After 107 years, no bank at site on Calvert, Redwood

CURTAIN ON A BALTIMORE ERA

September 11, 1993|By David Conn | David Conn,Staff Writer

The Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust building at Calvert and Redwood streets has been the site of a bank branch through the turn of the century, through the Great Baltimore Fire, and through two world wars. But it couldn't make it past the changing traffic and business patterns of the city's financial district.

This week, the company notified customers that it will shut down the 107-year-old branch on Dec. 10, a year before Mercantile's 25-year lease on the building runs out. Still remaining in the building is the Mercantile Mortgage Co., which has not said whether it will stay there permanently.

The company sold the historic building to a New Jersey partnership in 1969, a year before the current headquarters in Hopkins Plaza opened. It signed a long-term lease at Calvert and Redwood and has kept a branch open there.

Except for the long-term lease, "the bank normally would not choose to put a branch three blocks from another branch," said Senior Vice President Thomas A. Mariani. "We just rode it out as the activity in the branch, and traffic in the area, began to decline."

Mr. Mariani pointed to the vacant old USF&G building on South Street and the new Commerce Place building, less than one-quarter leased, as evidence that the business district has shifted west and south in the past decade.

"We depend on that traffic, and over the years it's just declined and declined," Mr. Mariani said.

Despite the branch closing, the building will stay open and operating as the mortgage company headquarters at least until the end of 1994, said Benjamin Geller, one of the owners of Mercantile Associates, a partnership in Wayne, N.J., that owns the building.

Paul Parks, president of Mercantile Mortgage, said his company has no plans for after then. The mortgage company occupies about three-fourths of the two-story building, with the bank branch taking up about half the first floor,according to Mr. Mariani.

Designed by Wyatt and Sperry, the red-brick Romanesque building was completed in 1886, two years after the founding of the Mercantile Trust and Deposit Company, by, among others, Enoch Pratt, a businessman and Union supporter, and John Gill, a former Confederate general. Less than two blocks away on South Street was the original headquarters of the Safe Deposit and Trust Co., founded in 1864.

(The two merged in 1953 to become the Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co., and the holding company Mercantile Bankshares Corp. was established in 1969.)

Around the turn of the century, both companies boasted about the security of their vaults. Safe Deposit touted its "Great Vault," whose three fireproof outer doors and two burglar-proof inner ones sat in walls of steel and iron, surrounded by a foot of concrete and 2 feet of brick, according to a company history.

On Feb. 7, 1904, both buildings were tested by fire. After the Great Fire swept through Baltimore, the two buildings were among the ones left standing. Their interiors were damaged, but the money and valuables hastily stored in the vaults by customers and other banks survived intact.

Mr. Mariani said that one of the final blows, as far as the company was concerned, came a few years ago, when the parking lot on South Street at Redwood was sold. Without free parking for customers, and without an ATM on the premises, Mercantile believes that its clients are better-served by the Hopkins Plaza branch, which has both.

The one part-time employee and six full-time employees at the branch will be transferred, Mr. Mariani said. After the closing, Mercantile-Safe Deposit will have 17 branches.

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