The New Republic

The grandest buildings in America were built to gratify bankers' egos. In Dallas these proud monuments have sat as cavernous relics. Until now.

D Magazine , December 2001

My bank recently remodeled and expanded. It went from one desk and a storage closet to a counter with three tellers. The employees' view stayed the same: the checkout lines at Albertson's. My bank, like many these days, is inside a grocery store.

In today's banking, convenience is all. Automatic teller machines are ubiquitous, offering services once available only from human tellers during abbreviated "banker's hours." Round-the-clock Internet sites mean you don't even have to leave your home for many services. Customers expect easy access to their money, the best possible interest rates, and prompt answers to their questions. The last thing they think about is atmosphere.

It wasn't always this way. In the 1950s and '60s, when many other service businesses were pioneering convenience and minimum guaranteed standards--think fast food and chain hotels--banks were out of sync. Depression-era regulations limited many forms of competition, including who could get into the business, where they could operate, and what interest rates they could offer on deposits. Banks were local fiefdoms. This sheltered environment produced no McDonald's and Holiday Inns, no bold innovators to develop mass-market, bang-for-your-buck convenience. Although banks did build drive-up suburban branches, serious convenience (and national competition) didn't arrive until the 1980s.

What old-style banks did have was atmosphere. The buildings were temples of commerce, designed to inspire confidence and awe. Many were architectural landmarks. The first modernist skyscraper in the United States housed its oldest bank, the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society. Banks' high-rise towers, marble and wood, high ceilings and gold leaf, murals and friezes all sent the same message: "We're rich. We're solid. Your money is safe with us. And, by the way, we bankers are Very Important People."

Now these bank buildings are as obsolete as the abandoned open-hearth steel mills of Ohio and Pennsylvania--and almost as challenging to recycle. Philadelphia's PSFS tower is now a hotel, as is a nearby 1908 bank building modeled on the Parthenon.

Never a smokestack city, Dallas hasn't had many old factories to worry about. But Dallas was a financial center, and its downtown is unmatched for abandoned banks. For more than a decade, these once-proud landmarks have been empty shells. Only now are downtown's historic bank towers beginning to reopen. Downtown's showcase bank buildings did more than reassure customers. They expressed enormous egos. The first bank tower to go up was the Mercantile Bank Building, which was just beginning construction when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The company had to get special dispensation to keep its steel girders rather than have them taken away for battleships and tanks. Rising 30 stories, the Merc was the only U.S. skyscraper completed during World War II and, at the time, was the tallest building west of the Mississippi. With modern lines but a brick-clad face, the tower blended progress and tradition.

The Merc's most distinctive feature came later, the result of a bankers' ego war. In the early 1950s, neighboring Republic Bank set out to build a tower that would beat the competition in both height and spectacle. The hot architect hired for the project, Wallace K. Harrison, covered the facade with aluminum plates, each stamped with the bank's star logo. Opened in 1954, the Republic building rose 36 stories, surpassing the Merc.

Not to be outdone, R.L. Thornton, the legendary founder of Mercantile Bank, set a distinctive clock tower atop his building, making it taller than Republic's. Plotting their response, his rivals down the street first planned to crown their building with a scaled-down Statue of Liberty. Warned that his work was about to be defiled by kitsch, architect Harrison flew down from New York and offered an alternative guaranteed to appeal to Republic egos: a bent version of the company's star that would top the building like a church steeple. Called the "rocket ship" by most Dallasites, the bent star reached higher than the Merc's clock tower.

A decade later, to surpass the new First National Bank building, Republic built a second tower 50 stories high. With smaller floors than anyone would build for practical reasons, that tall, skinny tower, "was purely for ego," says Lance Josal, managing director of RTKL, an international architecture firm whose Dallas office recently moved into the ground floor of the newly reopened building.

The symbolic boasting didn't stop at with the towers' heights. "The egos that drove these buildings to be built originally--to claw for the sky and see who could get up higher--did not diminish once you got inside the building," says Josal.

The RTKL space preserves many of the signs. The window sills are lined with marble more than three inches thick, and the terrazzo floors are inlaid with Republic stars. Around the mezzanine winds a gold-covered bulkhead, a bit of luxury designed to beat the Merc lobby's wood paneling. "What is better than wood paneling?" asks Josal. "Gold. You gotta have gold. So their big coup de grace was this [bulkhead]. The banking lobby in this building stops just short of looking like a Las Vegas casino."

In its current form, as RTKL's office suite, the lobby is more high-tech contemporary than casino kitsch. Taking advantage of the vistas created by the spacious ground floor and mezzanine, RTKL designers created an open, flexible workspace. Metal, plastic, and exposed beams and ductwork blend harmoniously with the building's old marble, wood, and gilt finishes. Translucent first-floor partitions, which screen the reception area from architects' workspaces, echo the gold bulkhead's curves.

