Finance may be ascendant in NYC, but plenty of once-grand bank buildings are now repurposed as retail stores, fitness centers and (of course) luxury condos. Here’s a small sample gathered from some recent Brooklyn runs, along with whatever information I was able to dig up about the history of each institution and location.
I like to think that the stories of these buildings, combined, help tell a bigger story about financial consolidation. The plot of that bigger story careens from one financial crisis to the next, with a hot redlining subplot, all set against a backdrop of Brooklyn’s decline as a manufacturing center and growth as a lifestyle brand.
I don’t pretend to do justice to that story here, just to hint at it.
(One acknowledgement that absolutely must go up front: as I was working on this post, I quickly discovered that Kevin Walsh’s “Forgotten New York” blog has visited most, if not all, of these same sites – and many others as well. If you aren’t already familiar with FNY, and you have even a smidgen of interest in the social, economic and architectural history of Brooklyn and New York City, then you owe it to yourself to check it out.)
Greater New York Savings Bank (5th Ave and 9th St)
This is the institution pictured at the top of this post – as well as above, in its new incarnation. So large and so grand is the building, it now holds not only the DII (“Deals & Discounts”) closeout store, but also a gym and a branch of a (successor) bank.
Originally incorporated on January 1, 1886, the Greater New York Savings Bank was once a major Brooklyn lender; the building at 5th Ave and 9th St was its headquarters. If the bank has a claim to fame (other than being the original holder of the mortgage on our apartment), it was as the target of an early test of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). In the late 1970s, activists organized around the issue of mortgage redlining – the practice of denying real estate loans to residents of lower-income neighborhoods – were eager to use the data that banks were required to report under the CRA to document patterns of discrimination that could be presented to regulators and, it was hoped, spur changes in institutional behavior.
One such opportunity came in 1979, when Greater New York, looking to expand geographically, sought regulatory approval to open a branch on Manhattan’s east side. A community group, South Brooklyn Against Investment Discrimination, challenged the bank’s application before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. At the time, Greater New York drew something like 80 percent of its deposits from Brooklyn – but made just 6.5 percent of its real estate loans there.* On the strength of the research marshaled by the activists, Greater New York’s application was denied – the first successful challenge to a branch application under the new law. (Needless to say, this was before Brooklyn acquired its current cachet. In the 1970s and well into the 1980s, the neighborhood around Greater New York’s headquarters was largely working class and Puerto Rican; 5th Avenue was lined with bodegas, laundromats and vacant storefronts, not boutiques and upscale restaurants. Nor was there a bank branch on every corner.)
In 1997, Greater New York Savings Bank was acquired by the Astoria Financial Corporation in a $293 million transaction; Astoria went on to acquire Long Island Bancorp the following year in a much larger deal, transforming itself into the second largest savings bank in the state of New York (albeit one dwarfed by global financial behemoths like Chase and Citicorp). The acquisition binge was the direct result of (de)regulatory changes in the late 1980s (remember the savings and loan crisis?) that made it easier for mutual savings and loans to convert to stockholder ownership: initial public offerings generated cash with which to hoover up other institutions.
Astoria Bank still maintains a branch in a small corner of the building.
Manufacturers Trust Company (5th Ave at Union St)
Who hasn’t walked through the marble doors of a temple of finance and fantasized about doing a sweaty workout in the lobby? In Park Slope, where dreams come true, you can do just that.
Well, kind of. The “Body Reserve” gym (tagline: “Fitness at the Old Bank”) now occupies a former location of the Manufacturers Trust Company. Like most financial institutions, Manufacturers Trust emerged from the 20th century with a genealogy that’s Biblical in its complexity: sired by Manufacturers National Bank (founded in Brooklyn in 1853), it cleaved unto the Citizens Trust Company in 1914, and lo, verily, unto the West Side Bank in Manhattan and the Ridgewood National Bank in Queens, and then unto Columbia Bank and Yorkville Bank and Gotham National and Fifth National, and lo, unto many others as well, and its branches were fruitful and multiplied, but soon a great Depression blighted the land, and Manufacturers Trust cast its errant children into the wilderness – American Union Bank, International Madison Bank and Trust Company, Times Square Trust Company, Bank of Europe Trust Company, Globe Bank and Trust Company, one by one they perished – until the lean years ended and the cleaving resumed, and the branches multiplied once more, and lo, in 1961, Manufacturers Trust cleaved unto Hanover Bank and begat Manufacturers Hanover Trust.**
And so on and so forth, until in 1992, Manufacturers Hanover (aka “Manny Hanny”) was absorbed into Chemical Bank. For a short while, this stood as the largest bank merger in U.S. history. For a very short while: in 1996, the new giant merged with Chase Manhattan to create an even more colossal institution (now JPMorgan Chase).
