21 February 2011

THE UNION STREET PROJECT: 131-133 Union Street

This is the second post of "The Union Street Project," in which I unearth the history of every building along the once bustling Brooklyn commercial strips of Union Street between Hicks and Van Brunt, and Columbia Street between Sackett and Carroll.

Today we're looking at 131-133 Union Street. This is the most imposing building on the block between Hicks and Columbia (note the double address), and one quick glance at it will tell any free-lance historian that it was once a bank. Note the faux marble pillars, the vaguely classical architecture, the high doorway, the fake balconies. Of course, in the isolated Italian ghetto that this neighborhood once once, it wasn't a bank the way you and I think of them. It was a private banking house, owned and run by one Antonio Sessa and his son Joseph.

Initially, their business was at 40 Union Street (a building that no longer exists), but in 1915 they moved to their spacious new digs one block to the east. In 1909, the Sessa bought a building at 700 Fourth Avenue and opened a branch office there. Many Italian-Americans, new to this country and without a fixed address, had their mail sent in care of Banca Sessa. 

The Sessa family did well. According to an article in 1927, Joseph Sessa was worth 4 to 5 million. Unsurprisingly, news items periodically cropped up in the 1920s in which unsavory crime figures happened to have had dealings with Sessa's bank. The building is actually L-shaped, and used to have an additional entrance/exit on Columbia Street. This was no doubt very convenient for certain people who didn't want to worry about being seen coming or going from the bank. 

The Sessas were obviously major community leaders. I was once told a story by a local that, during the Depression, the bank was the subject of a run, but that Sessa, George Bailey style, talked all those who had money in the bank out of withdrawing their funds. The Sessas were also arts supporters. They invited Guglielmo Ricciardi, the founder of the first Italian-American theatre troupe in Brooklyn, into the back of his bank, where he and various amateurs thespians would rehearse various comedies. Sessa provided financial support. And a bank clerk named Francesco De Maio helped the company rent the Brooklyn Athenaeum, which used to stand at the corner of Atlantic and Clinton, and was a cultural beacon for the area.

Banco Sessa was absorbed by Bancitaly in 1927. Joseph Sessa still ran the bank, though. Then in 1928 Commercial Exchange Safe Deposit Company bought it. The address was First National City Bank by the 1950s, with Sessa still there. At some point it became Citibank, which eventually decamped to its present location on Court Street near 1st Street.

In the 1990s, the former bank space became the workshop of a scenic designer who created unusual props for Broadway shows. He painted a lovely Trompe-L'oeil portrait of an Italian Renaissance scene over one of the side doors. He left in the early 2000s (taking the painted door with him), and was replaced by a kiddie restaurant and party center that didn't last long. I'm not sure who works in there now; there are some anonymous desks inside. But a friend tells me it functions as the offices of a developer. The bank vault is still part of the room.



Marie said...

Thank you - great series.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I'm glad you like them. They are hard work to put together.

upstate Johnny G said...

Brooks, found a book online in Google books that lists Don Antonio Sessa as operating a "small banking business, travel agency, notary public, law office, and Italian bookstore" at 40 Union St. in the early 1890's and that Ricciardi himself found employment with Sessa when he arrived in NYC. Also mentions that when Ricciardi began his theater circle, Sessa provided some financial assistance.

I also found a "Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac" from 1895 that lists Antonio Sessa as being the president of a political club called "the Citizen Democratic Club" with an office at 65 Union Street. It's listed in the "Political" subdivision of the category labeled "United Italian Societies", which itself is a sub-category listed under "Secret and Benefit Organizations". I'm guessing there couldn't have actually been many secret organizations listed in this almanac...or they wouldn't have been secret! As a funny aside, the next listing in the book after Sessa's group's was for something called "The United Order of Druids." Would love to know what that was all about....LOL

Marie said...

Brooks, I have some idea of the amount of work you put into this blog, period, and frankly, I don't know how you do it. But thank you, again...

Big T said...

Just came across your piece on Union Street. Very well done. Actually I am a relative of Mr. Sessa, and found your description of the bank's history informative and mostly accurate. I did want to make one comment regarding your reference to the sale to the Bancitaly. The sale was actually a merger, to acquire several Italian banks and form the Banca d'Italia e d'America, which was a joint venture in Italy, with a friend and fellow Italian-American immigrant banker, Amadeo Giannini, whose bank had started in San Jose, California around 1904. Interestly, Giannini stayed with it a bit longer, eventually shortening the name to Bank of America. They had wanted to merge in the States as well, but interstate banking laws precluded it, and ultimately the Sessa Bank became part of what is today, Citibank, as you note.