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TO OUR DEPOSITORS PAST AND PRESENT THIS BUILDING IS DEDICATED. BY THEIR INDUSTRY AND THRIFT THEY HAVE BUILT HOMES AND EDUCATED CHILDREN, OPENED THE DOOR OF OPPORTUNITY TO YOUTH AND MADE AGE COMFORTABLE INDEPENDENT AND DIGNIFIED. BY THOSE STURDY VIRTUES THEY HAVE OBTAINED THEIR AMBITIONS, SWEPT ASIDE THE PETTY DISTINCTIONS OF CLASS AND BIRTH AND SO MAINTAINED THE TRUE SPIRIT OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. –Inscription on an exterior wall of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower
For the past 83 years, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower has dominated the skyline of Brooklyn. This September 22nd, the bank’s iconic lobby will be the site of the Architectural League’s Beaux Arts Ball 2012. This annual benefit transforms, with the help of a talented team of young designers, an architecturally significant building into a singular event space for just one, memorable night. Recent Beaux Arts Balls have taken place at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the National Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Old American Can Factory, among many others.
When the tower was completed, in 1929, it was the tallest building in Brooklyn. It held onto this claim until 2010, when the tallest of a recent spate of residential skyscrapers, the Brooklyner, surpassed it. Throughout its history, the building, perched at the intersection of some of Brooklyn’s oldest streets and most storied neighborhoods, has both manifested and borne witness to a range of overlapping urban histories: financial, architectural, and social.
The building’s story reaches back more than half a century before its design and construction. Up until the 1840s, the land it occupies was farmland belonging to the Ryersons, a family that had migrated from the Netherlands in the 1630s and whose holdings extended from Wallabout (the original European settlement in what is now Brooklyn, located near contemporary Vinegar Hill) to the Town of Flatbush, along the spine of what was then called Flatbush Road, which was widened and modernized into a turnpike during this period. By the mid-19th century, the city of Brooklyn, to the west of the Ryersons’ farm, was growing fast, as were the other independent towns of Kings County. The county’s population doubled, to 280,000, between 1850 and 1860, at which point Brooklyn was the third most populous city in the nation, after New York and Philadelphia.
Williamsburgh was one of these rapidly expanding Kings County towns, populated by workers and merchants who serviced the sizable industrial concerns – shipbuilders, sugar refineries, breweries – increasingly locating themselves along the eastern shores of the East River. The charter of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank dates from 1851, the year before the town reincorporated as the City of Williamsburg, at which point it dropped the “h.” The bank, however, maintained its original spelling.
Williamsburg’s independent urban identity was short-lived. In 1854, it was annexed, along with the neighboring Town of Bushwick, into the City of Brooklyn. The following year, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank erected its first purpose-built building. As Brooklyn expanded, so did its institutions, and by 1867, the bank had outgrown its original building.
While the post-Civil War economy was booming, public trust in financial institutions was still recovering from the Panic of 1857 and the instability of new banks during the “Free Banking” or “Wildcat Banking” era from 1816 to 1863, during which banks were chartered under state law, circulated their own notes, and had an average lifespan of only five years. In the context of institutional instability and competition, the leadership of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank saw the value of communicating its ambition to stand the test of time through architecture. George B. Post, a prominent architect in the Beaux Arts tradition who would go on to design the New York Stock Exchange and many other notable buildings (and who served as President of the Architectural League from 1893 to 1897), was hired to design this new headquarters at the corner of Broadway and Driggs Avenue. The final cost of construction was an exorbitant $540,000. The design was in keeping with the tradition of “cathedrals of finance,” complete with a Classical Revival dome that was visible from Manhattan.
The bank continued to prosper throughout the Gilded Age and through the First World War, announcing total assets of over 100 million dollars less than a year after the signing of the Armistice. This community savings bank was now accepting deposits from around the world, and by the 1920s it was the fourth largest bank in the United States. The time had come for a new architectural statement. Planning for a branch bank began in 1923, and in April of 1929, just six months before the stock market crash, the iconic tower at 1 Hanson Place opened to the public.
While the bank’s leaders were deciding where to locate the branch bank, Brooklyn’s boosters were predicting large-scale commercial development would soon spread eastward from downtown, towards the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. The daily patterns of individual depositors from the desirable brownstone neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Park Slope also figured in the site selection. A similar rationale had led the Brooklyn Academy of Music to relocate to this same crossroads in 1908. As both the BMT and the IRT had stations nearby (today served by the N/R and 4/5 trains, respectively), and the Long Island Railroad connected the area to places even further afield, the notion that this area would soon be a bustling hub of office buildings seemed guaranteed. The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower was not expected to be an isolated peak in the skyline.
