Security. Strength. Service. My thoughts exactly as I stood on the sidewalk opposite the old bank building. Cars and delivery trucks whizzed past as I studied the distant architect’s notion of banking and bank design. These words, carved under the main portico of the National Savings Bank in downtown Binghamton, New York, seem to shout this message without the need of the written words themselves. Strength? In spades. Just look at this granite pile with classical columns looming in front of me. Going up against this fortress would be the equivalent of hurling a spitball at the Great Wall of China. Security? On the roof line massive eagles with spreading wings guard the union shield, in turn protected by the ancient roman fasces – bundles of sticks bound together with an axe. Security and strength through unity. Nothing’s leaving that bank, not even light. Almost nothing that is. I stand corrected: Soul. The original soul left the building. Long ago.
Neoclassical City National Savings Bank, Binghamton , New York, now occupied by a furniture store. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015
I snapped some pictures. A pedestrian stopped and looked at me, then the bank, then back at me.
“What are you looking at?”
“What’s so special about it?”
“That a bank would give up a building like this.”
“They’re in it for the money, pal. It takes a lot to heat that joint.”
That did make me laugh. I snapped another picture, this time of the coin motifs close to those three descriptive “s” words of great impact. All this had to be at least 20 feet off the ground level. To the left of “security” an American Indian, as the obverse of a buffalo nickel (there is much dispute as to who the model was), solemnly gazed across the face of the building at Mercury, the obverse of a wreathed dime. Both were exact imitations of the real thing, right down to the word “liberty” and the year – 1923. It seemed the idea of a “five and dime” store wasn’t necessarily restricted to chains selling household goods. 1923, however, was a very good year to build a bank, unlike the flat iron designed First National Bank up the street. Now completely empty, the First National was built in the fateful year 1929 and I wondered how long its vaults stayed open as the financial system unwound like a broken clock in the early 1930s.
1923 Mercury Dime image on the corner of the City National Savings Bank.
Copyright James V. Michalec 2015
Today I had ventured downtown to seek out these monied dreams of the past because of an inspiration recently realized in Brooklyn. Down there, where buildings of immensely disparate design and function jostle their shoulders with one another street by street and block by block, I came across a bank of the same design as the old Binghamton rocks I now studied; a bank anchoring an intersection, just as these did, yet running as if time stood still. And it was the impression of time itself as seen by the industrialists and workers of the past that held my imagination. In all their getting, in all their dealing, in all their calculations involving the sweat of the brow, time remained the constant enemy never to be overcome, only reckoned with.
Dime Savings Bank, Brooklyn, New York. The gears of progress battle time, but cannot stop it. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015
Above the Dime Savings Bank, man glances at his future through the machinery of the modern age. The clock within the large gear underscores the relentless demand of productivity, productivity associated with wealth and savings. Old age and all it requires – financially – arrives sooner than one thinks. This idealized concept of modernity was replicated in private bank designs throughout the United States. Here in Binghamton, the use of sculpted time appears in each of these constructs. Great clocks, framed by classical figures and supported by the imagery of strength in underlying classical columns bring forth not just strength and security, but the need to save money while the sun shines.
An hour glass and two eagles support time while classical female figures representing the elements of progress guard its flanks. First National Bank, Binghamton, New York. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015
It is a subtle, yet interesting distinction between these three bank sculptures that one depicts the sanctity of the union while the other two protect the passage of time. Seen as powerful symbols of the American industrial age, the desire to utilize time efficiently through production – that is, to produce more of what is deemed important – and the need to associate it with the political idea of the United States, these banks stand testimony to something even more powerful that demands respect: Change.
Warm in my Woolx on a windy, blustery Upstate day, I wander between these two bank buildings situated in a city that has seen relentless change. Security. Strength. Service. No symbol built into these edifices could protect these banks in the end.