Stately bank buildings once had an imposing presence in big and small towns throughout Delaware.
With impressive architecture, high ceilings and fascinating vaults, they conveyed a sense of strength and security.
As financial institutions consolidated, many of the familiar buildings closed and branches followed customers to the suburbs.
But when a bank closes, an opportunity opens for innovative business owners, homeowners and even church congregations. We’ve highlighted four.
Church finds a good investment
CenterPoint Church at 5 W. Commerce Street, Smyrna, is the former location of several banks, most recently Citizens Bank and before that, Mellon Bank, Farmers Bank and the Fruit Growers National Bank.
The congregation bought the building in 2018 and spent a year renovating. The main level included teller windows, desks and the vault, while the second floor was office space.
The Rev. Dave Dorst, senior pastor, started his tenure at the church after the initial improvements were finished.
“It’s a 100-year-old building, so the renovations were extensive and still ongoing,” Dorst said. The church members are working on the basement level for Sunday school rooms and storage.
The congregation had been meeting in rented space for more than 12 years.
“We’ve heard that other churches looked at buying the building but passed on it because it was too much work,” Dorst said, but a few CenterPoint members in the contracting business were confident that the building could be renovated to fit the church’s needs.
The congregation wanted a building in a central location that could hold at least 100 people for worship services and be used weekdays as well.
“We couldn’t afford a huge mortgage, so with the low price and some grant money from the state and town for improving a building in historic Smyrna, we were able to afford both the purchase and the renovations,” Dorst said.
The members liked the location in the middle of town but just blocks from Routes 13 and 300, plus they also bought the former bank parking lot.
Their first worship service was in October 2019.
Dorst said most church members agree what makes the building special is how much of the original features were kept such as the lantern-style lights outside the entrance, the moldings, light fixtures and chandeliers.
One of the big decisions was whether to keep the entrance structure with its ornamentation.
“Taking it out would have given us more room, but keeping it preserves some of the character of the building, so we kept it,” Dorst said.
As for the vault, when the massive door was removed and lowered to the floor, it shook the building and a few pieces of plaster fell from the ceiling. Now the vault is used as the room for the sound controls for the praise band and microphones, while also providing storage, including using the former safety deposit box slots.
The electrical system, plumbing, heating and air conditioning had to be brought up to current building codes. For fire safety, they had to add a second door on the main level and a second staircase to the basement.
“The upstairs room used to be the bank manager’s office, but we have turned it into a multi-functional area,” said Dorst.
It’s now a balcony with additional seating overlooking the sanctuary. If needed, the doors with glass panes can be closed to make the balcony more sound-proof. The area can also be used as a place to set up a reception for refreshments after a service. On weekdays, it’s a workspace for the pastor and administrator.
“People really love the architecture and that, even though it feels like a church because of the high ceilings, you can also envision the bank setup if you use your imagination,” Dorst said. “Lots of people say they used to bank at Citizens Bank and they like how we’ve renovated.”
Some of those entering the building were more surprised than others. On more than one occasion, a person walked in on a weekday during office hours and asked about making a deposit or withdrawal. The staff told them about the new location of Citizens Bank on Glenwood Avenue and invited them to come back on Sunday morning for worship.
Another consequence of having a church in a former bank – Dorst said with a smile – is that he sometimes feels compelled to give investment advice. While said in good humor, his advice is from Bible verses with a serious message: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth… but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Talk about a makeover
Currie Hair, Skin and Nails found a rock-solid location at 111 W. 10th St. in the former Wilmington Trust branch in the DuPont Building, opening in January 2020, one of the company’s five salons in Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Owner Randy Currie said having a salon in the same building as the Hotel du Pont is a win for both businesses.
“We cater to a lot of hotel guests for hair, facials and other services, and especially for weddings, we can help the wedding party get ready for the big day,” Currie said.
Because the salon is a customer of L’Oréal, the haircare and cosmetic company, L’Oréal worked with Currie on the salon’s renovation.
“They brought in an architect from Italy. He really designed the space around this bank vault door. I was told it weighs 10,000 pounds and so it would be very difficult to remove. They said we’d have to reinforce the floors to get it out. We had to take down the three-foot cement walls of the vault that had metal rebar in them,” Currie said.
