“It’s just a building when it comes right down to it,” 91-year-old George Doty, the former Goldman Sachs managing partner, said last month. His firm had just started moving out of 85 Broad Street, its headquarters for the past three decades, and into a shiny new West Street tower. “Buildings, to me, don’t have a particular feeling. They’re just there. Like a car.”
More like the Metropolitan Opera House of modern-day moneymaking, cloaked in humdrum shabbiness. The New Yorker once called 85 Broad “one of those bland, squint-windowed, stone-fronted thirty-story monstrosities,” which is almost exactly right, except for the monstrosity part. The brownish tower isn’t interesting enough to be ugly: You have to know what’s inside before anything gets interesting.
Goldman Sachs became the world’s most important firm in a spectacularly dull, purposefully frumpy, desperately anonymous tower. Inside, it smelled like cigarettes in the 1980s and homemade chocolate chip cookies on the 30th floor. Babies cried in the first-floor day-care center; Jon Corzine worked outside in a Town Car parked on the curb after his ousting; and Hank Paulson felt sad when birds flew into the windows
But in a few months, Goldman, the historic Financial District’s last remaining great American investment bank, will be out. Wall Street will have finally left Wall Street. “It’s all Times Square when you think about it,” Tom Wolfe complained recently. “It’s Morgan Stanley across from the Pink Pussy strip club, or whatever it’s called.”
IN THE LATE ’70s, Goldman Sachs almost ended up near the Museum of Modern Art. “I’d walk around there at noontime,” said Mr. Doty, the partner in charge of drawing up Goldman’s moving plans at the time. He liked the dining rooms at the Racquet and Tennis Club on Park Avenue, but worried about the rest of the neighborhood. “Downtown was a much more civilized place at noontime.”
Instead, he made a deal with an Ohio thoroughbred racer and real estate developer to build a two-block tower on the Broad Street site. “The only obstacle we ran into was the fact that the area had been important in the pre-Revolutionary times.” Indeed, the archeologist Nan Rothschild led an excavation of land that housed Stadt Huys, New York’s first city hall—and its replacement, a tavern built in 1670 by the English governor Francis Lovelace. She found four tons of coins, bones, watermelon seeds, pottery and other artifacts. It was one of the most expensive urban archeological digs ever in America, and Goldman was imposing itself right on top of it.
Nothing much has changed since. In the 1980s, Wall Street was just becoming its glorious overindulgent self, and 85 Broad was a big, brown sign of the new era. Governor Hugh Carey applauded at the ground-breaking ceremony. Mayor Ed Koch exclaimed his happiness. A year later, three more towers were announced.
Meanwhile, design advisers interviewed 250 Goldman employees about their wants and needs—then the company decided to simply reuse the furniture from its old offices at 55 Broad. Mr. Doty put a Long Island investment banker named Hyman Weinberg in charge of the interior décor. “He was someone whose judgment I respected—nice, comfortable, but not too flashy,” he said. Eighty-five Broad is a Hyman Weinberg kind of place.
“We weren’t in the business of patting ourselves on the back because we had a new building,” H. Frederick Krimendahl II, also a former managing partner, said this month. “People would have looked at it like, ‘O.K., I have a new, modern building. It’s better. Now get to work,’” he said.
THE BUILDING TEEMS with inconspicuous plainness: Treasurer Elizabeth Beshel will point out to Fortune a “giant ink stain” on her old cubicle, and an interview in the Sunday Times five years later will mention an ink stain on her carpet. The shabbiness is by design.
Even the toilets were placed just so. “When we set up an enormous trading room, we deliberately built it on one floor and had only one men’s room,” Mr. Doty told the writer Charles D. Ellis. Besides the excellent egalitarianism, he explained, having just one bathroom made it easier to hear rumors, “to be persistently diligent on small troubles.”
But sometimes, in tiny little bursts, especially in the early days, the building had character. “The fifth floor, and every other trading floor in the building, was filled with people who smoked—constantly,” Richard E. Witten, a former partner, said. It was loud, it was smelly and it was warm. “The heat that was generated from the equipment was extraordinary. The air-conditioning was on in all the months, even the dead of winter.”
