Planes, Trains and Owls: Art Deco Awesomeness at 20 Exchange Place

Last week, I took a trip down to the Financial District to scout 20 Exchange Place, a building you’ve almost definitely seen at some point in a film or TV show.

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Originally the fourth tallest building in New York, 20 Exchange was built in 1930-31 as the headquarters for National City Bank of NY and the Farmer’s Loan and Trust Company, a predecessor of CitiGroup. Though it today consists of office space and luxury apartments, the original marble bank still exists (now vacant), and has been featured in dozens of film shoots, most notably, Inside Man.

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One great remnant from the old bank: this mural, featuring scenes from New York’s history:

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After finishing with the interior, I headed outside to photograph the exterior…

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…which is when I noticed the front door:

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You know, I’ve probably passed this a zillion times without ever actually taking the time to look at it closely. And that’s too bad, because as it turns out, there’s a LOT to see in 20 Exchange’s entrance:

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My favorite? Depicted in the panels is a sort-of history of transportation, designed in awesome art deco style:

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The outer panels depict what would have been contemporary transportation around 1930: a steamship…

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…a charging locomotive…

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…and prop planes. Did I mention what a fan I am of this style of art?

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But what’s even more interesting is that, when you get to the central doors…

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…you’ll see that each type of transportation has been paired with its predecessor. For example, before the steamship was the sailboat…

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…an early steam locomotive…

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…and best of all, predating planes, hot air balloons (in fact, the oldest form of flight technology):

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These wonderful details extend above the entrance to additional panels, each lush with imagery (ha, I like the squirrel chewing a nut in the lower right hand corner):

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Also to be found perched in the corners: easily one of the coolest owls in New York City:

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The other bit of detailing I love on 20 Exchange Place are the dozens of oversized coins lining its exterior, of course due to its origins as a bank.

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Look closely, and you’ll find everything, from the familiar, like this Indian Head nickel…

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…to coins from Europe…

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…and beyond…

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Love the extremely creepy owl on this coin, which dates back to ancient Greece:

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There are plenty more, but this one in particular caught my attention: what country’s coin features eagles killing a rabbit on it??

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Though it’s hard to tell from afar, there’s plenty more to be found on 20 Exchange. Definitely learn from my mistake and take a closer look next time you’re in the neighborhood.

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-SCOUT

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20 comments

  1. What a gorgeous doorway! But how do you get in?

  2. I did a bit of Googling and found the origin of the eagle/hare coin. It’s from an ancient coin: http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/greece/sicily/akragas/i.html

  3. On my list of unfulfilled creative expressions is to make a quilt inspired by the doors of 20 Exchange. Thanks for the re-inspiration, now I just need the time!

  4. The inscription on the Italian 20 Lire coin translates as “Better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.”
    Meglio vivere un giorno da leone che cento anni da pecora.

    • Nothing exists in a vacuum. Put your translation in the context of the buildings construction and the way the quote reads. Then factor in the Fasces on the coin and we come up with Mussolini’s Italy. Pretty interesting.

  5. Was this originally or at some point in time Morgan Guaranty and Trust?

  6. Totally irrelevant but Scout you NEED to go on another road trip so I can live vicariously through you!!!

  7. I worked on the 22nd floor for about a year and a half in 2001-2003 and am obsessed with 20 Exchange. I saw Inside Man in the theater almost entirely because of the building and was delighted that they refer to it as “20 Exchange” in the movie. Also Clive Owen is cute but the building is my true obsession, especially its unique presence in the Lower Manhattan skyline. Thanks for featuring it!

    A couple of notes for a follow-up post (that I hope you’ll consider :D)- although your last picture looks up at the “Titans of Finance” – the heads on the 20th story setback, you don’t mention them and I think they’re one of the building’s architectural highlights. Heading down Exchange Place from Broadway is a great place to view them, although I was recently on the 16th floor of 48 Wall Street and the view south over the former hotel (between William and Hanover) to the northern facade of 20 Exchange is simply stunning/gives a great view of these particular features.

    Also, I’ve seen old pictures showing an ornate skyway connector around the 3rd story between 20 Exchange and the old hotel, which I believe was also a maybe originally a banking floor.

    Lastly, the building’s construction is covered in “Higher: a historic race to the sky and the making of a city” by Neal Bascomb, a great book about the skyscraper race between the Empire State and Chryster Buildings, and less famously, 40 Wall Street and 20 Exchange Place. Thanks again for covering the building – I’d love to see it featured in more films!

  8. One more thing (actually I have a million but will spare you) – the elevator lobby and doors are also pretty spectacular. At least I hope they still are after the residential conversion, which saw the addition of the debatable orange “20” signage above the historic rounded door (which, sidebar, I’ve only ever seen open during construction activities).

  9. Were you able to go further into the building? Beyond the lobby of NY’s history I mean? ANd which doorway leads to that lobby btw?

    I would be sincerely intrigued to see a more of an interior that reflects the aesthetic of the art deco exterior here. The lobby is great, but I’d love to know which other parts are of that time as well.

  10. @Jennifer: I am a quiltmaker too and I was thinking the same thing looking at the photos of the doors. It would make a spectacular quilt!

  11. Hi Scout, I really enjoyed this post, as I also love the art deco style. I am wondering about the rounded doors though, how do they open (if they are used at all now.) It’s interesting that no hinges are visible. Could they possibly hide a revolving door?? Anyway, great post of a spectacular building.

  12. Thanks, Nick, now i have to add the financial district to my list of places to revisit with new eyes. Thank you for the inspiration. One of the things I want to work on is the Paul Strand shot of the Morgan building on Wall. I want to find a way to include the shrapnel marks on the wall and remain faithful to Strand’s vision.

  13. The creepy owl is Glaucus, the owl of the goddess Athena whose namesake city the coin is from

  14. I love your photography and was happy to donate a little to the cause.

    This building? Fabulous! And now, I want to see Inside Man again.

  15. Another great post Nick.I’m currently researching a set of Bank doors here in Sydney. The building was opened in 1932 at 341 George st in the city. It was the head office for the Bank of NSW but is now a branch of Westpac.

    The doors were huge and depicted scenes from Australia’s history. They “opened” by dropping into the floor each morning and rising up at the close of business. In the mid 1950’s the hydraulic rams that operated the doors failed and the doors crashed into the sub basement and have been there ever since.

    Have had lots of trouble trying to find an image of the doors as all the photo’s of the building were taken when the bank was open so the doors are “in the floor”. The current owner of the building is also very unhelpful and is refusing any access to that part of the building due to OH&S issues. I have heard about 4 accounts from people who have seen them over the last twenty years!!!!

    You blog inspires me to keep asking questions, search that data base AGAIN and make that phone call.

    THANKS!! Spen

  16. 20 Exchange Place was the residence of outed spy, Anna Chapman.

  17. nice amsterdam cross above the door

  18. Actually, the eagle has two heads, which makes me think of Russia – the two headed eagle is their national emblem.

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