My new address may be evidence that the universe has a strange, dry sense of humor.
I began working for National Underwriter Life & Health, the insurance trade publication, in 1996, before it had a website, when it still had an editor who was said to keep a bottle of gin in his desk drawer to lubricate the writing process. Today, National Underwriter feeds content into this site, LifeHealthPro.com. I’m a health insurance editor at LifeHealthPro.com, and I’m also still an editor at National Underwriter.
And my new mailing address is at 120 Broadway, New York, N.Y. In the Equitable Building: a building that once housed the headquarters of Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States.
National Underwriter was founded in 1897. Equitable, which is now a unit of AXA S.A., Paris, was founded in 1859. Back in the early 1900s, National Underwriter carried an article about Equitable or its agents just about every month. When New York state regulators dragged Equitable executives into hearings in 1905 and 1906, National Underwriter had a reporter on the scene watching the testimony.
Equitable moved into the building I now work in just a decade later.
National Underwriter’s New York office moved there in April, as the result of an acquisition. Summit Professional Networks, the previous owner of National Underwriter and LifeHealthPro.com, had offices in Midtown Manhattan.
ALM Media Properties L.L.C., the parent of The American Lawyer, acquired Summit, and, naturally, moved Summit’s New York operations into its own offices. In the Equitable Building.
Most of the other ALM employees in the Equitable Building work at legal or real estate publications. They look at me funny when I try to explain why I think my address is amazing.
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Maybe people in the insurance community will share my sense of wonder at working there, and maybe the story of Equitable Life and its building can give readers who are going through difficult times another way to look their situation.
Health insurers are coping with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). Life insurers are dealing with low interest rates and Dodd-Frank.
Equitable had to deal with a massive conflagration, and allegations that an executive had blown company money on throwing lavish parties.
One of the best places to read up on this sort of thing is in the microfilmed or bound-volume versions of the old editions of National Underwriter (which originally did business as Western Underwriter). These are available at specialized business research libraries, such as the Davis Library at the St. John’s University School of Risk Management.
For gleanings about the building from old issues of Western Underwriter, read on.
1. The Equitable Building was not the first noteworthy building between Broadway and Nassau Street, and Cedar and Pine.
The building now on the site is the third amazing building that has stood at that location since 1896.
The first was the New York Clearing House Association Building, a domed building in the Renaissance revival style that was completed in 1896. Banks set up the clearing house to reduce the need to clear checks by sending porters with bags of gold and silver coins to every other bank in town, according to Time Shutter New York.
2. Equitable Life itself had another building on the current site.
The current Equitable Building is huge: It stretches from Cedar Street on the North to Pine Street to the South, and from Broadway on the West to Nassau Street on the East.
The New York Clearing House Association Building occupied only the Nassau side of the lot.
Equitable occupied the Broadway side of the lot, in a 10-story building erected in 1870. The company had built a headquarters building on the Broadway side in 1870. The building was notable for being one of the first office buildings to offer elevators.
On Jan. 9, 1912, the building caught fire and burned to the ground. The fire killed six people.
The water the firefighters were using to put out the fire froze in the air. Judge William Day, the president of the company, came upon the fire early on. “When officials of the company met in the [Albany Street] building about nine, they found him covered with loss,” according to the Western Underwriter article about the fire.
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3. Equitable Life had amazing disaster planning capabilities.
The company did not carry the building itself as an asset and was not insuring the value of the building at the time the fire occurred.
The company had already built a new headquarters building at 2 Albany St., and most of the workers and company records were already in the new building.
The company was still storing other companies’ securities in its vaults when the fire broke out. On Jan. 18, the Western Underwriter reported that the contents of its values were intact.
The companies’ securities and policy loan papers were intact. Day estimated the cost of replacing the furniture, fittings and documents would be less than $250,000.
The company moved the operations that had been housed at 120 Broadway to 165 Broadway. “The issuing of policies and the paying of death claims was not interrupted,’ the company said in a statement.
The Western Underwriter quoted observers as saying the fire had increased the value of the 120 Broadway property, because the old Equitable Building was outmoded, any buyer would have wanted to build a new building on the lot, and the cost of tearing the older building down the conventional way would have been too high to make doing so practical.
Image: LHP photo/Allison Bell
4. Equitable Life didn’t actually start out owning the second building at 120 Broadway
Equitable took out a mortgage from the Equitable Office Building Corp. to pay for the construction of the building now on the site.
The president of the Equitable Office Building Corp. was Gen. T. Coleman du Pont, the president of E.I. du Pond de Nemours and Company, who later served in the U.S. Senate.
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Image: John Pierpont Morgan in 1907 (Library of Congress photo)
5. The second building at 120 Broadway was (and is) really big.
The H-shaped building is 38 stories tall. It occupies 50,000 square feet of ground space and contains 1.2 million square feet of floor space and 50 elevators.
When it was built, it seemed so overwhelming that New York City revamped its building rules, to try to keep builders from blocking out the sun with giant buildings.
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Image: The Equitable Building, in July 1915 (Library of Congress photo)
5. Equitable moved into its building almost exactly 100 years before the New York office of National Underwriter moved in there.
National Underwriter’s current New York office moved into the building April 10, 2015.
Equitable moved its employees to the new building, from across the street, on April 23, 1915.
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6. ALM, the company that now owns National Underwriter, has, totally by coincidence, located its offices on one of the floors Equitable occupied in 1915.
Even though Equitable had its name on the 120 Broadway Building, it started out occupying only the sixth floor, the seventh floor and parts of the eighth and ninth floors.
The sixth floor is one of the floors ALM now occupies.
7. The fact that National Underwriter has moved into the Equitable Building seems ironic.
The New York state legislature formed a panel, the Armstrong Committee, to look into allegations that executives at Equitable and other mutual insurers were looting the companies.
Charles Evans Hughes, an up and coming lawyer who later became the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, ran the hearings.
Some accused James Hazen Hyde, the son of Equitable’s founder and an Equitable vice president, of using company cash to pay for a lavish costume ball, and of riding into the ball on a white stallion, on a carpet of costly flower petals.
Hyde’s defenders said his enemies were simply smearing him, to try to wrestle control of the company away from him.
Either way, even the Western Underwriter correspondent who covered the hearings seemed to look at the testimony from Hughes’ perspective, not Equitable’s.
The correspondent said Hughes was saving life insurance assets from the clutches of “professional stock manipulators, eager for prey, unboundedly ambitious to slay.”
But Equitable recovered from the hearings well enough to build a giant building just 10 years later, and to recover from the fire well enough to send benefits checks to millions of Americans over the next century.
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