In the heart of Detroit’s Financial District, the two-story, ornate, terra-cotta-clad, Bankers Trust Company Building stands like a little secret treasure amongst its towering neighbors.
Architect Wirt C. Rowland, of the firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, designed the Italian Romanesque-style bank in 1925 at a particularly dramatic time in the neighborhood’s development. Long the center of Detroit’s banking activity, the surrounding area underwent a dramatic transformation in the early 20th century from one composed primarily of wood-framed office buildings to one of much taller steel-framed office towers. While Detroit’s largest banks were constructing the massive skyscrapers that now define the Financial District, Bankers Trust opted for a more modest two-story structure on the southwest corner of West Congress and Shelby streets.
Dressed to the nines
Although small compared with some of its contemporary neighbors, such as the Dime, Ford, Buhl, Penobscot and Guardian buildings, what the Bankers Trust Company Building lacks in size, it more than makes up for in startling romantic charm. A subtle interplay of rose and beige terra cotta against bronze and marble accents is made even more dramatic by exuberant carvings and sculptural reliefs that cover the facades on Congress and Shelby. A large, angled entrance bay faces the intersection. It consists of a modern glass door enclosed in a rounded bronze outer door, all framed by a massive round arch. Marble columns topped by lions holding shields with insignias of keys flank the arch. Various other carvings, including dogs, sphinxes, plant motifs and zigzags cover the shafts and molding. A Byzantine-style wheel window pierced by modern blue lightbulbs fills the tympanum. “Bankers Trust Company” is spelled out in bronze lettering above the door.
Prominent, full-story arches containing bronze-framed windows span both facades. A modern side entrance is located within the arch at the west end of the Congress facade. A bandcourse featuring chevron and Greek key patterns is incorporated into cubiform capitals atop clustered arch supports. Lions perch on each cluster. A second-story arcade - formed by differently patterned shafts topped by Corinthian capitals - contains pairs of bronze-framed windows that alternate with blind arches. The blind arches contain polychromatic geometric medallions called opus sectile. More opus sectile, stylized eagles, and grotesques fill the spandrels and tympanums. Above, the elaborately carved cornice culminates in a flat roof.
A 1960 addition is attached to the building’s east elevation. This 3-story, steel-framed commercial building consists of alternating concrete and glass panels. Its south elevation is clad in beige brick that extends over the facade’s southeast corner. The addition represents a modest application of International Style elements to a commercial building.
The Bankers Trust Company of Detroit
Between 1914 and 1929, the number of banks and trusts in Detroit more than doubled as financiers responded to the city’s substantial economic growth. The Banker’s Trust Company of Detroit was one of nine new trust companies to form during those years. State banking records indicate the bank organized on May 3, 1917, and officially opened for business on May 12, 1917, with a starting capital of $300,000 ($5.27 million today, when adjusted for inflation). The founding officers included some of the city’s wealthiest businessmen: President Arthur Webster; Vice Presidents Frank W. Hubbard and Edwin Denby; Secretary Nathaniel Bates Ackley; and Walter C. Brandon, who was the treasurer and manager.
Webster moved to Detroit in the 1890s after earning a law degree at the University of Michigan. He worked as an assistant prosecutor for five years before joining with Denby in a successful partnership. In 1919, Webster was elected to the Circuit Court, where he remained until his retirement in 1956.
Denby also moved to Detroit after earning a law degree at the University of Michigan. The career militarist and politician was elected in 1902 to the state House for one term, and in 1904, he was elected to the first of three terms in the U.S. House. He returned to Detroit in 1911, when he continued practicing law and pursuing business interests before serving in the military for two years in World War I. In 1921, President Warren Harding appointed him secretary of the Navy. The Edwin C. Denby High School on Detroit’s northeast side is named in his honor. There also was a large plaque on the side of the Brodhead Armory on East Jefferson honoring Denby, but it was pried off the building and stolen, presumably by scrappers, in July 2010.
Of the founding executive officers, Vice President Hubbard, appears to be the only professional banker. According to historian Clarence M. Burton, Hubbard, “occupied a most conspicuous and honorable position in banking circles in Michigan, controlling important interests of that character and at the same time contributing to the development and upbuilding of the state through his cooperation with other business interests.” As proof, at the time of Burton’s writing in 1922, Hubbard had either founded our presided over 11 banks in Michigan.
Little information is available about the bank’s first secretary, Ackley. He appears to have been a prominent financier with ties to the railroad and early automotive industries.
