by Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris) | Sep 9, 2019 • 10:00am
Editor’s note: This story is an update of one that ran in 2013. Read the original here.
The Public National Bank was founded by Joseph S. Marcus, a German-born clothing manufacturer on the Lower East Side, in 1908. By 1930, there were 30 branches in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. It was the one of the largest banks in the entire United States with a predominantly Jewish clientele.
In February of 1921, The New York Times and other publications noted the bank had purchased a plot on the corner of Graham Avenue and Varet Street with the intention of building a new Williamsburg branch. Public National already had a branch in Williamsburg, just two blocks away, but business had grown to the point that they needed to build a larger bank in order to accommodate their customers. Later that same year the architect of the new building at 47-49 Graham Avenue was announced: Eugene Schoen.
Mr. Schoen was a big deal in the architecture and design world of the early 20th century. He was born in 1880, in New York City to Hungarian Jewish immigrants. His father had come to America in 1878, and was a highly revered teacher and the Grand Secretary of the Independent Order of B’rith Abraham, a fraternal order similar to the Freemasons. He was a graduate of the Manual Training School in Brooklyn, more recently called John Jay High School, and then went on to Columbia University, where he studied architecture. He worked in the offices of McKim, Mead & White during his university summers, and then worked as a teacher of art and architecture in the public school systems of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
In 1904, as a delayed honeymoon, Eugene and his wife travelled to Europe and visited Vienna. That city was at the center of a new architectural and artistic revolution, home to an Austrian branch of the Art Nouveau movement called the Vienna Secession (Wiener Secession). Artists such as Gustav Klimt and Max Klinger had joined with architects such as Otto Wagner, Joseph Maria Olbrich and Josef Hoffmann to rebel from the staid Austrian conformities of the past, and were creating new and innovative works.