This week, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
Buildings repurposed as churches always attracted the legendary writer Joseph Mitchell, including one particular Williamsburg building that never made it into his New Yorker columns. “I find myself standing in front of and looking up at [it] several times a year—I have never been able to figure out why,” he admitted in his unpublished memoirs. To Mitchell, the mystery of the old Williamsburg Trust Company on South Fifth Place between South Fifth Street and South Fourth Street was most alive in the summer dusk when it transformed into “the quarter of St. Petersburg in which Raskolnikov killed the old moneylender woman and her half sister.”
This once revered “banking temple” greets everyone who arrives in Brooklyn from Manhattan by way of the Williamsburg Bridge. In a neighborhood gritty from the hub of trains, cars and buses that meet near the bank of the East River, it still stands as a vision of white opulence with the curious oddity of a cross at the top of the dome and its main portico, signifying the Holy Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church in Exile, which has occupied the building since 1961.
Before that, from 1915 to 1958, the city used it as the Williamsburg Magistrates’ Court. And yet, despite its disparate array of inhabitants, little change is visible on the building itself—below the cross, the Williamsburg Trust Company logo is still visible in the shadows of the columns. Behind the building’s august exterior, behind its dignified saucer dome and neoclassical pillars, fraud and financial debauchery once reigned, followed by decades of repentance and spiritual redemption. Raskolnikov might not have committed homicide here, but the building is home to a 110-year-long history of financial battle, court fight and the church’s battle this year against New York City landmark status.
The story begins with John G. Jenkins, Sr., a native Brooklynite, who rose from a $6-a-week clerk to president of the First National Bank in Williamsburg in 1883, which was located at the intersection of Kent Avenue and Broadway. Just five years later, while still at the First National Bank, he created the Williamsburg Trust Company, which, by 1906, occupied the structure we see today. The eminent architectural firm of Helmle, Huberty & Hudswell designed it, the same company behind the boathouse in Prospect Park. Their work on the Williamsburg Trust Company was an exemplar of early 1900s Beaux Arts. Newspapers lauded it as “a handsome new building” and likened it to the Pantheon.
John Sr. was not the only Jenkins seduced by the financial world. Taking cues from their father, three of John Sr.’s sons—John Jr., Frank and Frederick—opened the Jenkins Trust Company in 1905. Together, the family and their three institutions contributed largely to growing a banking center in Williamsburg, along with its financial branches in Downtown Brooklyn.
At the time, the Jenkinses were legends—“public models of honor, integrity, ability and immaculateness of character,” according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. But while John, Sr. was a kingpin of banking and generally held the community’s respect, not everyone was satisfied with his practices. As the Eagle euphemistically reported after John Sr.’s death, “for some time he had shown evidences of eccentricity.” In May 1907, the directors at the bank John, Sr. presided over, the First National Bank, quit in protest after he forced the ouster of his cashier, Isaac Hamburger. When the Eagle asked for an explanation, John, Sr. shot back that “this neighborhood over here was filling up with Jews […] and I had the idea that by putting one of them in as cashier, we might get their business.” His complaint? “Hamburger didn’t bring in a single one.”
The events that May hinted at troubles ahead for the Jenkinses. In time, as the biographer of the Jenkins family and Brownstoner columnist Suzanne Spellen writes, the Williamsburg Trust Company and the Jenkins banks “became architectural monuments to hubris and defeat.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Jenkinses strategically piggybacked on the banking boom spreading across the United States that began after the Civil War. Only a few years into the 20th century, the collapse of major markets like copper, huge fines slapped onto Standard Oil, and loss of money during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake shook this already fragile banking system, eventually culminating in the Panic of 1907. With no central bank from which to borrow funds, the less equipped banks, like those of the Jenkinses, scrambled to borrow from the more stable institutions and depositors hurried to withdraw their accounts.
On October 26, 1907, the Jenkins Trust’s secretary, William A. Conklin, told the New York Times that “the company’s fiscal condition is as favorable as could be desired, but as currency is so scarce we have decided to close temporarily”—the company couldn’t keep up with the high rate of heavy withdraws that depositors were demanding. Still, the Times reported that the majority of people believed the situation would improve “in a few days,” and that the banks “would reopen in unimpaired condition.”
Indeed, the banks did resume operations a few days later, but the panic did not subside. Bank owners hastened to save their companies and their dignity. In the midst of the chaos, investigators unveiled that one of John Sr.’s friends, fellow banker and the president of the Borough Bank of Brooklyn, Howard Maxwell, had taken out a large personal loan from his own bank and failed to repay it. Maxwell spent two days and nights at Raymond Street Jail in Fort Greene until he could secure funds for his $30,000 bail. Upon his return home, Maxwell ran a bath, took a penknife and two razors and slit his wrist to the bone and then his throat. Traumatized, his wife subsequently went insane.
