6 photos show the dramatic transformation of an 1884 Harlem bank building

When the Mount Morris Bank Building was completed in 1884, it was an early showstopper in rapidly developing Harlem, which was starting its makeover from uptown suburb to part of the urban cityscape.

The Mount Morris Bank Building in the 1880s

Some Romanesque Revival, mostly Queen Anne, this six-story beauty at 125th Street and Park Avenue boasted red sandstone blocks, bold arched doorways, and terra cotta ornament on the ground floor and half-basement exterior.

The upper floor apartments looked over the railroad tracks that brought new residents and businesses to the neighborhood. These fashionable flats featured balconies, bay windows, and storybook-like stepped gables.

Now the Corn Exchange Bank, in 1934

The building underwent changes over the years: an 1890 addition doubled its size along Park Avenue, the apartments were renovated into office space at the turn of the century, and the Mount Morris bank became a branch of the Corn Exchange Bank in the 1900s (and the building took on this new name).

A building this delightful should have been celebrated and maintained through the decades.

The building in the 1980s

Instead, this brick and mortar piece of Harlem history was eventually abandoned and sealed off in the 1970s. Landmark status arrived in 1993, with the Landmarks Preservation Commission noting that the building “retains its architectural integrity to a surprisingly high degree.”

With the top floors demolished in 2011

The LPC also made light of Mount Morris Bank’s “historic role as the financial hub of Harlem during the 1900s building boom there,” wrote Newsday.

Unfortunately, a fire on the roof and upper floors in 1997 made the deteriorating structure unsafe. The city bulldozed it down to its ground floor a decade ago, a final insult for a piece of Harlem history. “The Corn Exchange’s signature masonry is at risk of falling, especially since the railroad rumbles only a few feet away,” stated the New York Times in 2009.

Rebuilt and reborn, 2021

This story of deterioration and demolition has an uplifting ending. In the early 2010s, a developer bought the bank building, renovated the ground floor, and rebuilt the upper floors with red brick.

“The building is an entirely new steel-frame structure set within and rising over the 19th-century masonry base, which is all that remains of the original after years of troubles, fire, decay, and gravity,” wrote David Dunlop in the New York Times in 2014.

In 2015, when the new building was completed, East 125th Street and Park Avenue got its showstopper back—a harmonious structure that evokes Harlem’s architectural heritage.

[Top photo: Cornell University Library via Wikipedia; second photo: NYPL; third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; fourth photo: Wikipedia]

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10 Responses to “6 photos show the dramatic transformation of an 1884 Harlem bank building”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    I love happy endings! Gotta go see this one….

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yep, it’s right next door to the train station, so easy access.

  3. Peter Delaunay Says:

    Looks like a really good job – and when it weathers in over a couple of decades, excellent. Could you give the developer a name check ? We’re so down on the bad boys it would be good to know who one of the good guys is!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      According to this 2014 Times article by David Dunlop, the developer is Artimus Construction:

  4. Tom Dulski Says:

    what a fall from grace, was so beautiful in it’s original iteration

  5. Greg Says:

    A semi-happy ending, I would say. The recreation is generally very good, but missing some nice details like the terra cotta under the third floor windows, and adding mass to the top floor that upsets the overall composition, among other things.

    That would be a minor quibble BUT the account above really underplays the mismanagement that led to the original building being destroyed. The fire was not an insurmountable problem. The real problem was the city turned the building over, for free(!) to someone completely incompetent who then let it fall into ruin over the course of a decade. Instead of getting someone competent to do the job, and perhaps even making some money back for taxpayers in the process. That is really inexcusable and infruriating.

    • Greg Says:

      The building sold at auction for $535,000 in 1999 to a developer ready to fix it. Bates sued, got the courts to invalidate the sale, and then was essentially given the building for $10K in 2003, despite having no financing or any relevant experience whatsoever. Was she politically connected? It certainly seems that way, although it is hard to know from the timid reporting that was done over the years. Now, thanks to her, it is gone and we have an ersatz copy instead.

  6. Bill Wolfe Says:

    Wow! I’m a proud graduate of CCNY (Class of 1981), so I’m sure I walked past this building during my time in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, at that time it would have looked as it does in the third photograph. At most, I would have thought it was sad that such a grand building had sunk so low. Shame on the people who let that happen, but kudos to the developer who brought it back to life. (This is one of the few times that the misnomer “developer” is actually used with accuracy.)

  7. Alex Says:

    What I find really interesting is that the building lost its projecting corner stoop sometime before 1934 but they pretty much rebuild the facade of it exactly, but closer in to the building. It is done so well that at first you don’t even notice. Equal care was taken when they also removed the stairs from the other entrance, bringing the rustication down to the sidewalk.

  8. The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Corn Exchange Building – The Harlem Neighborhood Block Association Says:

    […] Ephemeral New York has a great article out on how the Corn Exchange building (Park/125) – formerly the Mount Morris Bank – has looked in photos over the years. […]

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