By then, this particular branch location at 5th and Union was long closed. Eric has been in the neighborhood long enough to remember when the building was still a bank; his vague recollection is that it closed sometime in the mid- to late-1980s (even before the wave of branch closings that followed the Chemical merger) and stood vacant for a few years before being repurposed as a gym. (That more or less matches the information available on the gym’s website, which references having “loyally served the Park Slope community for over 25 years.”)
South Brooklyn Savings and Loan Association (9th St between 5th and 6th Avenues)
Chartered in 1886, this institution basically tootled along for its first 70 years, paying low interest rates on the modest savings of working-class Brooklynites while making long-term mortgage loans back to them and their neighbors. The striking art deco building at 340 9th street, pictured at left, probably dates from the 1920s (a recent listing for an apartment in the building says it was built in 1921). In 1955, after a couple of mergers with other S&Ls, South Brooklyn changed its name to Equitable. In 1980, as Equitable, it was acquired by the venerable Bowery Savings Bank.
At this point, the story accelerates. One of the oldest banks in the nation (originally chartered in 1834), Bowery became a poster child for the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. If it thought that merging with other S&Ls like Equitable offered a way out of its bind – caught as it was between rising interest rates, a new, deregulated competitive environment, and a low-return portfolio of 30-year mortgages – it thought wrong. By 1982, Bowery was running out of cash. The FDIC brokered a distress sale to a group of investors, and over the next two decades, the bank changed hands several times. As each new owner took their cut, the bank’s operations were sliced and diced. Piecing together the transactions is a little complicated, but from what I can tell, Bowery became the Bowery Division of the Home Savings of America. After selling off its New York operations to Green Point Savings Bank, Home Savings relocated to California, where it busied itself acquiring other distressed S&Ls (with government assistance) and was eventually (1998) merged into Washington Mutual Bank. That name may ring a bell: WaMu’s September 2008 collapse was the largest bank failure in U.S. history.
The piece of South Brooklyn/Equitable/Bowery/Home Savings sold to Green Point didn’t fare much better. During the housing bubble, GreenPoint (it lost its space in 1995) charged high interest rates for no-documentation mortgages (not technically subprime mortgages, but close to them) and, according to New York’s attorney general, engaged in discriminatory lending practices. After its parent company was acquired by Capital One in 2006, GreenPoint was shut down in 2007.***
The art deco South Brooklyn Savings and Loan building on 9th street? I haven’t tracked down its specific history, but I suspect it ceased to be a bank long before the remnants of its successor institutions met their ignominious ends. It’s now a dentist’s office (my daughter’s dentist, in fact).
Fulton Savings Bank (Flatbush at Caton Ave)
The inscription on this building’s cornerstone – barely visible beneath a layer of peeling paint – serves notice that it was chartered in MDCCCLXVII and erected in MCMXXXI. The latter is a bit puzzling (once you’ve translated Roman into English); 1931 doesn’t seem like an auspicious year to have been erecting a grand bank building.****
And perhaps it wasn’t.
Fulton Savings Bank survived the Depression, but the last quarter of the 20th century was rough on it. From the late 1970s on, its history hews to the now-familiar pattern of acquisitions, mergers, name changes and shifts between state and federal charters and various regulatory agencies. As CrossLand Savings, with a portfolio full of bad real estate loans, it was taken over by the FDIC in 1992. A search for a merger partner proved fruitless – no other bank particularly wanted it – and so regulators hatched a controversial plan to sell shares to the public, after first installing new management and infusing $1.2 billion into the floundering institution. By 1995, CrossLand had recovered sufficiently to catch the eye of a suitor, Republic Bank. A few years later, Republic was itself swallowed up by HSBC.
While the branch at Flatbush and Caton endured into the HSBC era, it’s been closed for several years now. When I ran by it a week and a half ago, it was decked out with advertisements for a mattress store’s giant clearance sale. (I kind of suspect the giant clearance sale is an ongoing thing.) Another prominent sign indicates that the building is available for rent.
Hamilton Savings and Loan Association (Court St between Luquer and Nelson)
This one poses a puzzle, in the form of the dates chiseled above its cornice: 1889-1929.