The front marble staircase still bends upward to the mezzanine. But across from the stairs, where escalators once took customers up to the tellers and loan officers, RTKL has installed an elevator to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A metal mesh cylinder--Josal calls it a "cheese grater"--marks off the space around the elevator, creating a small, open room on each floor: a marketing display of the firm's projects on the ground floor, a library at the mezzanine, a rec room on the second floor. A piece of the bulkhead, which was removed to create a bridge from one side of the mezzanine to the other, has become the receptionist's desk. The former revolving doors are now street-level show windows for models of RTKL projects.

Getting the bank lobby in shape wasn't easy. The ductwork and wiring had been gutted, possibly in the process of removing asbestos. Outfitting the "above the ceiling" infrastructure cost more than twice as much as in most office buildings.

Josal believes the expense was worth it to get this unique office, which is not only luxurious, but also functional. "There are very few spaces in most mature cities where you can have a business of 175 to 300 people who actually see and make connections with others walking all through the space," he notes. With their big, open spaces, including sightlines from mezzanine to first floor, recycled bank lobbies allow that sort of easy interaction. And while today's banks are still working on convenience, much of the rest of the economy has long since mastered that discipline and now puts a premium on aesthetics. Recycling the opulence of old banks, which was paid for long ago, is an affordable way to buy an interesting-looking environment.

Republic's original rocket-ship tower is still mothballed while owner Transwestern concentrates on leasing the taller tower and an eight-story addition that connects the two high-rises. Once the currently available space reaches 50 percent to 60 percent occupancy, the company will decide whether to invest in bringing the original 30-story tower on the market, most likely as a residential building. The rocket-ship building's windows open, making it suitable for apartments.

About 25 percent of the currently available space has been taken, says leasing agent Sheryl Pickens. Aside from RTKL, tenants include an "eclectic group" of firms, including lawyers and accountants, records and document service firms, and several other design-oriented businesses. Restaurants and a sports bar are moving into the ground-floor retail spaces, a feature most newer high-rises lack.

"It's a castle," says Pickens of Republic Center. "You could not rebuild this building today." The stamped plates of the facade alone would be impossibly expensive.

Built without regard to fiscal prudence, these old bank buildings do recall palaces. They make great tourist attractions, but you wouldn't want to be the serfs--or the stockholders, borrowers, and depositors--who paid for them.

Looking at the Republic Center's magnificent aluminum facade, I couldn't help recalling the equally stunning giant malachite urns, columns, and mantelpieces of the czars' palace in St. Petersburg. Against such excesses, bought with other people's money, revolution seems inevitable. Fortunately for the bankers, it was a capitalist one, unpleasant but peaceful.

The palaces remain. When the Republic and Mercantile disappeared a decade ago, they left 2.8 million square feet of unoccupied space downtown.

RTKL is now working with owners Spire Realty Group to turn the Mercantile Bank complex into high-rise apartments, with retail at the base. The project will preserve the two oldest Merc buildings, including the clock tower, and raze two less historic structures to make room for parking and a big-box store. Downtown boosters have high hopes that the project will restore retail vitality to an area that, despite the dogged presence of Neiman Marcus, has more vagrants than shoppers. In keeping with downtown tradition, this project, too, relies on other people's money--a subsidy of $21.7 million from the city.

The handout points to the biggest problem facing old bank buildings: not their structures, but their location. Despite the wails of the nation's downtown newspapers, suburban living continues to win the hearts, minds, and money of most people who have a choice.

In-town locations can appeal to people without kids who like the convenience of walking to shops and restaurants and are willing to put up with crowding in exchange for stimulation. But the canyons of downtown Dallas are less convenient and less interesting than the typical suburb. On a Saturday afternoon, your best restaurant choice is Quizno's, and the only shop open, aside from the nearly deserted Neiman Marcus, is a liquor store. After office hours, the central city offers more creepiness than charm. Multiuse projects like the Republic Center and a revamped Merc complex may improve the retail situation. But a more fundamental issue remains.

People who love dense urban living do not flock to skyscraper-lined canyons. The lively, walking neighborhoods of New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles are all relatively low-rise. Human-scale townhouses and walk-ups, not deluxe apartments in the sky, characterize most beloved city streets. High-rises appeal mainly to security-conscious older residents, who spend little time on the sidewalks. Successful neighborhoods that do feature high-rises, like Chicago's Magnificent Mile (or, for that matter, Turtle Creek), usually have wide boulevards that provide sunlight and space. Downtown Dallas has narrow streets.

Ego-boosting skyscrapers, no matter how architecturally striking or beautifully appointed, are hard to sell as homes. Uptown, not downtown, is what the inner-city future looks like.

View photos of the banks here.