Part of the inscription on a plaque in the salon detailing the history of the vault and the bank reads: “The Hall Marvin Safe Company vault door was installed in 1931 in Wilmington Trust.”
Currie said customers are drawn to the vault which is one of the rooms in the salon.
“We always have people go right to the safe door. It’s a really interesting space, with a high ceiling that’s painted black and then spaces between the suspended ceiling. The door has clear glass so you can see the gears and mechanical parts,” said Currie.
They found most of the brass fittings for the door during renovations, and they asked a machine shop in West Chester to make identical fittings to replace the missing ones.
“The architect loved the natural exposed beams, and we were able to keep two of them, but we ended up having to cover the rest,” said Currie. That’s because any exposed beams had to be coated with fireproofing.
“This is a really iconic building. It’s rich in history,” Currie said. “We’ve had people in their 80s who worked at the bank who’ve come in to the salon and told us about the way it used to be. It’s great to be downtown with all the improvements. The city is really coming alive and it’s great to be here.”
Currie said during the renovations, he wondered what would be discovered in the former bank.
“I was always hoping to find treasure, and believe it or not, we did. One of our nail techs, her first name is ‘Treazure,’” he said.
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Restaurant’s secret is in the vault
The owners of La Banca, at 1 W. Main St., Middletown, revived a piece of the town’s history in 2019 when they opened a modern Tuscan restaurant in the former Delaware Trust building which dates back to 1918.
The bank had been vacant for about 14 years before the basement-to-roof renovations started in 2015, led by Rick Clark of Clark Construction, part of RM Hospitality Group which also owns Metro Pub and Grill in Middletown.
La Banca manager Shannon Harris said, “Rick has a vision for building businesses, and this was a unique opportunity.”
The building was gutted, and the focal point is now the grand staircase, but the vault and other memorabilia from the bank remain.
“We use the vault as a private dining area that seats 8 to 12,” said Harris. “The table is made with safe deposit boxes with a glass top, and there are more safe deposit boxes that have been used in the restaurant. The original check registrar from 1935 is in the lobby. Another vault has been turned into a walk-in refrigerator downstairs.”
She said the renovations have certainly created a restaurant with a “wow factor.”
“When people come in for the first time, they think it’s amazing. A lot of people say they’re surprised at how open it is because they thought an older building wouldn’t look so airy and bright,” said Harris. “The first thing you see is the grand staircase and all the art done by owner’s mother – beautiful oil paintings.”
In addition to the vault, the first level includes tables and a large bar, with that signature staircase leading to the second floor with tables and a gas fireplace.
“People who used to work at the bank have come in, and they’re amazed at what the owners did with the building with two stories and the grand staircase, the open dining,” said Harris. “Then they see the bank vault – how they transformed it – and they can’t believe it.”
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An account of love at first sight
For Maryann Coates, the former Wilmington Trust that’s now her home in Townsend has been a continual source of joy.
The building was already renovated as a home when she found out it was for sale in 2007, and she was immediately drawn to it.
“I loved the way it looked in the photo,” she said, “and then when I went for a tour, as soon as I walked in the door and looked around, I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
The arches of the teller windows separate the living room from the kitchen. The former vault is now a pantry next to the kitchen. The home’s entrance has the bank’s tile flooring, and the night depository box is still on the side of the building.
She had been looking to downsize from a larger home with a big yard.
“I was tired of spending my weekends doing yard work and spending so much time cleaning and maintaining that home,” she said.
What she found was a house with the architectural details she was looking for.
“I wanted something smaller but I wanted something with character,” Coates said. “I’ve driven through the Greenville area many times and this reminds me of the older homes there. I have a piece of history. It’s really small, but I have a piece of it.”
Even after 14 years, she’s still excited about living there.
“It’s like when you get a new car and every so often you peek out the window to look at it. That’s the way I feel in this home every day,” Coates said.
Although no one’s knocked at the front door inquiring about a checking or savings account, several people have asked if they could pay their town bill.
“They think it’s the town hall,” said Coates.
Reporter Ben Mace covers real estate, housing and development news. Reach him at email@example.com.