Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Guardian Landscape

by Wally Dobelis 9/30/1996There are some of us who may remember the midcentury Guardian as a company of 400-odd people, tightly packed in the 18 floors of 50 Union Square, on Fourth Avenue, with the Executive Flooor on the Mezzanine - that was Mr. McClain's office - and Johnny Breeze the old Marine guarding the sanctity of the environment. We office boys learned everybody's name in a week. We cashed our paychecks in the Chemical Corn Exchange Bank, and the lunches on the Mezzanine Floor were free. Vinnie the elevator man took bets on horses, and trusted you once, maybe twice. (That was in direct disregard of the September 25th, 1907 memo from the office of the President of the Germania Life Insurance Company written in capital letters, to wit: ANY ONE IN THE EMPLOY OF THIS COMPANY FOUND PLAYING THE RACES WILL BE DISMISSED INSTANTER. AND ANY ONE SUSPECTED OF DOING SO WILL BE LIABLE TO RIGOROUS MEASURES. Signed by Cornelius Doremus, President.What a righteous name!)
Every department had Christmas parties, but the Supply Dept on 18th floor had the one to close the day with. Dr. Bender's parties served pink ladies, which were concocted by Dr. Lambkin, who also did the urinanalyses. The "specimens" arrived from the Medical Examiners' offices by mail in little ampules, wrapped with the identification slip. We once got a hold of a properly addressed slip, with the P.O. cancellation but no name, filled the tube with beer and wrote the insured's name as I. P. Standing. The slip came back from Dr Lambkin's lab with the contents identified as a trace of barley and hops. He was a good sport and his drinks were great. By the way, no one was allowed to use Dr. Bender's bathroom, unless invited; if you did not know the rules and he saw you, your manager got a call and would tell you, sort of shamefacedly and making light of it.
The big event was to be invited to the SWS Ageny Christmas party downtown, with plenty to drink and eat. Tiny Arthur C. Warshaw with the deep cutting voice would take some of us youngsters to a side room and would tell this story of the Creation. That was about the way he, Jerry Schnur and the tall deceptively slow-talking Dick Spaulder took over the sleepy Leyendecker-Schnur agency and built it up to a broker-oriented powerhouse. They attributed some of the success to taking taxis rather than the subway during the great Depression, and thus seeing several more brokers a day. I always thought that the real secret was the their cashier, the motherly Miss Donovan who knew how to get underwriting action, by getting all of her cases reviewed once a day on the telephone by the suspense section. You had to be sharp to handle SWS.
Then came the 1960s, Fourth Ave acquired a center median and plantings and we became 201 Park Avenue South. Jerry Parker and Health came in in 1954, and Bob Wilcox brought in Group in 1957, all under the guidance of James A (no period) McClain, whose benevolent eyes look at all visitors from the entrance of the Annex Building, designed by the great Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (but why did he put a row of clotheshangers in the basement as well as on populated floors? Ah well...) In the old building, the beautiful balcony overlooking the 4th Avenue lobby diappeared, and mosaic walls took the place of the marble, much to the disgust of the architectural preservationists who created the Landmarks Commission after the magnificent Penn Station of McKim Mead and White was permitted to be torn down. Our 1911 D'Oensch and Yost building was landmarked, both interior (the lunchroom, originally the Collection Department, where policyholders came to pay premiums, is a great example of a beautiful public space) and exterior (we have the largest copper mansard roof in the city). The free sandwich lunches became subsidized hot meals. The floors freed up by the exodus to the Annex acquired publishing tenants. E.P.Dutton had their exhibit of the original A.A.Milne's Winnie the Poo and Tigger dolls in the showcase, and we had occasional elevator sightings of trench-coated Mickey Spillane, their author of such hardboiled detective fiction as "I, The Jury." Mickey played the part, a wide brim hat down on his eyes.Another tenant, T.Y.Crowell, had such authors as John Kenneth Galbraith, whose head nearly touched the elevator roof when I saw him on the elevator with his editor. A "Good morning, Ambassador," got us into a three-floor conversation. Another author, the poet Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg's significant other, only stared dourly at his open-toed sandals as he rode on the elevator.
