Moment in flux: Tuesday, February 8, 1916. Place in passing: 55 Liberty Street, Manhattan, New York City: a new tower, the Liberty Nassau Building, Liberty Tower, first called the Bryant Building for William Cullen Bryant, poet of "Thanatopsis" and the Green River, Editor, New York Evening Post in the prior building on the site, just below Printers Row, Park Row. Liberty Street: formerly Crown Street, three blocks north of Wall: Pine, Cedar, Liberty. Next North: Maiden Lane, ambiguous name for the course of a brook and a path beside it, its vale still curving and descending to the East River. In 1916, six years old, the Bryant Building re-named Liberty Tower holds many small offices for lawyers, stockbrokers and financiers, including former President Theodore Roosevelt. One such enterprise is New England Equitable Insurance Company (or perhaps the Equitable Assurance Company of St. Louis, Missouri). It sells fidelity and surety bonds, and a vice president in the New York office is thirty-six years old, married and on his own time sometimes writes poems, one Wallace Stevens, Harvard man, lawyer. His “Sunday Morning” was published recently in Harriet Monroe’s magazine from Chicago, Poetry, chopped short, stanzas rearranged. But down to business: Otis elevators allow concentration in small areas like this Financial District, mean economies in transportation costs and communication of sales ideas, people interfacing like microchips do now, such fast facial exchanges expressed within tall buildings in clusters, motherboards sparking with energy. Everyone is building – though this year has been weaker – so the market for surety bonds is thriving, to guarantee completion of construction projects. Dealings must be down to earth into bedrock, people assessed, finances assessed, defaults stark in measure and remedies structured in terms precise. It had been a rough haul for Stevens through New York Law School right here and several firms and businesses on these few blocks: interning with W.G. Peckham, attorney at law, a Harvard connection, an Advocate alum and friend, then Eaton and Lewis, the leading firm in insurance, then months unemployed, then Eustis and Foster, or Fidelity and Deposit, then partners with Lyman Ward with few clients, then American Bonding Company, now two years here. Now things were looking up like people to skyscrapers out of Chicago and the Beaux Arts tradition. But - Europe is at war, insane. This week: Guns Open Attacks - Saloniki Line and Pound Strategic Points from Somme River to Lorraine - Big Assault in West Expected. Settlement Near on Lusitania - Wrest Submarine Weapon from Germany. Germany, Self-Fed - Defies Her Enemies – Fear of Rupture – America Has Sided with Allies – Kaiser’s Son Wounded Again. Locus on earth: center of capital. 55 Liberty Street: corner of Nassau: handsome, slim tower, white terra cotta coated steel cage construction, caissons forced deep into rock foundation. Its style is Neo Gothic – churchy like the resonance of poetry, all immanence and epiphany – with humorous touches: Grinning, agile alligators grasp and climb the front - biting at flora from fabled Florida. A bay window, two stories high, juts out over a single bronze and glass revolving door. (Where’s the door, they ask in studio, and here it’s clear.) Young Mr. Stevens is at work in a three-piece suit somewhere in what is now a luxury co-op apartment in Liberty Tower, along an exterior wall, in a manager’s office, double-windowed, with a half-glass door and dividing wall to let light pass into the central staff area, when word comes from Boston (or St. Louis) by earpiece on a two-piece phone, in his office or next door in Ed Southworth’s, that the New York office is closing. Now. Shut it down, it’s over. People will get paid through today (or so, actual terms not known). You can put files in order for auditors and attorneys, answering questions, and then afraid you’re out. Not entirely a surprise: The Board had fired the company President last month. Rumors were the books were troubling at New England when they bought St. Louis. The money isn’t there, theft with a pen at headquarters exposed by the market weakening, insufficient inflow to cover the risks taken. Though the business looked good, its proceeds are sunk into paper transactions, notes below water, cash gone. Ed Southworth and Wallace Stevens call the staff together and tell them they’re all let go, to anger, tears, dismay. Voices are raised, outrage. Men and women lose their legs and sit despondently. Not leaving without my money, they say, but leave with promises. In early evening, Stevens exits an elevator into the marble lobby, past a bust of William Cullen Bryant, looking up to tall, narrow windows - a sacristy of suits - and spirals in the sole revolving door through bronze décor. He looks left to 84 William Street, red brick rounding the bend where Maiden Lane meets Liberty and William, where he used to work for American