The day before New Yorkers learned of Maxwell’s death, police arrested John Jr., Frank and Frederick. Investigators found that the three brothers sanctioned large loans from the Williamsburg Trust Company to themselves under the names of dummies and the court charged them with conspiracy and perjury. Not only the Williamsburg Trust fell under fire, but also the other Jenkins banks which “all borrowed heavily from the banks in the Jenkins chain,” the Times reported in December 1907.
Perhaps it was karma. Not a single member of the Jenkins family answered their late friend Maxwell’s cries for help during or after his incarceration. The state seized the Jenkins companies and receivers began the thorny task of reopening the three institutions so that depositors could collect their money. The receiver at Williamsburg Trust, Frank L. Bapst, told the Times in December 1907 that after examining the company’s books, loans to the Jenkinses aggregated $421,000 (over $10 million in today’s currency). Bapst expected the company to lose $200,000 on the transactions. (The family also took out over $500,000—what would be over $12 million in 2016—in loans from the Jenkins Trust Company.) Newspapers around the state, like the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle picked up the story that “within the four days immediately preceding the closing of the doors of the Williamsburg company several of the company’s directors withdrew practically all their deposits.”
“To Williamsburgh, and, indeed, to all Brooklyn, the story of the methods that had closed the doors of many banks under the Jenkins regime was amazing, almost unbelievable,” wrote the Eagle as the community continued to reel from the year’s financial crisis and the downfall of such a prominent family. The calamity also took a toll on the elder Jenkins, who died of a stroke less than six months after the 1907 Panic and just one month before his and his sons’ grand jury trials were scheduled to begin. In his obituary, his surviving family members said “that while he was an old man, he might have lived many years longer but for the crushing experience of the past few months.”
His criminality notwithstanding, John Sr. embodied so much of the American Dream. The Reverend Robert M. Green of the Sumner Avenue Baptist Church ignored the death threats he received for his willingness to eulogize Jenkins as a “pillar of the church, a figure of righteousness and a leader of finance.” Green focused on Jenkins’ care of orphans and a $40,000 donation he made to the church to help pay off its mortgage. Perhaps because of his standing in the community, the courts dropped both of John Sr.’s indictments for perjury and conspiracy soon after his death.
As the Eagle reported, the patriarch’s death “broke a link in the chain” in the ongoing investigation of the family’s fraudulent banking practices. Still, newspapers like the Eagle, the New York Times, the New York Sun and the Brooklyn Standard Union, which had reported on the Jenkinses’ downward spiral on almost a daily basis for months, continued to blacken the family name. Knowing how far their reputation had plummeted, the family lawyer, Stephen C. Baldwin, argued and won a case before the Supreme Court in Mineola, Long Island, to hold the trial of Frank and Frederick outside of Kings County. John Jr. was not so lucky. District Attorney John F. Clarke ruled that John Jr. could, in fact, be tried fairly for larceny in a Brooklyn court.
Even though Clarke believed that John Jr. took the lifeblood of the Jenkins trust company, he failed to bring the banker to justice. The Eagle described Clarke as “the picture of amazement” when the jury handed down a verdict of not guilty. In November 1910, to Clarke’s chagrin, the Supreme Court dismissed all remaining indictments against the brothers, “recalling one of the most sensational of the bank cases of 1907.” Two years after the initial charges, it was too late for any convictions.
The verdict also ended the Jenkins regime for good, and as early as 1910, newspapers began to refer to the family’s banking prowess in the past tense. Once depositors reclaimed their money, the Williamsburg Trust Company branch in Williamsburg Bridge Plaza closed, as did the other two Jenkins institutions. Besides a 1913 case investigating assets of a $300,000 mortgage that John Jr. withdrew from the Jenkins Trust—he “[pleaded] loss of memory as to the details of many of the transactions” six years later and the charge was eventually dropped—the next big news about the family didn’t surface until 1931, when John Jr., then 64, succeeded in paying off $706,000 in debts. “An honest man is an honest man and an honest banker is an honest banker,” John Jr. told the Eagle. “Past performance isn’t worth a damn.”
He spoke too soon. The next year, John Jr. spent two weeks in Kings County Civil Prison, found guilty of being in contempt of court for not paying $4,000 worth of late costs. The case also reopened an investigation of his prior fraud, and in December 1934, he finally headed to Sing Sing Prison to serve a sentence of two and a half to five years for grand larceny. It turned out that only a portion of the debt had been repaid—in the end, John Jr. failed to clear his father’s name, as well as his own. Even worse, the Jenkins curse extended to the next generation. In 1932, John Jr.’s son Griffith pleaded guilty to an indictment of grand larceny after pocketing over a thousand dollars meant to purchase stocks for his firm, Jenkins & Kaiser.
