Remember Me as I Was
(Completed May 6, 2008.)
The City of Gastonia is planning to demolish several buildings Downtown for a proposed hotel and convention center aimed at revitalizing the area. There has been healthy debate over the haste in which demolition was being pursued, and, as a result, the project is advancing without first clearing a site.
Most of the debate over demolition has been focused on the three storefronts on West Main Avenue. (These can be viewed as they appeared in happier days in several places on this website.) Almost nothing, however, has been said about the huge monolithic structure that occupies the northwest corner of Franklin Boulevard and Marietta Street and was most recently the First Union National Bank (now Wachovia) Gastonia main office. Like a frail, wheelchair-bound resident of a nursing home or an empty, forlorn Victorian house awaiting the inevitable bulldozer, that building was once young, vibrant, and full of life. Before it is gone and our hope for Downtown's future is pinned on yet another vacant lot, it might be interesting to take one final look...and remember.
In the summer of 1887, Laban L. Jenkins, just out of college, and his brother-in-law, John H. Craig, organized the Craig and Jenkins Banking Company. This was the first bank in Gastonia, and its first "vault" was a money waist belt.
As the city grew, so did its banking needs. On June 8, 1890, the First National Bank was organized out of the Craig and Jenkins Company with an authorized capital of $50,000. The original officers were J.H.Craig, president; G.W. Ragan, vice president; L.L. Jenkins, cashier; J.D. Moore, teller; and Miss Carrie Boyce, bookkeeper. Through the years, a list of the officers of the First National Bank would read like a who's who of the city's prominent citizens and leading businessmen and industrialists.(1)
On Monday, March 13, 1916, ground was broken on the north side of the 100th block of West Main Avenue for the construction of a seven-story headquarters for First National Bank. The beautiful and imposing structure, built of the finest materials then available, was occupied July 28, 1917 . It remained the home of First National Bank and its successor until 1956 and remains to this day one of Gastonia's most recognizable landmarks.(2)
The stock market crash of 1929 and the difficult economic times that followed in the early 1930's ushered in the Great Depression and forced many banks, including FNB, to close. In 1933 it went into liquidation.
The NATIONAL BANK OF COMMERCE was chartered October 22, 1934 and assumed 70% of the deposit liability of the First National Bank of Gastonia. It operated out of the seven-story building originally built by its predecessor. This new bank that had its roots in the old successfully weathered the remaining years of the Depression and provided financial leadership during World War II. In the late 1940's, an annex was constructed on the west side of the building to house the bookkeeping and loan departments.(3) (This is the structure that will be removed as part of the forthcoming renovation of the First National Bank / Lawyers' Building.)
In 1955, the National Bank of Commerce sold its Main Avenue headquarters to a local businessman and automobile dealer, G.G. Walker, and announced plans to construct a modern, up-to-date building on the northwest corner of Franklin Avenue and Marietta Street. The annex was sold to John K. Voehringer of Greensboro, who also owned the adjacent commercial buildings all the way to South Street. This property had originally been the town square, and then later it became the site of an imposing Post Office building.
The site of the future bank building was occupied by the former home of Elizabeth Caldwell Wilson, the widow of Joseph Harvey Wilson. Franklin Avenue had originally been lined by the palatial homes of prominent leaders of the city, and the site had been a prime residential location for the Wilson home when it was built shortly before World War I.(4) The house stood across the street from the manse of First Presbyterian Church facing Marietta Street. As with the other homes along Franklin, time had not been kind to it. Until 1949, it had served as the headquarters for the Eagles Club, a fraternal order, and after 1950, it had been cut up into apartments.(5)
On October 29, 1956, the Gastonia Gazette announced the official opening of the building. A photograph on the front page featured Mayor Leon Schneider cutting the ribbon to begin a new era of banking in the city. Beside him stood the president of the National Bank of Commerce, J.G. Reading, and crowded around inside the entrance were bank officers and special guests.
A festive series of events accompanied the opening of the building. An official dedication was held on Sunday, November 4 at 3:00PM; on Monday, November 5, stockholders of the bank toured the building at 6:00PM and were treated to dinner at the Masonic Temple at 7:00; on Tuesday, regional bankers were given a tour at 4:30 and a buffet dinner at the Masonic Lodge at 6:30. On Wednesday and Thursday, November 7 and 8, the general public was invited to tours of the building from 5-10PM and to register for a chance to win $2,500 in cash prizes. Miss North Carolina appeared Wednesday night, and on Thursday evening, guests were treated to the music of the Dean Hudson Dance Band with vocals provided by nationally-known big-band leader, Vaughn Monroe. They performed on a stage that had been constructed in the parking lot of the bank.