Bonding Company of Baltimore on the seventh floor, assistant manager, two blocks, two years ago. Could he go back there? But all his crowd have moved on. (Now it’s a dorm for New School and Pace students, no, now it’s been converted behind scaffolds into luxury condos.) He has to reinvent himself again, like a line in a poem. He looks down narrow Nassau into Broad Street at Federal Hall, the stone Greek temple of the site of Washington’s inauguration. In 1916, it’s the U. S. Sub-Treasury Building, where many tons of gold are stored. (Now, that gold and more is stored just left, under the palazzo of the Federal Reserve Bank.) With Broad Street curving, in the view straight ahead, the perspectival focus of the narrow Nassau way is the front of the New York Stock Exchange, a large, columned temple extruding from a wall. This block at Liberty is the swell of a knoll, a high point descending three ways to water, to rivers, harbor and turbulent, grasping sea. Wallace Stevens turns right in the dark and heads west with the evening rush hour crowds along Liberty Street past the New York Chamber of Commerce Building, more solemn columns and large round portholes alluding to the sea trade (now home to The Central Bank of China, Taipei). As we walk west with the unemployed, ahead is the Turkish delight of the Singer Building, cupola on high, another wild weed coursing with elevator juice, and jammed right beside it, the lopsided City Investing Building. Singer makes tabletop machines, so many men and women doing piecework at machines in loft buildings uptown in the Lower East Side, and in the back room of a dimly lit candy store, behind a curtain into the parlor (the main enterprise in the ground floor storefront apartment is sewing) and out to prairies and cities, sewing to clothe the people. To the left, seen above older buildings for banking and paper transfers, is the most massive office building of all, the Equitable Building, newly completed as rental property filling all its city block thirty times over, forty stories straight up, 1.2 million square feet, room enough for 16,000 workers, men in authority and women assisting. In daytime it casts shadows over all the surroundings, darkening the district. Just south of Pine, the American Surety Company has its own substantial building too, fronted with militant, mature women, Greek goddesses. American Surety - his book of business was good, but lawyers in that building will succeed to it. (Now it's the Bank of Tokyo Building.) Who do I know there? Too much movement on my resume. Now fresh from a failed company. What a building boom this is, so much surety work. Left down Broadway are twin Trinity Buildings, Tall and dripping with swag, then the old graveyard, bare in winter, and the brownstone, steepled church. Just south of Rector Street, U.S. Steel rules regions and states from the Empire Building, eldest of the Trinity triplets. Standard Oil is further down, and Shippers Row will grow from the sea, white, beige, ivory buildings: U.S. Lines – Panama Pacific will build at One Broadway, Cunard Lines may build, Adams Express has built and American Express will build new headquarters in front of their red brick warehouse, all this is in the works. Stevens turns right on Broadway, north into the diamond district, over the clock in the sidewalk. He’s thinking about work and ruin. Across Broadway is a construction site, for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, white columns of grandeur and authority all over it. Further north for looking up is the Woolworth Building, newly completed, tallest in the world, twice the height of Liberty Tower, with more Gothic drapery. So much around is Greek or Gothic, reason and faith. Woolworth built with bargains in five and ten cent stores, women attentive behind counters and selling goods to women. Singer and Woolworth are selling goods to go with buildings in boom times. Stevens sees the column cake of the Post Office ahead, but turns right onto Fulton Street. (Fulton's steamship worked these rivers, Fulton lies buried in Trinity Yard.) He thought he'd walk home to plan what he’d say to Elsie, but it’s cold. Among peddlers of pamphlets, books and belts, he walks slowly down the stairs into the subway station at Fulton, East Side IRT, the only subway downtown. The West Side IRT is under construction downtown. The BMT is under construction. The subway tunnel east to Brooklyn is under construction. Steel rails are laid by hand underground and underwater in a tube like cables of fiber optics. He’ll ride to 23rd Street and walk west to Elsie on 21st Street, across from the seminary, home to start over again. I’ll call Jim Kearney in the morning. Kearney is key. Not Collins Lee. Jim knows my work, he knows I’m clean. But Jim prefers Ed Southworth to me... Hartford could use a strong team. Call Jim in the morning. We’ll see.
Certain details from Parts of A World: Wallace Stevens Remembered by Peter Brazeau