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November 18, 2011

Historical Echoes: What Makes a Bank Look Like a Bank?

Amy Farber, New York Fed Research Library

We know what a bank looks like: It’s typically of solid construction with classical architectural features. The architecture is not merely about aesthetics, of course; banks are designed to convey strength, stability, and security to would-be depositors. A concise history of bank architecture can be found under the heading “Bank Design in the Twentieth Century,” pages 3-4 of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s report for the Jamaica Savings Bank, Elmhurst Branch. (Ironically, Jamaica Savings Bank looks nothing like a typical bank!)

    The report states:

Prior to the 1930[s], most American banks were designed in the classical style. To attract depositors, owners and trustees favored traditional architectural imagery—large, often free-standing, stone structures in the classical style that signaled financial stability and integrity. These structures, whether located in small towns or large cities, projected a strong civic presence and many became centerpieces in their communities.

    With the number of U.S. commercial banks falling by about half since 1990 (see the St. Louis Fed data on the number of U.S. banks), it’s easy to find former bank buildings that are now housing other enterprises. When bank buildings are repurposed, their stateliness can bring a sense of importance or intrigue to whatever takes their place. Quite apart from banks’ impressive structures, their central locations also make them desirable real estate.

    Some reinvented New York banks appear in a Wired New York blog post, “From the Outside, They Still Look Like Banks,” from February 2005.

Here’s a small sampling from New York and elsewhere:

• Gift shop — First National Gift Shop (Skaneateles, New York, 1928): Used to be the National Bank and Trust Company of Skaneateles, then Key Bank

• Department store — Century 21 (New York City, 1933-34): Used to be the Italian Savings Bank, then the East River Savings Bank

• Theater — Daryl Roth Theater (New York City, 1893-95): Used to be the Union Square Savings Bank

• Cocktail lounge — The Crocker Club (Los Angeles, 1920s): Used to be the Crocker Citizens National Bank

• Residence tower — One Hanson Place (Brooklyn, New York, 1927): Used to be the Williamsburg Savings Bank (the tower was home to many dentists)

• Banquet hall — Capitale (New York City, 1893-95): Used to be the Bowery Savings Bank

Bicycle storage and fitness centerThe Spalding Building (Portland, Oregon, 1911): Used to be the Oregon Bank Building (the bicycles are now parked in two of the three bank vaults)

• Hotel — Langham Hotel (Boston, 1922): Used to be the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which moved into a modern thirty-two-story building.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

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