American Bank Note Company
Between Lafayette Avenue, Tiffany Street, Garrison Avenue, and Barretto Street.
Kirby, Petit, and Green, architects
A familiar but anonymous landmark to many drivers, this former printing plant, today known as the Bank Note, stands on a rise to the south of the Bruckner Expressway in Hunt’s Point. It was completed in 1911, during a building boom that was changing the rural lots between Prospect Avenue and the Bronx River into what was expected to become a city-within-the-city. As yet, however, most new residents were families of struggling workers who had traded their Lower East Side tenements for affordable apartment houses, but remained tied to jobs in Manhattan. The nascent city needed industry of its own. Hence the elation among borough developers when the American Bank Note Company, an internationally-important Manhattan firm, decided to move it’s manufacturing to Hunt’s Point. The New York Times reported that the plant would bring with it 2,500 jobs for “the highest class of skilled labor, commanding from forty to seventy-five dollars a week,” middle-class artisans who might even prefer buying smart semi-detached houses to renting apartments. More broadly, the relocation demonstrated “the opinion of experts as to the superior advantages of the Bronx as a manufacturing center,” keeping aglow the long-nursed (pipe) dream of Bronx “boosters” that the factory districts of Manhattan, under pressure from high rents, might up and relocate to their borough.
American Bank Note was the world’s foremost designer, engraver, and printer of “secure” documents such as stock and bond certificates, stamps, traveler’s cheques, and paper currency. (The Bronx plant, a columnist joked, made more money than any other business in the city.) Founded before the Civil War, ABNC had produced bills and stamps for the United States until the government established its own Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Foreign countries more than took up the slack, the company eventually serving as official printer for 61 nations (as well as the UN), while remaining a Wall Street fixture.
At the time the Bronx plant opened, ABNC’s typical product, the printed banknote, was a splendid work of graphic art, featuring vignettes and portraits built up of myriad fine lines, a numbing variety of lettering (sometimes microscopically small), and borders of intricate repetitive scrollwork, all produced from hand engraving on steel. In an era before digital copying, holograms, and fluorescent threads, this exuberant elaboration—requiring craftsmen of extraordinary skill, often working for weeks on a single element—is what made the note securely irreplicable. (It was a quality ABNC went to extremes to guarantee, requiring engravers to serve ten-year apprenticeships, and even employing its own “counterfeiter,” a master artisan who tested the notes by attempting to reproduce their details.) At the plant, the production of an original engraving would be followed by its transfer to curved steel plates, multicolor printing with high-pressure intaglio presses, serial numbering, trimming, and packaging. Like the engraving, the printing had to be flawless. At each stage, work in progress was inspected and counted, and imperfect sheets culled and burned. Locked gates and surveillance protected not only stacks of currency but the even more valuable engraved plates, which were stored in vaults for reuse.
ABNC employed Kirby, Petit, and Green, the same architects who had designed its elegant marble headquarters building near Wall Street, to plan the Bronx factory, providing them with a full pentagonal block, site of the former Faile mansion, near the right-of-way of the New Haven railroad. After some hesitation over the shape of the plant, the architects took a directly functional approach, dividing the brick main building into two distinct units fitted to the different spatial needs of production. Plate-preparation, centered on the solitary work of the engraver at his bench, was relegated to five floors of workrooms and offices in a narrow, flat-roofed building. Extending 465 feet along Lafayette Avenue, with a 91-foot tower marking the halfway point, this wing provides the only street façade of the original plant. Projecting at right angles from its opposite side is the three-story printing wing, a contrastingly low and broad building which forms the fat, off-center stem of an awkward T. Its top story housed the 80,000 square-foot open pressroom, where bulky skids of paper were maneuvered through their maze of transformations. (A third wing, along Barretto Street, was added later.)
Visually, what cinches these two mismatched wings together is the repetition of a single architectural module along their walls: a wide bay, between brick piers, which contains a monumental segmentally-headed arch, framing in its deep recess large casement window sashes. The procession of these heavy bays is displayed to greatest effect along the Lafayette Avenue façade, where no fewer than twenty-two of them are assembled in a powerful masonry arcade. Its determined rhythm is interrupted only where the two center bays narrow and rise upward to form the Gothic-detailed, crenellated tower, a feature which contributes the suggestion of a fortress to the bare industrial arches.
Indifferent to this show of strength are the panels of glass panes that stretch from pier to pier and glimmer beneath the brows of the arches. Even more than most factories of the time, the Bronx plant was greedy for natural light. Despite the latest Edison incandescent and arc lamps, its many kinds of fine work required a thorough wash of daylight. (And for some jobs, like color printing, only a perfected, evenly diffused light would do.) Thanks to the steel framework hidden behind the masonry, ABNC’s architects have managed to include about three times as much glass in their plans as a traditional brick structure could accept. The result is a dazzling interior, walled with windows. Even the huge pressroom requires almost no artificial light. On the outside, the banks of windows gift the space beneath the brick arches with transparency and weightlessness. American architecture in 1911 was not quite ready for the frank presence of steel-supported glass, and one journal was concerned that the “vast windows” of the ABNC plant might have “ a lightening effect on the design”— precisely the effect a modern visitor will welcome.
The American Bank Note Company remained committed to the Bronx for almost seventy-five years, leaving Hunt’s Point only when two-thirds of the residents left, in the bad days of the mid-1980’s. (Food stamps were among its last printing jobs.) After a derelict interval, under a generous landlord the factory building became home to a miscellany of schools, artists’ studios, and dance theatre space, as well as a wine cellar and a daytime homeless shelter. In 2007 purchasers converted the property to office and commercial uses. Their sympathetic restoration included replacement of all the time-encrusted remnants of original windows with insulating double sheets of glass, taking care to reproduce the delicate appearance of the factory sashes’ rectangular gridwork. As a result, century-old workrooms, designed for daylighting, now command a premium as energy-efficient spaces. And on the plant’s exterior, for the first time in many decades, the lively competition of glass and masonry appears as it does in early photographs.