Glenn Uminowicz: November 2005

Temples of Finance
by
Glenn Uminowicz

     A local newspaper recently ran a series of articles on the economic impact of the arts on the Eastern Shore. Development professionals now include galleries and working artist studios in the mix of businesses needed to revitalize ailing downtowns.
      An appreciation for the arts and their potential economic benefits was not always prevalent in small town America. Historian Lewis Atherton observed that Main Street had a poor record regarding support for artistic expression in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He insisted that townspeople adhered to the “cult of the useful and practical.” They measured almost everything, including the professions, by the yardstick of utility. By that standard, artists, especially painters and sculptors, just did not stack up. After all, if you wanted a picture on your wall, you could buy an inexpensive landscape photograph.
      The relatively low status given to artistic expression was apparent along Main Streets. Buildings made few pretenses toward beauty and little effort was made to blend the architecture of one structure with another. Thanks to photography, you did not need an artist to have a picture for your wall. Similarly, why would a merchant need an architect to design his store? There were plenty of architectural pattern books that could be shown to a local contractor. A merchant could simply point and say, “Build me one of those.”
      Despite limited conscious efforts at design, most Main Streets at the beginning of the 20th century fit together as attractive, pedestrian-friendly spaces. The limited range of construction materials, the use of common building techniques and the predominance of just a few architectural styles brought visual cohesion to most downtowns.
      Small towns, however, were not without those who believed in something better. Almost every town boasted of a well-known individual or two who sought to punctuate Main Street’s cohesion with a building of architectural distinction.
      Who were these aesthetes? Were they wealthy bohemians who migrated to small towns from the big cities? Were they renegade architects and artists bent on democratizing a sense of beauty among all Americans? No, they were local bankers.
      In almost any early 20th century downtown, a local bank stood among its buildings of distinction. Sometimes it was the only such building. The architectural form most often in evidence was the “Temple of Finance.” From Centreville to Preston and on to Easton, bank buildings drew inspiration from the religious architecture of the ancient world. Columns supporting a pediment framed the entrances to these solid brick or stone structures. Inside, bank clerks conducted business within enclosures crafted from dark, highly polished woods. In their inner offices, the bankers themselves dispensed mortgages and considered other weighty matters. As one historian put it, here resided a town’s “high priests of materialism.”
      Bankers not only made design decisions for their own buildings; they influenced how other buildings looked as well. Bankers held a town’s purse strings and decided who would receive financing for new construction or remodeling. They determined whether to lend money to repair an aging wooden storefront or to finance an impressive new brick business block. In making those decisions, bankers remained acutely aware that appearances mattered.
      Their own bank buildings symbolized wealth and success. At a time before the federal government insured deposits, a bank also needed to appear strong. In 1908, the Talbot Bank opened its new building on Dover Street in Easton. Designed by a professional architect, the limestone-clad structure remains an especially fine example of a “Temple of Finance.” Promotional material made it clear that the “New Fire and Burglar-Proof Bank Building” was a fortress as well, protecting depositors’ savings.
      The Talbot Bank’s lobby served as a solemn and serious setting for handling financial transactions. Admittedly, many of these transactions could hardly be counted as high finance. When the bank first opened in 1885, customers were invited to make deposits ranging from twenty-five cents to ten dollars, with no person permitted to deposit more than twenty dollars in any one week.
      In short, the Talbot Bank was a “temple for the people” in the same sense that department stores and movie theaters earned reputations as “palaces for the people.” Bankers created a public space where transactions associated with everyday life were elevated above the ordinary.
      Bankers stood at the top of the list of useful and practical professions. As Atherton noted, money meant so many acres of land for a farmer and the ability to purchase store goods for a merchant. In handling currency, bankers “manipulated the symbols that identified successful men.”
      Bankers counted themselves among the successful men of any town. They stood at the center of a small group of individuals who influenced local affairs. That group also included local attorneys who often sought public office and careers in politics. Because of their connections, lawyers joined bankers on the inside track regarding a town’s real estate. They too benefited from the purchase and sale of property.
      Like Bankers, successful attorneys preferred to set up shop in substantial downtown buildings. Offices in a handsome brick retail and business block tended to impress potential clients. Such downtown structures also enhanced property values to the benefit of those investing in real estate.
      In revitalizing Eastern Shore business districts, the preservation of downtown architecture should be counted among the arts that economically benefit a community. Appearances matter. Beauty has value. Creating spaces that elevate everyday activities above the ordinary is good business. People respond positively to pedestrian-friendly streetscapes punctuated by buildings of distinction. Long ago, we learned all this from the bankers and the lawyers. Who would have thought?