Historical buildings bank on new lease of life

The former New York County National Savings Bank at 300 West 14th Street now houses condominium apartments and the Museum of Illusions.
The former New York County National Savings Bank at 300 West 14th Street now houses condominium apartments and the Museum of Illusions.PHOTO: NYTIMES
The interior of the old Dime Savings Bank at 9 DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn.
The interior of the old Dime Savings Bank at 9 DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Developers' search for prime sites in New York at a time of near-record land prices is giving old banks new purposes

NEW YORK • The fate of the soaring, palatial and utterly impractical Dime Savings Bank in Downtown Brooklyn was inevitable.

The 1,556 sq m, 12m-tall chamber, with seven kinds of marble flooring, a vaulted-tile dome and Corinthian columns, closed in 2016, a victim of automated tellers and digital payments. Its last full-time tenant, Chase Bank, moved into a squat storefront across the street, about one-tenth the size.

The bank's second act is more surprising: It will become part of Brooklyn's tallest skyscraper, 9 DeKalb Avenue, a 325m luxury apartment building with retail at its base.

The landmark Beaux-Arts interior will be transformed into a flagship store and the roof will become an outdoor lounge with a pool that wraps around an ornate Guastavino dome.

The marble and pink granite facade will be fused on one side to a slender glass-and-steel tower designed by SHoP Architects, which will have about 425 rentals and 150 condominium apartments.

Across the city, a number of old banks are similarly gaining new currency, as developers search for prime sites at a time of near-record land prices.

In the past, the scale of these conversions was often smaller - perhaps a handful of apartments above a bank hall or a drugstore with incongruously ornate chandeliers. Now, thanks in part to residential demand in quickly gentrifying areas, the projects are becoming more ambitious.

"The market continues to be hungry for development opportunities and these represent niche plays," said Mr Jonathan Miller, a New York real estate appraiser, who added that he noticed a similar trend near the peak of the 2007 housing bubble.

There is the same glut of supply now and developers are hoping the prestige of these buildings will pay dividends.

Historical banks in New York are rare. There are roughly 81 landmark banks in the city, said Ms Sarah Carroll, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. That designation requires developers who want to alter the facades - and in the case of 13 banks, the landmark interiors - to receive permission.

While the commission does not track the current use of these buildings, most of those designated as landmarks are in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Many other historical bank buildings do not have protected status and their original reason for being no longer exists.

In Manhattan's Chelsea neighbourhood, the 1897 New York Savings Bank became a carpet store in the late 1980s and a gourmet grocer in the mid-2000s and is now a very stately CVS pharmacy.

Until last year, the former Corn Exchange Bank on 42nd Street housed Show World Centre, an adult-entertainment relic from the old Times Square. Now, it is becoming offices.

But there is value beyond a bank's bricks and mortar: the air space above it. Most of the grand bank halls in the city were built before changes to zoning that allowed for greater height and density.

By buying the unused development rights, or air rights, above a bank, a developer may build bigger, taller or both on an adjacent lot.

That the banks are often in commuter-friendly business hubs also makes them appealing for redevelopment.

The developer's gain is clear in these projects, but what do the historical buildings get out of it? In the case of 9 DeKalb, where the Dime Savings Bank will merge with the borough's first super-tall skyscraper, the bank will be restored, inside and out.

The developer, JDS, bought the bank and its air rights for US$95 million in 2016. That gave the tower an additional 35,766 square metres of development rights, adding about 30 more floors.

In exchange, the developer will repair damage to broken capitals and weathered friezes and preserve much of the landmark interior, restoring the hand-painted wallpaper in the women's lounge upstairs, among other things.

The new tower, which is expected to be completed in 2022, will be deferential to the landmark but not derivative, said its designer Gregg Pasquarelli, a principal at SHoP Architects. The hexagonal geometry of the building, seen in its ornate tile and coffered ceilings, will be echoed in the shape of the new structure.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2019, with the headline 'Historical buildings bank on new lease of life'. Print Edition | Subscribe