10/15/2012 03:56 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

On the Trivialization of Wall Street

It's a balmy autumn evening downtown. The tourists and commuters mill through the pedestrian plaza where Broad Street flows into Wall Street. This is historic ground, the oldest part of Manhattan. George Washington peers down from Federal Hall, where (in an earlier incarnation) he was inaugurated as the first president in 1789. Across the street, the beaux arts façade of the venerable, if imposing New York Stock Exchange, opened in 1903, with its flapping flags, looms. On the corner, at 23 Wall, squats the bluff former Morgan bank headquarters, circa 1913, the year J.P. Morgan Sr. died, and once the most important financial address in the nation, with scars from an anarchist bomb still marking its limestone walls like an old case of acne.

Tonight, however, there's an Oktoberfest outside the NYSE, with arches of balloons and a band racing through Bruce Springsteen. Meanwhile, across the plaza, a black and orange banner hangs rakishly off the former Morgan headquarters, with orange lights flashing from within: Halloween City. The former banking floor of the House of Morgan is now a temporary location for selling Halloween products, while the building itself resembles a still-handsome matriarch at a disco. Not even Tiffany, or Cartier, or a purveyor of wildly overpriced European clothes. Halloween City.

Should we care? Does it matter that the former House of Morgan, which was designed to make a statement about power, probity and privilege, now sells overpriced costumes and that the Big Board, whose historic floor has long been relegated to a stage set for cable television, has become a party hall and marketing opportunity for listed companies? Now it's true that on that day in 1920, Sept. 16, 38 people died, and 400 were wounded when the bomb on that horse-drawn cart exploded. Two of the dead were Morgan employees. Those inside the banking floor were mostly protected by the thick stone walls and metal screens over the windows; J.P. "Jack" Morgan, the managing partner, was at his English country house, but his son Junius was on the banking floor and sustained a cut from flying glass, tartly notes John Brooks in Once in Golconda, on his backside. Richard Whitney, the president of the NYSE (and later, an embezzler), calmly rang the bell and suspended trading.

It was the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history until 9/11.

Now politically, many may feel that these symbols of American capitalism deserve to be brought crashing down to earth. In fact, there's some Schadenfreude in seeing what was once the most powerful private bank in America, run by the closest thing to an aristocracy the country has produced, associated, however ironically, with demons and ghouls. What's Halloween City but a further stage of the commercialism that the House of Morgan once shaped and channeled, if attempted to keep its white-gloved distance from? This might not be the most sophisticated perspective on the Morgan legacy, not to say the emergence of the U.S. as a global industrial power, but it works for many folks, who, with the distance of decades, may feel more sympathy with the anarchist than the bankers. And then there's the crowd that just wants a party and a costume. What's wrong with that, man?

But even if they're right about some -- or all -- of this, it does raise the complicated question of how we treat locations that are rich in historical (not to say architectural) associations. What do we keep? What do we destroy? What do we remember or forget? This is a problem many cities face, whether presented with Frank Lloyd Wright homes, old train stations, Victorian piles or empty churches. We've decided that, for all the commercial energies surrounding it, the old World Trade Center must be remembered and, in some fashion, preserved. We protect cemeteries. We fill town centers with Civil War statues or World War I plaques listing the dead. Washington, D.C. has gone into a frenzy of monument building.

Do we care -- should we care -- about monuments of economic history? Here's where you have to separate out the architectural merits of a building from its historical content. Both the House of Morgan and the NYSE have architectural merit; both are landmarked and on the National Register of Historic Places. But they are both relics. You can say that the decline of the NYSE trading floor as a locus of real action reflects the larger relative decline of the country economically to, say, China. But that's a very complicated question. The fact is, stocks simply aren't traded on floors anymore; trading has gone virtual. Thus the NYSE floor -- the building itself -- has become an anachronism, a shell, though of value as a marketing site and a kind of museum (though one, because of 9/11 security concerns, that no longer welcomes off-the-street tourists). The House of Morgan experienced this loss of purpose in 1989, when J.P. Morgan & Co. moved to a massive tower further down on Wall Street, then was engulfed by what's now J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (Chase Manhattan itself has a tower just to the north with its own historical associations. Built by David Rockefeller in 1961, it was first post-Depression tower on Wall Street and was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Rockefeller then went on to spearhead that other downtown development, the World Trade Center. Is Chase Plaza worth preserving?) Deutsche Bank now occupies the former Morgan tower.

All this also stirs questions about how we think -- if we have any thoughts at all -- about the figures who built and operated those buildings. Despite piles of biographies, where does J.P. Morgan Sr. really fit into the current scheme of American history? How many folks really know what he was or what he accomplished? The reign of the Waspocracy is gone; so too is the House of Morgan and the dominance of industry. His home and library still flourish, but as a museum. In her marvelous biography of Morgan, Jean Strouse devoted nearly as many pages to his life as an art collector than as a financier. Should we care about a gruff and, notes Strouse, often depressed figure, who was unabashedly an elitist, and who -- for both good and bad -- controlled vast swaths of American capitalism? Yes, he arguably quelled a number of panics before the coming of the Federal Reserve, which was, like 23 Wall, born in 1913. Yes, he organized many industries, thus restoring order to a booming economy threatening to spin out of control. And yes, he was deeply self-interested, though never as wealthy as some of his corporate partners and clients. And he operated in a ruthless age that, in its narrow way, had higher standards than our own.

How do we feel about Wall Street, particularly in this backwash of crisis and slow recovery? Americans traditionally express a deep ambiguity about Wall Street: admiration and distaste; attraction and repulsion. We need it, we feel drawn to its glamour, riches and power, and yet we fear it. It may well be that if we followed the logic of many of the people who built and profited from Wall Street we would turn these structures into condos or catering halls, or tear them down. Capitalism, after all, is about creation and destruction. But we're not just zombified economic men. We look at 23 Wall and see an empire trivialized or transformed, not unlike Halloween itself, into a joke.