Topics & Collections

small text medium text large text
Error processing SSI file

Downtown: The Dollar Savings Bank


Building a Pittsburgh Landmark 1866-1871

Chapter Three of A Century of Saving Dollars 1855-1955: Being the True and Unusual Story of How The Dollar Savings Bank Pioneered in Making Thrift Practical for Pittsburghers, Compiled from the Bank Records and the Recollections of Trustees and Employees by William T. Schoyer.

"The elegant new banking house...surpassed in permanence, symmetry and beauty by no public edifice in any American city"--contemporary newspaper comment.
Today not everyone would agree with the superlatives once lavished on The Dollar Savings Bank building on Fourth Avenue. Yet despite what appear to modern eyes as the extravagances of a bygone architectural style, this is no negligible building. Its fancy stonework clothes the basically classic lines with a sort of baroque grandeur--compelling respect and placing it among unforgettable Pittsburgh landmarks.
This is scarcely accident. The Trustees, while not planning for the ages, meant the new structure to last and to stand for something. They placed the stone lions at its gates as symbols of guardianship of the people's money. They thought of the lofty columns as bespeaking the institution's high aims. They began talking about it in 1860; and, before they were through, few business structures had received so much thought. The Dollar Savings Bank's building became a part of its history.

Although the Civil War postponed original construction plans, the board attempted to get down to brass tacks before the shooting stopped. As early as March 10, 1865, "The committee appointed to select a suitable building lot for erecting thereon a banking house" reported that they had examined two locations. "It was resolved to purchase one situated on Fourth St. near Smithfield St. opposite Wilkin's Hall fronting on Fourth St., 60 ft. and extending back 85 ft., price $12,000."
Later that year a building committee of six was appointed, comprising "the President, Secretary, Treasurer and such other members of the Board of Trustees as the President may select preparatory to the erection of a bank building." From these records President Albree emerges as the driving force for the new structure. While he did not remain in office to see it completed, the Fourth St. home represents in part his contribution to Dollar. A few additional words are appropriate about this notable Pittsburgher.
Born in 1802 in Massachusetts (another state where mutual savings banks had been notably successful), he joined the U. S. Navy as a cabin boy. He drew a lifelong pension ($3.00 a month) for injuries received in the service. In 1829 he migrated to Pittsburgh. Outside of business, his weather observations, preceding the U. S. Weather Bureau, gave Pittsburgh its official weather records from 1845 to 1872; and he also acted as local meteorologist for the Smithsonian Institute. He took a leading part on the Board of Commissioners who erected the County workhouse, and gave much time to prison matters, being a member of the National Prison Association. He was an organizer of the Third Presbyterian Church and author of numerous religious essays, including a series in reply to the famous atheist Ingersoll.
Such was the vigorous, well-rounded personality who, with Mr. Colton, now turned to preparing a home for the bank's future. But a familiar postwar setback occurred on December 29, 1865, when the board voted to postpone "the building of the banking house on account of the high price of materials and workmanship."

Next year the expedient of erecting one of two twin banking buildings with Peoples National Bank was explored--but came to nothing.
Then in January, 1867, without explanation, the minutes carry this statement: "The building committee recommended the postponement of the building of a banking house for the present." The cause may be surmised from a special meeting called the following month to inform the Trustees that their young organization faced a severe internal crisis. President Albree revealed that some funds of the bank had been embezzled. The board voted to arrest an implicated employee who had been engaged during the wartime expansion. Fortunately the discovery was made in time to avoid serious loss. Constructively, basic reforms in bookkeeping and other safeguards resulted, strengthening the system so fundamentally that, for the eighty-eight years from that day to the present, the bank has operated with perfect internal security.
Several precautions taken may be noted. After installations of the new system, its practical operation was painstakingly rechecked by a special committee. The members reported in November, 1867:

