced and demanded to see Morgan himself. (Morgan was too busy.) During the famous stock market crash of 1929, it was to 23 Wall St. that bankers scurried in a desperate attempt to stop the collapse. (It worked, but only briefly.)

The building’s fortunes reflected the fate of the House of Morgan itself as well as Wall Street as whole. When the company was forced to split its commercial banking and investment banking businesses after the passage of Glass-Steagall act in the 1933, the commercial banking arm J.P. Morgan & Co. merged with a sleepy New York bank called Guaranty Trust, to form Morgan Guaranty. And 23 Wall Street was connected to the building next door—15 Broad St.—in the 1950s, where it became something of a ceremonial entrance hall.

But by the early 1960s, Wall Street was already losing its centrality to American finance, as investment banks moved to midtown to be closer to corporate clients. Morgan Guaranty’s investment banking cousins, Morgan Stanley, decamped for a midtown tower in the 1970s. In 1990, Morgan Guaranty moved its headquarters to a brand new skyscraper at 60 Wall St. When the Morgan bank was purchased by Chase Manhattan in 2000 to form JPMorgan Chase, it finally decamped to midtown, leaving Wall Street behind.

But what about 23 Wall? Along the way, 15 Broad St.—the building it was connected to—went condo, as have many other former offices in the area. But plans to turn the corner building into a retail center never came to fruition. The building changed hands a couple times, in 2010 the Wall Street Journal reported that it belonged to a murky entity known as China Sonangol International Holding Ltd., a joint venture between the Angolan national oil company and a Hong Kong investment firm that may have ties to the Chinese government.

It’s been largely vacant ever since. Though at times its grand windows have been converted to ersatz billboards. (Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street was featured prominently there in 2013.) And now and then the building has served as an events space. Attendees at a recent tech gathering were surprised to be directed to porto-potties rather than functioning bathrooms. On a recent morning, members of the catering staff trudged up steps and into the building for an event launching a new brand of sneaker from Adidas.

“It’s an old bank,” said one young man, who had helped do some of the installation for the event, adding that he’d seen the large vault in the basement.

Of course, the real action in American finance hasn’t been on Wall Street for decades. (Though Deutsche Bank still has a large presence at 60 Wall St.) And no banker—not Jamie, not Lloyd—exerts the kind of power and influence that befits such an august location.

But one can’t help but wonder what Pierpont Morgan himself—an inveterate snob—would make of seeing this temple of capitalism transformed into a den of big screen TVs and bowling. I imagine he’d grumble a bit. But sooner or later he’d want to know whether it turns a decent profit.

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