Grand bank buildings are signs of a time that’s passed, but they’re finding new life in Montclair
By DARREN TOBIA
For Montclair Local
Bank buildings from a century ago showcased some of the finest neoclassical architecture. But financial institutions are giving up on these extravagant structures.
“Nobody goes into branches anymore — we Venmo, we Zelle,” Bob Silver, CEO of the Bravitas Group, said. “It’s left behind these grand, old buildings with soaring ceilings that are just wasted space.”
But some Montclair-based developers, including Silver, are working to salvage these discarded temples of commerce, converting them into mixed-use commercial spaces. His company converted Vault 491 on Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair — first built in 1923 and the home to several banks over the years — into office and retail space that’s currently home to Hair491 and East Side Mags. It renovated 505 Bloomfield Ave., built in 1921, for use as Montclair Film’s home after the building was gifted to the nonprofit by Investor’s Bank. Bravitas renovated the Wilson and the Grover House in Caldwell as well.
And then there’s Silver’s latest such project: The former Montclair National Bank, at 17 Watchung Plaza, slated for a conversion that should be complete in the first quarter of next year. It’ll become home to Montclair Speech Therapy, owned by Montclair residents Lori Caplan-Colon and Ben Colon, Silver said. The business will offer occupational and behavioral therapy to clients of all ages, and have a retail component, offering speech therapy tools and aids for purchase.
According to a report prepared for the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission in 2012, the building was completed in 1925, a Colonial revival design by architect John J. Jackson, with original doors made of bronze. It most recently functioned as a Chase Bank.
In December, the Montclair Zoning Board approved variances for Silver’s plan, allowing a first-floor office use in the township’s Neighborhood Commercial Zone, and 10 parking spaces where 35 would normally be required (the board said in its approval that the applicant had obtained 10 parking permits in the Watchung transit lot, which combined with public parking would serve the needs of the building).
“One of the things about the old bank buildings is that they had only one tenant. The way people entered, congregated, even the code requirements, were all based around having a single tenant,” David Genova, founder of Greenwood Development, said.
Genova’s firm partnered with Saxum Real Estate, which owns 475 Bloomfield Ave., to renovate the 1924 building that originally served as home to Montclair Trust Company. The building had been home to several banks over the decades, most recently a Chase, Montclair historian Mike Farrelly said. It’s been empty for the last few years.
“The future is in modifying them into multi-tenant structures,” Genova said.
One of the greatest drivers of this trend is the market for commercial office space, which has become less centralized in Manhattan since the pandemic, Genova said.
“Some people’s loss has been other people’s gain,” he said. “There has been an influx of people who want to make Montclair their corporate home.”
The conversions, however, can be difficult. The layouts — often with dramatic three-story skylights and mezzanines overlooking the lobby — are not always optimized to turn a profit and many of the rooms are encased in limestone or reinforced steel.
In the case of 475 Bloomfield Ave, the space was best served by not altering it much, Genova said.
“In the end, we felt that that didn’t do service to the beauty of the entryway,” Genova said in January to the Zoning Board, which approved side and rear setback variances, to allow external stairs to be added to the building.
He told Montclair Local there are a number of potential tenants interested in the building at 475 Bloomfield Ave., “but none we’re ready to announce yet.” But in the Zoning Board hearing, he told members: “We decided to focus on a retailer who would take that space in its glory.”
The reason these spaces are so glorious is because at the turn of the last century, banks needed to legitimize themselves to investors, Anthony Rubano, deputy state historic preservation officer of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said. Rubano is co-author of the Historic Preservation Education Foundation presentation “Banking on the Future: Modernism and the Local Bank.”
Without a central bank throughout most of the 19th century, the economy was volatile, Richard Sylla, board chairman at the Museum of American Finance, recounted in an essay on the origins of the U.S. banking system published by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Charters for federally authorized national banks had been allowed to expire long before the 1913 establishment of the Federal Reserve Act. State bank notes and national bank notes coexisted for years — so there was no single standard for currency — and banks were vulnerable to robbery.
Neoclassicism was an effective love language to woo customers into believing their life savings would be safe in their establishment, Rubano said.
The buildings were designed to resemble Renaissance palazzos or ancient temples from Greece or Rome to give the impression of tradition and stability, he said. The materials used to construct these buildings, such as brick, marble and limestone, made them appear unassailable. The York & Sawyer-designed building at 475 Bloomfield Ave. is a particularly severe example — the structure essentially resembles a strongbox.
The establishment in 1914 of the Federal Reserve Banks — whose building in Manhattan was designed by the same architect, York & Sawyer — brought some measure of stability to the industry, Rubano said. However, the stock market crash in 1929 shattered both the faith customers had in banks, as well as the faith that architects had in neoclassicism, he said.
“There was a great debate within the banking industry about what architecture should be now used, because they couldn’t return to the neoclassicism, which had failed them,” Rubano said.
With gradual advancements in technology, better security and legislation that changed how banks could operate, bank architecture no longer had to function as a giant strongbox, Sylla said. Perhaps the most important historical event to influence bank architecture was the so-called Glass-Steagall Act, in 1933, he said.
“After deposits were — mostly, for most of us — insured by the federal government, the bank building didn't matter so much in terms of attracting and retaining customers,” Sylla, also a professor emeritus at New York University, said.
The consolidation of bank operations over the years was hastened by technology and bank mergers. Administrative staff, which used to occupy the upper floors of the building, thinned out, Rubano said.
Banks also responded to a shift in American culture that was now based on spending and consumption, rather than by saving and investment,” James Livingston, history professor at Rutgers University, said. Bankers no longer saw themselves as “rightful heirs to the high tradition of western civilization,” he said. Today’s bank architecture reflects that — seeming to resemble fast-food restaurants with drive-through windows.
“The recent devolution of bank architecture, if it can be dignified by that word, is a function of banking's transformation from commercial to retail,” Livingston said. “Next thing you know, banking will be conducted from pop-up food trucks converted to the purpose of issuing credit to homeless people.”