The surrounding area never developed in the manner anticipated — held off, in large part, by the Great Depression — but the tower was nonetheless part of a citywide boom in skyscraper construction. The Chrysler Building was completed in 1930, the Empire State Building in 1931. In Brooklyn, other tall buildings included Court Chambers (415 feet), 16 Court Street (390 feet), and the headquarters of the New York Telephone Company (348 feet). The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower rose to 512 feet, towering above its neighborhood and its borough.
Skyscrapers had been transforming New York City’s skyline since the 1870s, when elevators first came into use, and their appearance was greeted immediately with concerns about the loss of light and air. The debate reached a tipping point in 1915, when the Equitable Building, at 38 stories and 538 feet high, “cast a seven-acre shadow over neighboring buildings, affecting their value and setting the stage for the nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution.” Among many other far-reaching regulations about land use, height, and bulk, the zoning resolution of 1916 required setbacks on tall buildings, mandating the upper floors of a tall building have a smaller floorplate than that of its base.
Architectural experimentation in response to these forced design guidelines gave rise to a style. Eliel Saarinen based his entry to the Chicago Tribune Tower Competition on explorations of the forms necessary to comply with the New York zoning resolution, even though no such resolution existed in Chicago. Saarinen’s design didn’t win the competition but was widely published, influencing such buildings as Arthur Loomis Harmon’s widely praised design for the Shelton Hotel, completed in 1922 (now the Marriott East Side). Also in 1922, Hugh Ferriss, a master delineator and architectural renderer (and League board president from 1943 to 1945) published a series of drawings, originally commissioned by architect Harvey Wiley Corbett, that illustrated the building envelopes possible with the new code. These drawings inspired a generation of architects to view the 1916 resolution as a form-giving principle for the new, modern skyscraper.
The design of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, by the firm of Halsey, McCormack & Helmer, emerged from within this milieu, drawing from the post-1916 architectural embrace of setbacks to accentuate the building’s skyward ascent. The Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building a landmark in 1977; the citation credits the zoning resolution for the tower’s distinctive silhouette. It also mentions the four-faced clock at the top of the building, which remains one of the world’s largest (and has amused generations of Brooklynites with its not entirely synchronous timekeeping), and the gilded copper dome. The dome, however, was added against the architects’ wishes at the insistence of bank officials, who wanted a reference to the dome of the George Post-designed-building in Williamsburg.
But some of the building’s most iconic features are found in its magnificent lobby, with its mix of Art Deco and Neo-Romanesque details designed to convey confidence and stability. The architectural interpretation of the “cathedral of finance” metaphor gave rise to mosaic mural arches, stained glass, marble rails, its 63-foot high vaulted ceiling, 22 kinds of marble, and architecture parlante iconography. In order to emphasize the bank’s values of thrift and integrity, symbolic imagery depicted scenes of beehives, squirrels, owls, and lions as well as Classical anthropomorphic representations of Commerce and Industry. If these visual allegories were meant to communicate to depositors that the bank shared their virtues of hard work and fair play, then the large mosaic map of Breukelen on the lobby’s far wall, one of the building’s most striking decorative elements, asserts the bank’s claim to historic continuity with a Dutch colonial past that predated the institution and, presumably, an institutional longevity it would project long into the future.
The decades following World War II saw the fortunes of the adjacent areas diminish. Not only did the immediate surroundings fail to attract significant commercial development during the Great Depression, corporate demand for the tower’s thirty floors of office space was low. The tenants who took advantage of this unique address serviced the needs of neighborhood residents. By the 1960s, almost every floor not dedicated to banking was occupied by offices of more than 100 dental practitioners, leading to the building’s moniker of “The Mecca of dentistry” and claims that it was the world’s largest dental center. This agglomeration had benefits beyond the amazing views enjoyed by patients having their teeth cleaned. One longtime tenant remarked to The Brooklyn Paper in 2006 that “Most of all, the building was a symbol of quality and professionalism. You can’t buy that. If you needed a consult on an X-ray, you could get a second, third and fourth opinion in an instant… It was a university environment.”
The dentists remained throughout the years of disinvestment and crime in nearby Fort Greene, the extent of which was made apparent to a broader public when a famous longtime resident, the poet Marianne Moore, moved out of the neighborhood in 1966. As the middle class fled, they took their savings accounts with them, and the bank struggled.
