A mystery copper-topped building in East Harlem

Second Avenue in East Harlem is a wide stretch of road lined mostly with century-old tenements.

Makes sense—most of them date back to when the Second Avenue Elevated opened up northern Manhattan to developers, who built row after row of walkup buildings for New Yorkers desperate to escape the slums of the Lower East Side.

But there’s one building on the southeast corner at 109th Street that’s always come off as more elegant and distinguished along this longtime working class avenue.

With its wide arched windows on the third floor, decorative garlands and wreaths, and green copper facade at the top corner, this was a building meant to impress.

So what was it? A bank, apparently.

Though the department of buildings website doesn’t confirm exactly when the building went up, it certainly looks like a bank from the early 1900s, with refined aesthetics meant to inspire confidence and trust.

It’s also a little unclear what kind of bank this was. In 1918, a man named F.M. Ferrari and his partner, Giuseppe D’Onofrio, applied to operate a private bank here, with the address listed as 2112-2114 or 2118 Second Avenue.

The city refused their application. Yet by the 1920s, Ferrari was running a bank called the Harlem Bank of Commerce at this address.

This was the center of Italian Harlem, at the time Manhattan’s biggest Little Italy—with 89,000 residents by 1930.

That was three times the number of people in the Little Italy on Mulberry Street. With so many working people, Ferrari’s bank likely had plenty of customers.

In 1928, Ferrari changed the name to City Trust Company, advertising bank vaults and other banking services.

At some point, the bank disappeared, and the building was occupied by a mystery store (see the 1940s tax photo, above left), a small factory, and offices.

Today, East Harlem’s copper-topped building seems unoccupied—its large first-floor windows covered up, and its side entrance at 300 East 109th Street looking abandoned.

[Fourth image: NYC Tax Photos database; Fifth Image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1928]

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16 Responses to “A mystery copper-topped building in East Harlem”

  1. ksbeth Says:

    what an amazing building, i wish that someone would reclaim it, restore it, and use it once more

  2. Ann Haddad Says:

    As struggling Italian immigrants who llived in Harlem at the turn of the century, right on Second and 109th, in fact, I bet my grandparents passed through those portals. Thanks, Esther!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Wow, what a coincidence! I wish we knew what they thought of Mr. Ferrari, I get kind of a sketchy vibe, but maybe he helped many immigrants save their money.

      • Ann Haddad Says:

        I hope so! My grandparents managed to move to Westchester after the war so they must have saved some money!

  3. fabulouslululolo Says:

    I have always been fascinated by this building–thought it would make a great artist’s loft–I have a 100 year family history in East Harlem via my grandparents and my parents Pete and Rose Pascale thanks for posting

  4. Bob Says:

    The building may have been purpose built for the bank which your research shows was apparently founded and chartered in the early 1920s. The Department of Buildings website lists “NB 374-23 NEW BUILDING,” which means the 374th new building application filed in 1923. (http://a810-bisweb.nyc.gov/bisweb/ActionsByLocationServlet?previous.x=44&previous.y=10&allcount=0026&requestid=6&allbin=1052819&stypeocv3=&ppremise60=&allinquirytype=BXS1OCV3)

    There was at least one earlier structure at this address, which was mentioned twice in stories 1906 in the New York Times.
    *In May the police raided a bar there named Ramando Cafe. (https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1906/05/21/101779367.pdf)
    *In July there was a minor fire; the building owner was listed as Salvatore Scotti. (https://newspaperarchive.com/new-york-times-jul-09-1906-p-2/)

  5. Marilyn Says:

    There’s a buildin on 2nd Ave at 116th that has writing showing it may have been an Italian business looking like a bank or loan company. Ut’s also on the SE corner. Next time I’m up at Target, I’ll check. Love the copper topper.

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I think 116th Street was a main drag of Italian Harlem, so it wouldn’t surprise me that an old bank building would still be there.

    • Ann Haddad Says:

      Indeed it was! And the heart of the community was the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where my grandparents worshipped.

  7. compendiousness Says:

    I went to elementary school across the street. In those days, the building had the words “REAL ESTATE” attached to the façade, so I imagine it may have once been a real estate firm office after it was no longer a bank. However I can’t know for sure, cause despite having those words on the front, it seemed vacant whenever I saw it.

  8. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    It’s been vacant for a good decade, I believe. I’m in that neighborhood every few weeks or so and have never seen any signage.

    • Soringsinple Says:

      I currently live in the area… there seems to be a construction company that operates out of the store front… The residential entrance is on 109th and active.

  9. Tom B Says:

    This amazes me, and I’ve seen this before in NYC. A well built old building sits empty for years. Who owns them and why are they empty for years. They must be very wealthy.

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