In 1965 Max's Kansas City opened up next door, in the location of the old Southern Restaurant, and that brought scads of artists into the area, of which another time. Also, Andy Warhol's Factories (there were two locations) across the Union Square made this a prime pop and op art environment. Guardianites were tolerated in Max's because it was our turf, and we laid claim to it at 4:30 P.M., when any self-respecting Max's denizen would have barely rolled out of bed. We were gone long before the real night-time revelries began.
The Guardian kept growing, and we picked up rental space at 105 Madison Ave.
In 1982 the company had enough of New York's high taxes, low educational levels of startup employees, and decided to direct the expansion outwards. We were getting to be a group major medical insurance power, needing many claim approvers and underwriters, and had to look for a low-cost, trainable employee environment. Three areas of the country seemed right, and we started with Bethlehem, PA, or more properly Allentown, where the demise of heavy steel industry had left a lot of white collar avalability, and the good schools offered more for the future expansion. From a rented space in 1982 we moved into a industrial development area, building a 3-story escalator office in 1984, designed by King xxx of and adding a mirror-image wing in 1988. The computer center moved there, out of New York, along with certain life and health (now disability) operations, and Group kept growimg. In 1992 we added a warehouse building, some 800 feet away, to house supplies (I remember getting out of the way of a warehouse fork-lift bearing down at what seemed 35 M.P.H.), and the offsite storage of computer files.
In 1985??? we decided to expand th the Midwest, and rented space in Appleton, Wi, a beautiful lake community, with many paper mills and some insurance companies, notably Lutheran Brotherhood. Eventually we built a 3-story (same designer), for xxx employees. It is heavily group major medical oriented operation, as is the next expansion, 1988???, in Spokane, WA.
Spokane was a mining town. I remember the parts of the town set in the middle of a mining pit, the modern buildings in the Civic Center, and also the young gal who jumped out of her spanking new pickup truck in a shopping center, to announce to a friend "How'd you like that! My husband gave it to me on my 16th birthday!" It's the West, you New York slickers, get with it. The Spokane building is 3 stories, with xx employees. This is the first one that ruled no-smoking, and I would see lots of people on the back porch.
As of 10/95, in the Guardian interoffice telephone book there are 4500 numbers. Also 100 ?? officers, country wide. Long gone are the days when you could pick up the phone in NY and dial three digits and get anyone. When you dialed GOD, you got Dan Lyons. I told this secret to my then manager, who looked at me, picked up the phone and dialed up, then hung up and stared, sort of white faced. I think he was worried. Today he might be more worried, because the phones - at least those of the secretaries - show the dialer's name and extension, so when someone says "yes, Wally," you know where you are. The kid in DP who used to make dirty interoffice calls in the 1960s until found out and fired would have a hard time today.
As to offices, we have two floors in the building past former Max's (now a Korean grocery), 215 PAS, the former Burroughs Adding Machine headquarters. This building, our size, was offered to us for about $7 million way back, as was the needle-domed Chrysler Building in the '40s ("the parachutist's nightmare").Who's to say whether we should have bought them? We also lease two floors at 233 PAS, above Canastel's, a trendy restaurant. And a huge floor housing all of group's administrative offices, at 225 PAS, one block over. On a rainy day Guardianites have to carry umbrellas as they scurry between offices, particularly because yet another group office on corner 18th and 5th Ave, above Daffy's department store, handles compliance.
The most senior male long-term employees still coming in every day are Hugh Howell, age 70, who started in 1940. I'm next, age 66, started in 1950, then Ed Kane, our legal beagle, of the same age group. Thereafter, another break. I will not speak of the ladies, who have their own privacy concerns. I bring this up because of the changes in the world. Unfortunately the next generations will not be able to experience the same continuity. My son's college placement people caution the grads to expect three career changes - that's profession, folks - and eight job changes. The opportunity to build up pensions dwindles. It's almost like back to the 1950s when my uncle got fired by Con Edison after 19 1/2 years of service, to avoid giving him a pension. ERISA cured that, at least for our generation. I can also look back to the kids who jumped jobs - particularly one auditor who left after 8 1/2 years, with no pension credits. We have to make sure our kids understand this. The world has changed, but the Guardian ship sails on. Fair weather, gang!

Farella 1943- 68
Howell 40 - 70

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