Our great banking halls have become as endangered as our great banks. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Manufacturers Bank (now known as Manufacturers Hanover Trust), a citation winner in the first P/A design awards program in 1954, has miraculously survived on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Designed by Gordon Bunshaft, it is a five-story, 94,000-square-foot, glass-walled Miesian box dwarfed by the towers around it. The original design reflected the relative openness and leisurely pace of post-World War II banking, with its Henry Dreyfuss–designed vault door visible from the street and its Harry Bertoia–designed mixed-metal screen presiding over an expansive and sparsely furnished mezzanine banking hall.
The alterations to the building show how banking has changed since then. A row of ATMs has replaced the original ground-level tellers’ stations, with an awkward glass ceiling separating the entrance from the mezzanine above as new security risks have arisen from the replacement of people by machines. A clothing store now occupies most of the once-uncluttered ground floor; likewise, standard office cubicles now crowd the main banking hall, obscuring the metal screen and the public largesse that it represented. With banks these days, the public largesse often goes in the opposite direction, in the form of bailouts rather than Bertoia screens.
Now, after 56 years, the building’s luck may have run out. A large sign advertising it as a “big box retail opportunity” fills the Fifth Avenue corner. Architects have certainly suffered at the hands of bankers of late, but let’s hope this extraordinary work of architecture doesn’t as well.