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How Temple Court Wooed, Lost, And Won Back NYC's Heart

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Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Evan Bindelglass traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.

There are countless buildings in New York City renowned for their historic (or flashy) exteriors. But there is at the very least one building that is far, far more intriguing on the inside, in part because of the air of mystery and decay surrounding the recent decades of its 130-year history. The structure in question is, of course, the Temple Court Building and Annex, located near City Hall at 5 Beekman Street and —officially occupying 3-9 Beekman. Its brick-and-terra cotta facade is nothing to sniff at, but its glorious atrium is one of Gotham's most special spaces. As the landmark undergoes a luxury hotel conversion and gains an adjacent condo-tower addition, let's look back at the tumultuous history of this pioneering early skyscraper, its fall from fame to obscurity, and its looming resuscitation. From the beginning, shall we?

Eugene Kelly (1808-1894) was an Irish-born multimillionaire banker who moved to the United States in 1835 and, after various business ventures in locales from San Francisco to Savannah, made his way to New York City. He served on the committees for both the Washington Arch and the Statue of Liberty. He even helped to get St. Patrick's Cathedral built. He would eventually be buried in the Lady Chapel there. But before Kelly met his maker, he would leave his mark on Lower Manhattan.

In 1868, he bought the lot on Beekman between Nassau Streets and Theatre Alley from his own National Park Bank. (N.B.: The name Theatre Alley is a reference to the fact that some of New York's earliest theaters were in that area; the first American performance of "Hamlet" supposedly took place there.)

In 1881, Kelly's chosen architects —Benjamin Silliman, Jr. and James M. Farnsworth of the firm Silliman and Farnsworth —filed paperwork to begin construction of a $400,000 building, then to be known as the Kelly Building, the New York Times reported.

Its planned occupants? Offices. What would today be considered ordinary commercial space was a new idea back then, when so many workplaces needed to be specialized. The idea of one hub with desks and meetings that housed many different types of businesses was still novel.

The following appeared in a December 1881 edition of The Real Estate Record & Guide:

"…the demand for offices is no longer confined to the neighborhood of the Stock, Mining, Cotton and Produce exchanges. All the great industries which are represented in New York are using offices instead of stores, and these last are very profitable."It predicted Kelly would make a 20 percent profit per year. 5 Beekman was close to the courts, and it would be an ideal place for lawyers to set up shop. Eventually, the name changed from the Kelly Building to Temple Court, reportedly inspired by a counterpart in London.

The essentially nine-story Temple Court (it reaches 10 floors in certain spots) was constructed between 1881 and 1883. There is a two-story granite base and above that the building is clad in red Philadelphia Brick, tan Dorchester stone, and terra cotta.

It may even have been the first skyscraper, but as Charles Driscoll wrote in the February 26, 1942 edition of the Painesville Telegraph, "when this building went up, there was no such word as skyscraper." Driscoll also noted the fact that, back then, you could see all the way north to Central Park from its roof.

The Beekman Street side of the building features two pyramidal towers, which foreshadowed a design concept that would be used in many of the city's skyscrapers in the decades to come, such as the Woolworth Building, in whose shadow it now sits. It was also one of the first large-scale "fireproof" buildings in the city, featuring iron floor beams and exterior walls ranging in thickness from 32 inches to 52 inches.

The 10-story annex portion on the south end of the lot was added between 1889 and 1890 and is clad in Irish limestone. It actually suffered a fire April of 1893, which destroyed offices on the four top floors, but the building itself remained structurally intact. Together, the Temple Court Building and Annex combines Neo-Grec, Queen Anne, and Renaissance styles of architecture.

That's very nice and all, but as was said earlier, it's what's inside the building that is truly mind-boggling. Well, not if you just look straight ahead. But when you look up, it will hit you.

The centerpiece of Temple Court is its extraordinary nine-story atrium with a spectacular skylight. That brings in sensational natural light and provides a unique vantage point of the nearby skyscrapers, which now dwarf the building, once considered tall compared with its neighbors.

There also are ornate iron railings guarding the atrium on each floor, colored floor tiles, and arched entryways for all of the now-former office spaces.

Following Eugene Kelly's death, the building was, in 1907, transferred to his son Thomas Hughes Kelly, who would die in 1933. In 1942, Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank took over the property. It then went to Wakefield Realty Corp. in 1945. Wakefield was acquired by Region Holding Corp. in 1946 and in 1953, it was transferred to the Larsan Holding Corp./Satmar Realty Corp. Both Wakefield and Larsan/Satmar were interests of Rubin Shulsky. So, that transfer wasn't a true change in ownership.

Then tragedy (for architecture buffs, at least) struck. Sometime in the 1940s, for safety reasons, the atrium was sealed from top to bottom. That was also around when many of the tenants apparently began to leave the building. Now, this is where we'd usually show you a photograph of the atrium in all its glory back in the day. But alas, none could be found.

We searched high and low for images of the building from before the atrium was closed off, but to no avail. We even got in touch with Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, the preservation firm involved in the site's restoration and conversion. They had also performed an extensive search for such images, with no luck.

What we did find, with the help of the New-York Historical Society, were these two pages from an 1895 book called "King's Photographic Views of New York" published by Moses King. It's basically an advertisement for potential tenants.

If you come across any other vintage images of Temple Court, please don't keep them to yourself. The tipline is always open.

Here's the sad part: the building deteriorated extensively over the decades and the atrium was still sealed in 1998, when the building—pretty much abandoned—was declared a city landmark.

Hillel Spinner, who managed the building for Bonjour Capital when it took over the property in 2008, told Curbed the atrium was re-opened between 2005 and 2008. He also said the last office tenant left around 2005. Once again accessible, it became a hot spot for photographers, TV shoots, and at least one wedding proposal.

Spinner recalls the romantic moment: a couple from Tribeca came by; the man had told his girlfriend that the two were going to tour the building. A lawyer, she was particularly excited because she knew something of the building's history. Well, when they got up the eighth floor, he surprised her and proposed. (She said yes, in case you were wondering.)

It was after a May 2010 shoot for Harper's Bazaar that Spinner fully realized 5 Beekman's potential. Then Spinner said a July 2010 post by Nick Carr on his Scouting NY blog really blew things up, getting 200,000 views in two hours and crashing the Huffington Post's site.

There were fashion shows and parties held in the building. TV shows, including current hits "White Collar" and "Person of Interest," and AMC's short-lived "Rubicon," shot there. Both "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and the original "Law & Order" also used the building. According to Spinner, even Kanye West was humbled by the building when he showed up at 3 a.m. on a freezing February morning for a music video shoot. "Where the hell are we?" he recalls saying. All of these events and shoots eventually brought in $1 million.

Luckily, Temple Court survived long enough to be declared a landmark—and, despite its recent decrepitude, it has a bright future ahead.

GB Lodging, which took over the building in March of 2012, is restoring and converting it into a hotel with Landmarks' blessings, plus adding a new 40-story tower to be constructed down Nassau Street. GB gave us an update and said the latest plan is for 287 hotel rooms along with 68 residences. The hotel is scheduled to open next year.

So, while the space is currently closed to the public, have patience. You should get to see it soon.
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Five Beekman Street [official]
· Temple Court [Antiquity Echoes]
· The Abandoned Palace At 5 Beekman Street [Scouting NY]
· 16 Photos Inside FiDi's Famed Temple Court At 5 Beekman St. [Curbed]
· All Temple Court/5 Beekman Street coverage [Curbed]
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]

5 Beekman Street

5 Beekman St., New York, NY 10038