This post was written by Luis Rodriguez, Library Collections Technician
The New York Stock Exchange holds a certain place of privilege in the iconography of American finance. The columns and pediment of its Broad Street front are immediately recognizable, even if the name of the architect behind the design is largely forgotten. While relatively few of his buildings remain, George B. Post was indeed a major architect of the Gilded Age, and much of his work expressed the wealth and ambition of that time. The Stock Exchange, however, was not the only, or even the most monumental building of his dedicated to the commercial life of New York City.
Just a few steps to the south, at the corner of Broadway and Beaver Street, once stood the New York Produce Exchange. Built almost two decades before the Stock Exchange, it led the way in announcing a new era of construction and trade. It was a striking building, 100 yards long, with dark red brick and terra cotta walls. Done in what Post described as a modified Italian Renaissance style, it featured horizontal rows of arched windows and a campanile-like tower that afforded a view of the harbor and burgeoning financial district.
As an organization, the Produce Exchange was growing rapidly as it headed into the last decades of the 19th century. A piece of promotional material, written to celebrate the Exchange’s new home boasts: “It occupies a magnificent new building…seven stories in height, and possessing the largest Exchange room in the world, where its 3,000 members meet and transact on an average business to the amount of $10,000,000 each day. They deal in flour, all kinds of grain, lard, pork, butter, cheese, hops, naval stores, oils, petroleum, salt, spirits, maritime charters, insurance, etc. It controls the export grain trade of the country, and is in every way a prominent and respected body.”
In 1885, while the Produce Exchange was newly completed, Post finished work on a building for another commodities exchange, the New York Cotton Exchange. The Cotton Exchange building was built with two to three foot thick load-bearing brick walls, a method of construction that, as the race toward skyscrapers began, was almost immediately antiquated. For the Produce Exchange, by contrast, Post built a kind of proto-skyscraper, in which the inner structure was supported entirely by wrought iron framing. It was this innovative method of construction that made it possible for the main trading room to be as large as it was: about 30,000 square feet with a grand skylight suspended 60 feet above.
Although Post was a pioneer in skyscraper construction, he didn’t fully embrace the trend toward ever-taller buildings. Rather than going for sheer height, one of his specialties became the creation of large open interior spaces. For example, Post’s vast and basically horizontal building for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 was then the largest in the world with over 40 acres of exposition space. More often, however, this specialty was best suited to governmental or institutional needs. In 1901, when the New York Stock Exchange decided to commission a new building at its historic site, they chose Post to build it.
As with the Produce Exchange, the central element of the Stock Exchange building’s design was its trading room floor. While the trading room of the Produce Exchange was interrupted to some extent by iron columns, the same room at the Stock Exchange was left completely open, as two pairs of steel trusses running along the ceiling could carry the entire weight of the upper stories. By that time, steel frame construction was becoming the norm in a downtown increasingly populated by tall buildings. The use of steel, along with the marble ornamentation, and comforts such as the latest in air conditioning technology helped mark the Stock Exchange as a fully modern edifice fit to house the growing volume of stock trading that took place within.
Back when it was built, the Produce Exchange building also boasted every modern amenity. At night its tower was illuminated by electricity, hydraulic elevators carried passengers up and down, and all offices were connected by speaking tubes. As the 20th century wore on, however, modernity came to mean something else, and in 1957, Post’s masterpiece was replaced by a 32-story glass-walled office building. The Stock Exchange building, on the other hand, received landmark status in 1978 and its trading floor—now expanded—continues to see quite a lot of business.