What the hell does that mean? A single year could be when the institution was chartered, or perhaps when the building was constructed. This is more like a lifespan – but who would have known at the start how long the bank’s run would be? And if it failed – or moved elsewhere – who would bother to go back and chisel in the year of its demise? You’d think they’d be too busy packing up files and clearing out the vaults.
According to my go-to sources for this post (Scripophily and usbanklocations.com), the Hamilton Savings and Loan Association was chartered January 1, 1890 (which I would note is pretty close to the 1889 on the building). 1929 is when this particular building went up (in my digging I found an earlier  reference to an address right next door, at 496A Court). So presumably, “1889-1929” pays tribute to Hamilton’s glorious past and encapsulates its hopes for a long and even more glorious future in its brand, spanking new limestone building. The builders had no way to know that “1929” would soon take on ominous connotations.
Hamilton Savings and Loan survived the 1929 crash and the ensuing wave of bank failures, changing from a state to federal charter in 1935. In 1976, with federal assistance, it acquired a failed S&L (Terrace Savings and Loan Association) and was eventually (1998) merged into North Fork Bank – which subsequently acquired (ta da!) GreenPoint Bank. We know what happened with that one. (If you’ve forgotten, scroll back up to the South Brooklyn Savings and Loan Association and refresh your memory.)
Boosted by the gentrification of Carroll Gardens, the building at 498 Court street has fared better than the institution that used to occupy it. Last September, it went on the market as a “possible mansion conversion” for $3.2 million.
The listing is worth quoting at length:
Today, this beautifully preserved building, graced by a stately Limestone faade (sic), bears witness to the rich history of commerce that attracted banks to open branches along this commercial corridor, a phenomenon that is repeating itself in 2014. Available for the first time in half a century, 498 Court is a rare opportunity for a new steward to restore, expand, and transform it into a extraordinary residence. The property, currently configured as mixed-use with two apartments over a commercial space, hosts art exhibitions and community/cultural events in its generously proportioned ground floor. This floor could easily convert to a high-income producing commercial rental, or be incorporated, with the upper two floors, into a grand single-family residence. While there are numerous mixed-use buildings along Brownstone Brooklyn’s business corridors, only a handful of those have the grandeur and formidability of former banks and amongst those even fewer have the exceptional architectural character and proportion of 498 Court Street. The possibilities here are numerous and exciting for the right buyer.
As far as I can tell – and to my surprise, given the insatiable demand for real estate in Carroll Gardens – the building is still available.
South Brooklyn Savings Institution (Court St and Atlantic Ave)
Not to be confused with the South Brooklyn Savings and Loan Association, the South Brooklyn Savings Institution was chartered in 1850; its magnificent building on the corner of Court and Atlantic was completed in 1923.
An article in the Brooklyn Eagle (September 17, 1922) lauds its construction: the limestone exterior (“after the manner of Florentine architecture”) . . . the pink Milford granite base . . . the large, arched windows . . . its overall “sturdy and dignified appearance.” Not to mention rest rooms, a kitchen and a restaurant for employees.
Unusually for a bank, South Brooklyn operated under its original name all the way from 1850 to 1975, when it became Independence State Bank. That appears to have been just a name change; the institution didn’t get into the merger business until the 1990s, when it acquired a handful of other savings banks and S&Ls before being itself acquired by Sovereign Bank (now part of the Spanish Santander Group). Fittingly, a Santander branch occupies a bland (nary a pebble of pink Milford granite) building on the northeast corner of Court and Atlantic, diagonally across the street.
The location remained open into the 21st century, but by 2004 the bank was in discussions with developers about alternative uses for the site. One proposal – to build a mid-rise apartment complex over the historic building – aroused strong opposition in the low-rise community. Converting the building to a Trader Joe’s supermarket, in contrast, was met with cheers, applause and even a parade (because, come on, who doesn’t like shopping at Trader Joe’s?).
And so, in 2008, Trader Joe’s opened its first (and so far only) Brooklyn store inside the old South Brooklyn Savings/Independence Bank building. Much of the interior remains intact. High above the Court street entrance, over the hustle and bustle and long, snaking lines of its new incarnation, two stern female figures in gold leaf still pay tribute to “prudence” and “justice.”
Which are, of course, the first two words to come to mind whenever any reasonable person thinks of the American financial system.
Williamsburgh Savings Bank (Hanson Place)
I’ve saved the granddaddy of them all for last: the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower at 1 Hanson Place – no longer the tallest building in Brooklyn (a distinction it held until 2010), but still the most eye-catching element of the borough’s skyline. The American Institute of Architects has dubbed it “New York’s most exuberant phallic symbol.”
