Howard St. woes spur bank closing Decline of business, light-rail work cited in decisions.

October 17, 1991|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Evening Sun Staff

Opened in 1903 as a repository for the savings of working people, the Provident Bank of Maryland branch at 240 N. Howard St. has closed as a retail operation because of the general decline of business on Howard Street.

The branch is the second banking operation in the lower part of Howard Street to close in the last year, and an official of one financial institution remaining in the area says prospects are uncertain.

Loyola Federal Savings and Loan Association closed its operation at 331 N. Howard St. in October 1990 and the building now is for sale.

Farther up the street, at 420 N. Howard Street, a branch of Augusta Federal Savings Bank is still in operation. But Augusta was taken over by federal regulators on April 26 and the future of that branch will be determined by whatever company eventually acquires the thrift.

For 80 years the distinctive looking Provident building at the corner of Howard and Saratoga streets was the bank's headquarters. It continued to serve as a branch for eight more years until the first-floor retail operation was closed last month.

The rest of the building will continue to be used for office space by the bank, according to Fran M. Minakowski, a spokeswoman for Provident.

The branch was closed because of the continuing decline in business in the struggling Howard Street commercial area, Minakowski said. Customers were transferred to other Provident branches.

The landmark building was designed by Joseph Evans Sperry to suggest an old treasure chest. Built with rough-hewn granite, the four-story building stands out from the rest of the structures on Howard Street.

Originally, the interior of the building featured a lofty bank lobby with an 83-foot ceiling. But this space was later covered over with three floors to accommodate the growth of the bank.

Founded in 1886 as a mutual savings bank, Provident catered to the working class. It converted to a publicly traded commercial bank in 1987.

One financial institution that has no immediate plans to move is Liberty Federal Savings and Loan at 401 N. Howard Street. The thrift has had its headquarters there since 1954 when it moved a few blocks from the 200 block of Liberty St., according to Patrick J. Coughlin Jr., president and chief executive officer of the savings and loan.

Coughlin said foot traffic in the area has declined or, at best, remained steady over the last two years as construction on the light-rail transit system and other projects have disrupted the area.

"Howard Street has been an enigma for a couple of years," Coughlin said.

But the thrift will remain. "We intend to stick with it and see what happens," Coughlin said.

Besides its Howard Street location, Liberty also has branches on The Alameda, on Cleanleigh Drive in northeast Baltimore and in Bel Air in the Harford Mall.

At the corner of Howard and Madison streets, near the shops on

Antique Row, First National Bank of Maryland also continues to operate a branch in a venerable bank building that is nearly 100 years old.

With business generated by Maryland General Hospital and Antique Row, the bank has no plans to leave. "Business has been good and we will be there for many more years," said William Frank, a spokesman for First National.

The structure was originally built for the Commonwealth Bank of Baltimore in the mid-1890s, but that company went into receivership in the 1930s. The branch was taken over by First National in 1939.

The building is topped by a gravity operated tower clock made by the E. Howard Co. of Boston, according to Frank. An identical clock is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, he said.

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