"The Committee appointed to recommend what changes they deem advisable in keeping the books respectfully report...the system recently cordially approved. The system seems thorough, exact, and well guarded....No changes are recommended...except that they think it would be as well if the Secretary have charge of the general ledger and also have a general supervision of the books of the Bank to see that they are properly and punctually kept up. We also think that during bank hours, either he or any of the other chief officers...should occupy a desk in the deposit or general business room, when in the bank and not otherwise engaged."
It was further recommended that the auditing committee secure "the aid of a competent and thorough bookkeeper and accountant to aid in their semiannual examination of the books."
Other steps relating to protection of funds were taken during the year. On February 8, a recommendation of the committee on "where the monies and bonds of the bank could be safely deposited" was adopted as follows: "The directed to deposit all monies into such banks as The Dollar Savings Bank owns stock in, in proportion as near as convenient to the stock held by this institution in the several banks."
It was further resolved, "That all bonds of the U. S. Government and those of corporated companies shall be kept in 'burglarproof safes' deposited in secure vaults of any of the above banks...."
Not long thereafter the bank's first watchman, Isaac W. McIlvaine, "began as watchman at $1 per week. Is to look to the upper part of the building, also out on the roof, for fire as well as thieving."
Dollar emerged from the scare without loss to depositors, with its safeguards developed along lines that have ever since proved effective, and with bookkeeping and accounting procedures better adapted to the larger scale operations ahead. The better part of twelve months had been devoted almost entirely to the reorganization, postponing the new building until another year.

On September 4, 1868, after lengthy discussion, the building design submitted by Isaac H. Hobbs & Son, architects, Philadelphia, was adopted. Next month the taking of bids for the excavation and foundation began. At long last, on January 10, 1869, after nine years of delay, the board unanimously resolved: "That an arrangement be made to build a banking house during the present year." Spring and summer saw most of the subcontracts let and the excavation done. The building was on its way.
At this juncture the President stepped down as of October 1, 1869. With the institution well established and its new home begun, he felt his job done. As the board memorialized at his death in 1880: "Mr. Albree...the first President...gave the bank all the benefit of his high standing in the community for business capacity and strict integrity at a time when (its) future was ill-assured, was trembling between failure and success, and required...the name of such a its head.
"He never regarded the bank as a mere money-making machine, but as an eminently beneficial institution, which if successfully conducted, would exert a most powerful influence for good."

James Herdman, succeeding him as President, carried on the task energetically. Architect Hobbs (to whom the building owes its general stylistic concept) oversaw all construction personally, with the building committee carefully double-checking every step. As one peruses the long committee proceedings, stretching into years, one feels that Mr. Hobbs very well earned his fee.
Some interesting details emerge from these minutes. As from time immemorial, building costs substantially rose above the first estimate ($120,000) to $190,000. The major item of expense proved to be the brownstone front and marble work, in itself costing $102,000, and executed by William Gray, also of Philadelphia. The lions he provided remain among the best-known sculptural figures in the city. The sculptor of these was Max Kohler, as explained in the following note to the bank by a grandson:

"I have questioned my father, William P. Kohler, Senior, 634 Vermont Street, Glassport, Penna., and he tells me that his father, Max Kohler, did carve the lions on the site. It seems that because of the difficulty in transportation and weight lifting back in those 'good old days' such work was always done on the job rather than in a studio."
The building committee followed every stage of the work with meticulous attention to pennies, nails, and hours. They awarded the painting contract at 40% off book prices (standard rate of the time). Some contractors, including the excavator, they disallowed part of their billings. Others were highly praised, and some granted an increase over bids, as in the cases of the plasterer and the counter screen contractors.

