Today, Gizmodo links to a set of wonderful photos taken by New York photographer Michael Vahrenwald. The photos, part of a series called “The People’s Trust,” feature a bunch of gorgeous old bank buildings that have been sold off and repurposed as Payless shoe stores, payday lenders, and whatnot.
Old bank buildings are everywhere in America (there’s one near my place in Brooklyn that’s been turned into a gym), and while it’s sad that they’re not being used for their original purpose, I also think their mass abandonment helps explain why so many people in America have turned on the banking industry.
When most of these buildings were built, banks were community pillars. Many were locally owned, or part of regional chains. They didn’t strictly need to have marble columns, high ceilings, or any other architectural extravagances. But the corporate owners knew that people would be spending a lot of time inside these banks — to deposit checks for their businesses, take out cash, and talk with the people who might lend them money to buy a house — and they took pride in having nice buildings that gave off a sense of gravitas and security.
Today, of course, a lot of banking takes place online; the huge chains that do the vast majority of commercial banking in America (Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo) long ago made their retail locations boring and nondescript, crammed into commercial shopping districts next to all the other stores. And the massive consolidation of the banking industry, coupled with the hits regional banks took during the financial crisis, means that there are far fewer of these old jewels in operation, and more eyesores with neon signs and cheap carpet.
It’s too simplistic to blame architectural neglect for the public’s hatred of finance. But the gorgeous old buildings banks used to inhabit at least provided normal people with a visual reminder of what a thriving bank could bring to their towns — capital, investment, opportunity. It’s somehow less inspiring looking at a Chase outlet crammed between a Starbucks and a McDonald’s.