On November 5, 1956, the Gazette was almost completely dedicated to the opening of the new bank building, which was announced to be one of the most modern in the nation. That day the paper was filled with congratulatory messages from Gastonia businesses and organizations. No detail of the marvelous new structure was omitted from attention.(6)
The architect of the new bank building was H. Lloyd Hill of Atlanta, who specialized in bank designs.(7) Ronald Greene, a Gastonia architect, was his associate on the job. Construction was by Ernest R. Morgan, a noted Gastonia contractor.
The cavernous banking floor on the second level could be reached by one of three ways: stairs with sleek aluminum handrails; a gleaming elevator manufactured by the Otis Company; or, most popular, an escalator or "rolling staircase," the first in the city, also by Otis. Every feature was designed for convenience, comfort, and efficient banking operation.
The National Bank of Commerce offered drive-in as well as walk-in banking with three drive-in windows, located under the building on the first level. Access to the bank was through sets of double glass doors located on Franklin Avenue, Marietta Street, and from the parking lot on the partially open first level. Inside, the building consisted of two floors, a mezzanine, and space for the future addition of another floor.
The exterior of the building featured clean, unadorned lines that reflected the most up-to-date design of the time in which it was constructed. The front (south), west, and north sides were faced with Mingle Buff brick. On the front elevation, the bricks were arranged to give the building the appearance of having louvers. On the side and back, they were laid in a running or common bond. On the east side, Indiana limestone formed a solid wall from the second floor to the top of the building. The entrance was accented with Ruby Red Granux, a stone based, man-made decorative structural material. A large limestone band ran continuously around the building upon which the three brick walls were constructed. The structure was designed to withstand an atomic blast.
"National Bank of Commerce" was spelled out in large lighted block letters on the upper left corner of the east limestone facade and on the same relative corner of the brick front facing Franklin Avenue. The letters were designed to be seen from one-half mile away.
Features of the building also included:
- Vault equipment by the Diebold Company;
- Space for 3,000 safe deposit boxes;
- Time Payment Department (consumer loans) on the first floor with four teller windows;
- Soft music piped throughout the building by the Seeburg Music System;
- A three-foot-square dumbwaiter that ran all three floors to carry work and supplies (also by Otis);
- A five-foot clock on the west wall, set by remote control;
- Telephones in decorator colors (the first in Gastonia);
- A 40 ton air conditioning system with five separate cooling zones (ten tons of sheet metal ductwork);
- Nine water fountains with water cooled by a central refrigeration system;
- An emergency power plant;
- Custom carpet on the lobby floor woven in the Greek Key pattern;
- Eleven teller windows on the main banking floor to ensure prompt service;
- Plaster walls lining the cavernous enclosure that made up the main banking floor were painted beige. Those on the east and west were overhung with large cherry wood panels that extended fron the ceiling to nine feet above the floor. The north and south walls were decorated with four large sculpted plaques designed and created for the building by Charlotte sculptor B.L. Kesselik. These featured representations of a machine shop, a textile plant, a school or church, a family, an industrial water tank, a farmer, machine shop equipment, and children.
Thus the new headquarters of the National Bank of Commerce began its life and took its place as a landmark and a cornerstone of the built environment of the city of Gastonia.(8-11)
Mr. J.G. Reading, the president of the bank stated, "We believe we have ample facilities for many years to come. We think it is truly an addition to the City of Growing Beauty."
A tribute to the new bank building offered by the Akers Motor Lines of Gastonia proclaimed, "The formal opening of this ultra-modern banking house represents a proud day in the annals of Gastonia's business advancement. The new building is not only beautiful to see, but has every conceivable facility for rendering the highest type of banking service with promptness and efficiency."
On October 18, 1960, a mere four years after the new building's completion, the National Bank of Commerce was merged into the rapidly-expanding First Union National Bank of North Carolina. It served as the main office of First Union in Gastonia until September 2001, when that organization was merged into the Wachovia Corporation. At that time the building, once the marvel of a new age, was abandoned and left to the winds of change and chance. Now it stands as the first obstacle to a plan that recognizes nothing of its former place in the fabric of Gastonia's architectural heritage.(12-14)
We should pause for a moment...and remember.
(Sources for this article will be furnished upon request by e-mail.)