The Jenkins scandal continued long after the defunct Williamsburg Trust Company passed to new hands. After the bankers were indicted, Jacob C. Klinck became the company’s president. Klinck thought the building was “a handsome structure, but poorly located,” and sold it to New York City officials in 1914 for $65,000, what today would be about $1.5 million. The city, responding to “a wave of public disapproval against the disgraceful and unsanitary condition of the present Fifth District Magistrates’ Court” nearby, turned the building into a courthouse. Chiseled onto the front entablature, “MAGISTRATES COURT” was the only exterior change to the original Helmle, Huberty & Hudswell design, wrote the New York Landmark Preservation Commission in a 2016 report.
Once the court assumed operations in 1916, it dealt with small local crimes like low level assault, littering, sanitary violations and disturbances of the peace—nothing comparable in grandeur or degeneracy to the long-winded Jenkins affair. The court made its name during a wave of reform, as muckraking journalists and criminal justice activists like Mary E. Paddon illuminated the importance of lower courts to the masses and argued against “the manner in which the poor, the weak and the frightened, the unjustly accused and the unfortunate, were shamefully exploited by corrupt politicians.” Another trailblazer, Otto Kempner, rose from “poverty and adversity” to become the first Chief City Magistrate for Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Kempner “patiently, temperately and reasonably, but none the less zealously,” labored to “effect reforms, remove abuses, and harmonize the procedure of the important institution at his charge.”
Reformers also voiced concerns about poor prison conditions. In 1927, a state commissioner deemed the courthouse’s pens “uncleanly” and in 1935, the Works Progress Administration began a $1 million renovation of 16 Brooklyn court buildings, including the Williamsburg Magistrates’ Court, where the WPA added a new heating system, and repointed and cleaned the terra-cotta exterior.
But by 1956, the city found conditions of the courthouse too poor to carry on operations and after two auctions, finally sold the building to Deutch Auto Repair in 1960 for only $19,000—about $151,000 in today’s money. The next year, the Holy Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church in Exile bought the old Williamsburg Trust for $25,000. Bought in November 1961, the facilities were expected to be repaired in time for Christmas service.
If the building fell to the church as an act of cleansing is not known, but demographic data suggests that it was the natural result of two waves of immigration: the influx of 20 million Eastern Europeans to the United States at the turn of the 20th century and the specific immigration of 85,000 Ukrainians, who arrived after World War II. An Eagle reporter named Jean Piper snarkily captured the nature of the first wave in 1925, writing that “[a]t the mere mention of the word Bolshevik, the usually placid Ukrainian who believes in God and government loses all his calm.” At the time, 16,000 Ukrainians lived in Brooklyn and Long Island—Greenpoint and Williamsburg were home to 5,000 of them alone. Communist or not, many of these emigres eventually moved to Williamsburg, escaping the over-populated Lower East Side where only a few remnants of a once-robust Little Ukraine community remain today.
This second wave of Ukrainian immigrants included the Archbishops Palladii Vydybida-Rudenko and Ihor Huba, who arrived to the United States in 1949 and, two years later, organized the Holy Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church in Exile. Their 1961 purchase of the Williamsburg Trust Company building provided space for an expanding network of 16 churches and over 5,000 members. When the news hit the papers, the church’s Father Minenko told the Greenpoint Weekly Star that “[t]he whole church membership is made up of people who escaped the Soviet Union in World War II and began a new life in America.” With its dome and a floor plan in the shape of a cross, the building’s design conveniently met the requirements of an Orthodox church and preservationists in the congregation retained the original exterior of the building, adding the cross on the dome that Joseph Mitchell believed “casts a Slavic aura over South Fifth Place.”
But, as the Reverend Wolodymyr Wronskyj explained to the New York World-Telegram in 1966, years of disregard left the real estate in “a complete state of disrepair.” He also told the newspaper that the neighborhood was quickly deteriorating—the church had twice been burglarized and people were “afraid to attend services.” Despite the challenges, the congregation worked to improve the conditions of the church and neighborhood, pouring more than $2 million into renovations. “We saved the building,” Wronskyj said later on. “If not for us [the city would have had] to demolish it because it was dangerous.”
To further protect the building, the community board put forth a motion to landmark the Williamsburg Trust Company in 1966. Wronskyj, who was at the time chairman of the board of trustees of the cathedral, opposed the idea. “Once you landmark a building it becomes more difficult with the upkeep,” he said. The priest battled against the status for 50 years, but in 2016, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission ruled in favor, against the congregation’s desires. The commission, in its 2016 report, attributed the building’s survival “to the diligence and sensitivity of the church’s leaders and parishioners in maintaining its historic features over the past five decades.”
How the remaining 30 active parishioners, who hail mostly from Ridgewood and Brighton Beach, have managed to sustain the church is something of a miracle, preserving not only an important architectural treasure, but also its sordid past.