When the partners were too busy to eat in their dining room, their lunches were delivered on trays with silverware and company china. If there was enough time, they ate on the wondrous 30th floor, where offices would eventually be set up. “When we all first moved in there, there were cigarettes at every table, in a silver holder,” Mr. Witten said. “The chef was famous for his chocolate chip cookies, and they were served at every meal.” A partner running a meeting got a button that looked like a garage door opener. It summoned the uniformed waiter.
As a rule, conspicuousness was deathly. In August 1989, two New York City policemen went up to the 29th floor to serve the co-head of equity, Lew Eisenberg, a criminal harassment complaint filed by his former assistant. He reportedly told his boss that she and her policeman boyfriend “were blowing an old affair all out of proportion,” leaving out that their relationship was ongoing. Mr. Eisenberg was finished when that part leaked, even though charges were dropped (and the boyfriend policeman was fired). Mr. Eisenberg went on to become chairman of the Port Authority and chairman of the Republican National Finance Committee.
Heads stayed down at 85 Broad. The top six floors were evacuated in 1993 after a 25th-floor machinery-room fire. “The fire,” the Associated Press said, “was not thought to have affected trading.”
THE DOWDINESS GOT DOWDIER. Mr. Paulson’s new CEO office, a Business Week profile in 2002 said, was “bare of the trappings of money, power, and history.” There were only photos of wild animals. Vanity Fair’s Bethany McLean said the executive, a conservationist, would get very upset when birds flew into the tower’s glass windows.
The brownish tower became a place where the world smartest people didn’t just help their hugely wealthy clients build their fortunes; they gambled tirelessly to make their own. On Sept. 13, 2001, when most of the rest of Wall Street was still a war zone, certain bankers reportedly got the city’s permission to return to Broad Street to trade bonds. Goldman later rented ferries to bring important employees to the building.
Not only did 85 Broad outrun the global subprime meltdown, it did it while helping Alex Rodriguez sign the biggest contract in baseball history. Citigroup and Merrill Lynch fired their CEOs in 2007; Lloyd Blankfein, Mr. Paulson’s replacement, made a record $68.7 million. In September of 2007, along with the rest of the world, Goldman plunged. It took $10 billion in TARP money in October; issued $28 billion in cheap debt thanks to a new November F.D.I.C. program; and was allowed, along with Morgan Stanley, Wall Street’s other last real independent investment bank, to make itself into a bank holding company.
The Times called that “a turning point for the high-rolling culture of Wall Street, with its seven-figure bonuses and lavish perks for even midlevel executives.” The Times was wrong. In July, with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers long gone, Goldman announced that it recently had made $3.44 billion, the largest quarterly profit in its history.
Eighty-five Broad Street was back to its velvet-rope ways: Jay-Z, reportedly a wealth management client, was spotted in the building last month. More money brought more affection for inconspicuousness. “Take his office on the 30th floor. The chairs are the same ones that were there when he became CEO three years ago,” last month’s enormous Sunday Times’ interview with Mr. Blankfein cooed. “There’s no sign of irrational exuberance. Only coffee, which arrives cold.”
“I THINK THE whole idea of 85 Broad was that it was designed not to be memorable,” The New Yorker’s Paul Goldberger said this week. “It was intended to fade into the background as much as possible.”
It’s magic: The brownish tower looks silvery in some photographs; is mistaken for a “black-tinted box” in magazine cover stories; and disappears, despite its heft, into the weird, windy neighborhood. “The streets are very narrow, so when you look up, all you see is up. There are lots of buildings you look at from across the street, you see the top. Here, you look up and it just keeps going and going,” a former executive said this week. “It was understated, it was meant to be functional and efficient for work, but it was not mean to be showy, not meant to stand out.”
“You can walk down the street and not notice it, which, given how large it is, it can be considered an accomplishment,” Mr. Goldberger said. “The building is far bigger than you think it is. That’s really the point. You can barely see it but there’s more of it than you think.”
The disappearing act is almost complete. Goldman’s lease expires in mid-2011, and MetLife has brought in the real estate brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle to market the building. Goldman’s replacement can put its name on the building—a move few companies that aren’t Goldman can resist. “It’s spectacular,” said its lead broker, Frank Doyle. “It’s one of the few trophy products downtown.”
With additional reporting by