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Book Review

'Exchange' revisits a Hub long gone

This view of the Exchange Coffee House was painted by Thomas Whitman in 1809. This view of the Exchange Coffee House was painted by Thomas Whitman in 1809.
Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Kenney
January 22, 2008

The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-flying Speculation and America's First Banking Collapse
By Jane Kamensky, Viking, 442 pp., illustrated, $29.95

When Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino unveiled his proposal for a 1,000-foot skyscraper in the Financial District going on two years ago, he called his vision one that would "symbolize the full scope of this city's greatness."

If it does get built, it would overtop the site of an earlier embodiment of the city's aspirations, the Exchange Coffee House.

When that was built, in 1809, writes historian Jane Kamensky, it was "one of the tallest, strangest, most talked about buildings in the English-speaking world" - and like many commercial monuments that have succeeded it, was called "too high, too ugly, too costly, too empty: just too much."

There is a very evident enthusiasm of discovery in Kamensky's "The Exchange Artist" that animates her narrative of a high-flying developer and the banks and investors dragged down by his overreaching need for money to build his towering dream.

That now vanished building, destroyed by fire just nine years after it was built, was the stage for the rise and fall of Andrew Dexter.

Born in 1779, he grew up in Providence, where his father ran a "Cheap Store." After graduating from The College of Rhode Island (now Brown University), Dexter gravitated to Boston where, Kamensky writes, "his aspirations [had] fastened upon a particular object . . . a temple of finance."

With Asher Benjamin, the architect of the Old West Church and the Charles Street Meetinghouse, Dexter designed the Exchange Coffee House, Kamensky writes, "to elevate all of Boston" with "its sheer height [declaring] an end to a hundred years of economic flatness," and "its grandeur [ennobling] the money trades."

With its dome-capped seven stories, it towered some hundred feet over the crooked streets just south of the Old State House. Within its brick and granite walls were a ballroom, dining hall, billiard and reading rooms, some 60 hotel rooms, a marble tile-floored mercantile exchange, and the coffee house, the gathering place for the city's business elite.

To build all this, Dexter needed money. And here, Kamensky, who lives in Cambridge and teaches at Brandeis, "follows the money" with the zeal of an investigative journalist.

Dexter's scheme was to raise money through issuing bank notes to pay off the mortgage on the lots he had assembled, and to pay suppliers and workmen.

"Gold into paper," as Kamensky puts it, "paper into bricks."

The problem was that there was very little gold behind the paper. When the Rhode Island Legislature investigated dealings at the small-town Farmers' Exchange Bank, it found that the bank had issued some $600,000 in notes - much of it on forms printed and shipped to the bank by Dexter - backed by just $86.46 in the bank's vaults.

That was the nation's first bank failure, and would be followed in short order by the failure of other banks Dexter had raided.

Dexter, like other ruined schemers, fled - first to Nova Scotia, later to the Alabama territory, where he was among the founders of Montgomery. He died in 1837.

Stranded in Boston were Dexter's ruined investors and tradesmen. And, writes Kamensky, workmen "who had risked their lives laying bricks a hundred feet above the ground, carefully husbanding the banknotes they were tendered for their labors, found themselves unable to make rent or buy bread."

The Exchange Coffee House survived the financial crash, staggering along for just nine years until it caught fire in November 1818 and burned rapidly, its central galleries acting like a chimney flue.

Not a trace of a footprint remains in Quaker Lane, which cuts through its site between Congress and Devonshire streets. There is not even a plaque to mark the site. Nearby Exchange Place is the glassy tower built in 1984 inside the façade of the 1891 Boston Stock Exchange.

Dexter's Exchange Coffee House has, however, been re-created, in a sense, with a CAD (computer-assisted design) program using original floor plans and elevations. "Virtually," writes Kamensky, "I could experience the Exchange in three dimensions."

And Asher Benjamin, she thinks, would recognize in the drawings "something of the sublimity of the Exchange. The looming bulk of a too-tall building in a too-small city."

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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