Brandon, the treasurer and manager, had a career in real estate, a fundamental aspect of the bank’s business. Interestingly, Burton suggests that one of Brandon’s earlier endeavors may have been the Bankers Trust’s precursor. Burton writes that Brandon “organized what was then known as the Urban Realty Mortgage Company of Detroit, which later became the Bankers Trust Company, specializing in the construction loan and mortgage business. From the beginning, he has been director, treasurer and manager and has been instrumental in developing the business of the company to extensive proportions.” No additional information regarding a connection between the Urban Realty Mortgage Company and the Bankers Trust Company could be identified. However, the earlier bank’s officers and directors included Webster, Denby, Ackley, Brandon and Hubbard, among others, supporting the likelihood that Urban Realty Mortgage did, in fact, reorganize in 1917 as the Bankers Trust.
The Bankers Trust’s first offices were housed on the West Congress Street side of the State Savings Bank Building (then the People’s State Bank Building) at 46-48 W. Congress St. After several years at this location, the bank contracted with Smith, Hinchman & Grylls to design a new headquarters building. As chief designer, Rowland was responsible for the commission. Rowland worked for several prominent architectural firms in Detroit before joining SHG in 1922. His most recognized local designs while at the firm include the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church (1923), the Buhl Building (1925), the Penobscot Building (1928) and the Guardian Building (1929).
Rowland’s use of the Italian Romanesque style here is an interesting one. Not only is the style relatively uncommon in Detroit, it is even more rare for bank buildings. Good local examples of the Italian Romanesque include the St. Theresa of Avila Roman Catholic Church (1919), the Graphic Arts Building (1925), and to a lesser degree, the Albert Kahn-designed Vinton Building (1916), although none are as elaborately decorated as the Bankers Trust building. As a bank, this building deviates from the Neoclassical or Renaissance styles that late-19th and early-20th century banks often employed. Many opted for a temple-like front and classical styles because it evoked the trust and security of the Greek and Roman states, ideal references for financial institutions. However, the eclectic tastes of the 1920s and preference for the revival movements resulted in an occasional derivation from this practice. The New York firm York & Sawyer, set the precedence for Italian Romanesque bank buildings when they designed the Bowers Bank Building in New York (1923).
The Romanesque Revival first became popular for religious and educational buildings in the United States in the mid-19th century. However, it had a second wave of popularity beginning in the 1920s, when architects became interested in more direct historical references. They were particularly drawn to the regional Italian Romanesque, which incorporates more exotic Byzantine and Muslim influences that typically feature marble-faced exteriors embellished by ornate stone sculptural reliefs, geometric and plant motifs and massive arches or long arcades. Common symbols, such as keys representing guardianship; lions or bulls representing strength and reliability; and flora, including honeysuckle and cornucopia, representing abundance. Grotesques and fantastical creatures are also common. The imagery goes beyond the safety evoked by classical styles, to also suggest opulence, wealth and security.
The Financial District evolves
The Bankers Trust Company was one of only 10 banks in Detroit to survive the Great Depression, during which a nationwide banking crisis forced thousands of banks to fail or consolidate. It thrived until the 1940s, when the city’s four remaining trust companies began to merge. On Nov. 30, 1948, the Bankers Trust Company and the Equitable Trust Company merged under the name Bankers-Equitable Trust Company. They operated out of the Equitable Trust Company’s headquarters, in the Bankers Equitable Building on Griswold Street (demolished in 1955). On Oct. 26, 1951, the Detroit Trust and the Bankers-Equitable Trust consolidated as the Detroit Trust Company, leaving it as the only trust company in Detroit. By 1960, a series of additional mergers made it one of the largest banks in the United States.
When the Bankers Trust vacated its 23-year-old building on Congress in 1948, the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith moved in. In 1960, the bank added the southern addition with its decidedly modern glass and concrete facade. By the 1990s, a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant, and later a Greek diner, occupied the building. It has since housed a series of nightclubs.
The building has undergone several exterior alterations. A second entrance was added to the north-facing facade, and a modern metal and glass door has replaced the original revolving main entrance door. In addition, the current owner has installed blue lightbulbs in the wheel window above the main entrance and replaced the original lettering spelling out the bank’s name. The original bronze letters were lost when Merrill Lynch moved in and placed its own signage above the door. With the exception of the additional side entrance, these exterior changes have had a minimal impact on the building’s integrity. Miraculously, it appears to have retained its original windows and the terra-cotta ornamentation that most distinctly defines it. The 1960 addition is distinct enough from the original structure not to impose on its character. In fact, both are listed as separate, contributing buildings within the Detroit Financial District Historic District.
On March 4, 2015, the building was sold by NP Property Management through Auction.com for $3 million to an as-yet unidentified buyer. The building last sold for $885,000 in 1996.