Chartered in 1851 as a “safe and beneficial place of deposit for the savings of Tradesmen, Mechanics, Clerks, Apprentices, Laborers, Miners, Servants and others,” the Williamsburgh Savings Bank (WSB) built its first grand headquarters, appropriately enough, in Wiliamsburg (the neighborhood dropped the terminal “h” when it was incorporated into the city of Brooklyn in 1855; the bank retained it). The domed academic Renaissance building at the intersection of Broadway and Driggs opened in 1875. By the 1920s, WSB was the fourth largest bank in the United States (either those tradesmen, mechanics, clerks et al. were phenomenal savers, or the bank had adjusted its target demographic) and needed more office space.
Casting about for an expansion location, WSB’s executives focused on the area where Atlantic and Flatbush avenues cross one another. It was close to transportation hubs and to Brooklyn’s wealthy brownstone precincts (so much for the “Laborers, Miners and Servants” of its 1850 charter), and was where the borough’s boosters hoped to induce large-scale commercial development. Construction on the tower, designed by the firm of Halsey, McCormack & Helmer, began in 1927 and lasted two years. Its official opening was on April 1, 1929; seven months later, Wall Street crashed.*****
What a tribute to the self-confidence of finance in the pre-Crash ’20s the building is! The facade flaunts the bank’s wealth right down at street level, presenting passersby with fantastically detailed stone carvings rich in zoological symbolism – wise owls, thrifty squirrels, fierce lions – and jaw-dropping beauty. A golden dome (added at management’s insistence, over their architect’s objections) tops a four-faced clock that was for a while the largest in the world. (It still keeps pretty good time.) Inside, cathedral-like arches and columns frame a glittering mosaic of historic “Breukelen” at the center of which, illuminated by a shaft of golden light, is . . . the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower.
No self-doubt there.
In fact, the bank’s ambitious plans for its new building never quite panned out. Commercial development in the area ground to a halt in the Depression; after World War II, the wealthy white residents of nearby neighborhoods – WSB’s sought-after customers – began to abandon their brownstones in droves. Instead of anchoring a new financial center, the tower filled up with dentists’ offices.
WSB was absorbed into HSBC in 1999. In 2004, the tower went on the market and was eventually purchased by a group of investors that included Magic Johnson. Its former offices are now luxury condos. As for the grand lobby – it had a brief, glorious run as the winter home of the Brooklyn Flea market (shopping for vintage dresses, handmade jewelry and artisanal foodstuffs in the old vaults was a serious kick), and is now available as an “events space.” My impression is that the events space isn’t doing so well: every time I run by, it’s closed tight . . . and the entry vestibule could stand a good sweeping.
“But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the farmer sweated for”
– Les Rice (popularized by Pete Seeger)
The lyrics of the old song seem almost quaint today. It’s not that banks are any less powerful (quite the opposite) – it’s that their power is made visible (or not) in different ways. The more global power financial capital amasses, the less it cares about its physical presence in neighborhoods and small towns. This small sampling of Brooklyn banks could be replicated hundreds of times across the five boroughs, and thousands of times nationally.
As local savings banks are replaced by global (or at least regional) commercial banks, most bank branches in Brooklyn look more or less like the one above. Banks are still making architectural statements, of course – but they’re making them with trophy skyscrapers in Manhattan, London, Shanghai, Dubai and other financial capitals. There’s no longer any need to awe and intimidate the good citizens of South Brooklyn (much less farmers in the hinterland) with neoclassical columns and polished marble floors.
We already have a pretty good understanding of their power.
*This account draws from Ronald Lawson and Reuben B. Johnson III, “Tenant Responses to the Urban Housing Crisis, 1970-1984,” in The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1904-1984, accessed via tenant.net.
**A less fanciful institutional history can be found via Scripophily, as well as on the website of the “Chase Alumni Association,” a network of former Chase employees. In researching this post, I found a number of small discrepancies between dates provided by various sources. When in doubt, I’ve used the dates chiseled on bank buildings.
***This history also draws on Scripophily (as do all of the institutional histories in this post). Another source, www.usbanklocations.com, helped me untangle the history of Home Savings of America. Additional information on GreenPoint’s lending practices came from the Center on Public Integrity (which dubbed it #23 of its “subprime 25”).
****A photograph of the original interior in the collection of the Library of Congress doesn’t exactly scream Depression-era austerity.
*****The Architectural League’s “Urban Omnibus” has a detailed history of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, accessible here.