In March, 1871, came the proud hour when the officials could occupy the new structure, consisting of the great central section of the present, expanded building. The bank's appearance at that time is pictured in Mr. Hobbs' sketch at the opening of this volume [not shown]. Two wings were added about the turn of the century and since World War II a further section has been opened through to Smithfield Street. During all changes, however, the essential character of the original design has remained.
Impressive for size alone among contemporary structures, the new building made an immense impact on the community to judge by a description in the Daily Gazette shortly after the opening. The article, quoted in part below, reveals how this showpiece of the Golden Triangle appeared to contemporaries and explains some of its details:
"We are now, by the courtesy of the architects...enabled to give an accurate description of the noble structure, surpassed in permanence, symmetry and beauty by no public edifice in any American city," begins the writer, limbering up for a flight of language almost as ornate as the building.
"Its quiet repose and grandeur...excites awe in the mind of the beholder; the more we contemplate its grace of outline and beauty of proportions, the more this awakened in us. Intrinsic and abiding beauty, unlike the fleeting fashions of a day, always command our admiration.
"The style of architecture is Roman Corinthian or Composite," he continues, answering a question many baffled passers-by must have asked themselves, "with many added liberties" (we don't have to know Roman Corinthian to agree with him there).
Now for some mechanical details: "The steps are 20 feet long, most of them composed of a single stone....The base...designed to protect the brown stone from the action of frost, is a pink Quincy granite from the vicinity of Boston. The facade of Middlesex quarrystone, Connecticut, has four columns attached to pilasters, and the frieze and cornice break around them.
"At the feet of the columns are two colossal brown stone lions, one of them couchant, the other recumbent, fit emblems in their calm repose, of dignity, strength, watchfulness and security.
"The doorway, is 21 ft. 6 inches high by 10 ft. 10 inches wide, and the pilaster jambs terminate in two finely sculptured caryatides on whose heads rest foliated caps supporting the entablature....In the center is a gigantic gold type dollar....The carved walnut doors...are second to but one pair (at Washington) in the country...."
The bank's interior emerges from the faded newspaper column as resplendent with early Victorian style. "The main banking room is 38 ft. by 60 ft., and 35 ft. high, and presents a lofty and grand appearance. It is lighted by ten windows...of large plate glass." And, the latest in modern conveniences, "They are furnished with shutters and rolling blinds, worked by Hobbs' new blind-roller, which is neat, out of sight, and makes them easy to clean....Between the windows are pilaster columns with marble bases and foliated caps....
"The floors of the main banking room, vestibule and hall are of tesselated, black and white marble.... Three light brackets from each pilaster and a 24-light chandelier light the room. The marble one of the handsomest in the country....the screen is of black walnut, with French veneering, ebony beads and plate glass panels. It has three circular head-holes for tellers. The counter...has circular corners, and the plate bent to match (a rare achievement!)"

The writer locates the President's and cashier's rooms as to the rear of the main banking salon, "furnished with marble mantels and low grates." On the second floor are the Directors and document rooms, reached by steps "of black walnut supported on iron horses." The main newell post on the stairs is surmounted by "a bronze figure with gas jet."
"The vault, which is quite a quarry, is built of stones 24 by 24 inches, and most of them 13 ft. long, lapping at the corners and clamped with iron. The inside is...built on a brick arch 2 ft. thick, laid in cement, with iron and flagging floor. For extra security there is provided a burglarproof safe weighing 23,000 pounds, which cost $8,000...the largest, most complete and costly in the city.
"Below stairs is a kitchen which also does duty as the clerks dining room....The ceiling of the main cellar is composed of three barrel brick arches...supported on piers running the length of the room, and looks as solid and enduring as the crypts we read of....
"...The foundation was sunk 18 ft. below the pavement, and on the right hand side rests upon the slope of the ancient 'Hog Pond,' the massive blocks of Allegheny stone so interwoven as to make one of the best and most substantial of foundations...."
Such was the very latest in Pittsburgh banking accommodations in 1871. It had been a big job for Dollar's officers and Trustees; yet the time and effort were not begrudged, for they had builded well, and the work would not have to be done again for many generations.
"President James Herdman," the same article comments, "is a younger man elected to the duties of that office, which as the new banking house was to be erected were sure to be more laborious than usual....He has devoted much of his time and energy to the careful supervision of the work....He makes withal, a most capable, efficient and obliging presiding officer, every way fit to be...head of the Bank, always, however, deferring to the experience and judgment of its veteran Cashier (Mr. Colton).
"All arrangements and appointments of the Bank are now very complete," the Gazette concludes. "Its Trustees and officers deserve and possess the public confidence in the highest degree."


Organizations. Narrative. Outline. Neighborhoods. Main Menu.