In the wake of the neighborhood’s decline, a community of primarily African-American artists and musicians entrenched itself in Fort Greene’s beautiful brownstones, setting the stage for the gentrification that the historian Suleiman Osman argues, in his book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, was already incubating in the ’60s and ’70s, when the area was widely considered, in the parlance of the time, a slum. Thanks in part to new residents, the Fort Greene Historic District and Brooklyn Academy of Music History District were established as early as 1978. Just as Marianne Moore’s public exit signaled the neighborhood’s nadir, the arrival of Spike Lee in the mid-1980s announced its renaissance.
Meanwhile, properties directly to the east of the tower – long occupied by meatpacking businesses and slaughterhouses – were the subject of a series of ambitious plans that never came to fruition. In the 1950s, the site was floated as a location for a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball stadium (a proposal that Robert Moses opposed, ostensibly because of the traffic a stadium would produce!). In the ‘60s, it fell under an Urban Renewal plan that, according to a 1968 article in The New York Times, called for “2,400 new low- and middle-income housing units to replace 800 dilapidated units, removal of the blighting Fort Greene Meat Market, a 14-acre… site for the City University’s new Baruch College, two new parks and community facilities such as day-care centers.” Community opposition and the economic downturn that preceded the city’s 1970s fiscal crisis thwarted the project. The meat market was razed in 1976, and the demolition of Flatbush Terminal in 1988 cleared the way for the retail developments and the new subway and LIRR station that currently flank the tower.
In 1990, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank merged with the Manhattan Savings Bank. A series of mergers and takeovers followed, leading to its eventual acquisition by HSBC USA, which maintained the lobby as an active bank branch until it put the building up for sale in 2004. In 2005, it sold to a partnership between the Dermot Company and Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds (Johnson as in Magic Johnson). The architecture firm of H. Thomas O’Hara oversaw the conversion of the office floors into high-end condominiums and the rebranding of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower as One Hanson.
The condos went on the market during the height of the last real estate boom, when it seemed that the demand for luxury living in this part of Brooklyn would only increase. After some post-crash price cuts, most of the 190 units sold by 2009, when the remaining 19 went rental. The asking price for the five floor-through, clocktower penthouses, however, proved too high at 3.7 million (and one duplex, four-bedroom penthouse at 5.8 million), and these units were eventually sold at auction in 2011.
Finding a suitable tenant for the magnificent (and landmarked) lobby also proved challenging, and a diverse range of retailers were courted, including Borders, Microsoft, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Throughout, the meticulously restored space has been managed as an event venue, Skylight One Hanson, which has seen its share of weddings, wine and craft beer festivals, travel expos, and the Brooklyn Flea. As such, Skylight One Hanson is part of a pattern: the craftsmanship and grandeur of late-19th and early-20th century banking halls recommend a particular kind of repurposing. The Bowery Savings Bank (the design of which greatly influenced Halsey, McCormack & Helmer) is now Capitale restaurant and event space. The Union Square Savings Bank is now the Daryl Roth Theatre. The Greenwich Savings Bank is now Gotham Hall. And the conversion of George Post’s original Williamsburgh Savings Bank, also historically designated, into yet another event venue is currently underway.
On September 22nd, this one of a kind interior will be transformed, for one night only, by emerging architects SOFTlab, in collaboration with Natasha Jen of Pentagram. The theme informing their design, “Tender,” draws its inspiration from the building’s history and plays with the word’s changing meanings when used as different parts of speech: as noun (forms of currency, legal tender), as verb (to offer or propose), and as adjective (soft or delicate in quality). Tickets are still on sale. Click here to purchase.
Timeline slideshow graphics by Daniel Rojo.
The second headquarters of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, designed by George Post, on Broadway at Driggs Avenue. From The First Hundred Years: The Williamsburgh Savings Bank, by Edgerton G. North. Self-published corporate history, 1951.
The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower from the air, mid-century. Photo source unknown. From Images of America: Fort Greene by Howard Pitsch. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
Drawings by Hugh Ferriss illustrating the impact of the 1916 New York City Zoning Code. Exhibited at the 37th Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York, 1922.
Skylight One Hanson, formerly the main banking hall of the Central Branch of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, 2012. Courtesy of Skylight One Hanson.
The tower and the elevated, circa 1930. From When Brooklyn Was the World: 1920-1957 by Elliot Willensky. Harmony Books, 1986.
Looking north along Flatbush, with the base of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower visible in the background, 1962 and Looking northeast along 4th Avenue, 1962. Both from the collection of the New York Transit Museum, via Images of America: Fort Greene by Howard Pitsch. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
The new Barclays Center Arena is the latest addition to the built environment surrounding the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, 2012. Photo by Daniel Rojo.
Shaffer, Daniel S. Profiting in Economic Storms. 2005: Wiley & Sons, New Jersey. 102.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.