Original Mercantile bank, a city landmark, is closing

December 09, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

It was a sight not usually observed in a bank: A depositor distributing envelopes containing currency to the tellers and office staff.

The money was a farewell gift, a reminder of good service from a satisfied customer at the Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company's oldest office, located in downtown Baltimore.

When the brass lock on the branch's massive iron front door is snapped shut tomorrow afternoon, it won't be just for the weekend. Because the branch is under-used, it will be closed for good, something neither the 1904 Baltimore Fire nor the Great Depression could do.

All week long, flower bouquets and cards have arrived at the city landmark at the northeast corner of Calvert and Redwood streets, the 107-year-old home of a bank that Baltimoreans often call the Merc -- a venerable institution, a symbol of old and conservative Baltimore wealth.

Many of the depositors know full well that the Merc's more modern Charles Center headquarters is just three blocks west on Redwood Street. Officials said that the Calvert and Redwood branch, though a sentimental favorite, just was not pulling its weight.

There was, however, something special about the squat brick-and-stone fortress at Calvert and Redwood, the place where you stored your silver and precious jewels when you closed your winter home and took off for Bar Harbor, Henlopen Acres, Nantucket or Cape May.

In recent years, the branch possessed an unusual quality, one of downtown Baltimore's greatest banking secrets. There were never many patrons and rarely a line of customers waiting to be served. Tellers seemed to remain for decades and recognized the depositors as soon as they walked through the door. The atmosphere was friendly and courteous but business-like.

The Redwood Merc is also a major architectural landmark. Designed by J.B. Noel Wyatt and Joseph Sperry, it is considered Baltimore's paramount example of Romanesque Revival architecture. It took much of 1884 and all of 1885 to build, with its rust-colored brick walls, dark mortar joints, slate roof and massive Roman arches constructed of locally quarried stone, much of which is finely carved.

"This place was built to be physically impregnable. The walls are three feet thick and there's a second set of walls around the vaults. What they lacked in high tech in the 1880s, they made up for in bulk," said branch manager Charles Phillips Roe.

The Mercantile Trust and Deposit Co. was founded in 1884 by a Virginia Civil War figure, Col. John Gill. Philanthropist and fellow banker Enoch Pratt was one of his principal stockholders. (In 1953, the Safe Deposit and Trust Co. joined with Mercantile to form the bank that exists today.)

The opening of the Redwood and Calvert building -- the bank's first real headquarters -- on Jan. 11, 1886, was front page news in The Sun:

"Here you have a building of absolute invulnerability and strength and thoroughly fire-proof where you can deposit coupon bonds, coin, bank notes, stocks, deeds, wills, mortgages, surplus jewelry, choice bric-a-brac, paintings, rare books or records, or other portable articles. . . . the immense strength and perfect dryness of the ample storage vaults . . . suited for the storage of silver, silk, quinine and other valuables of bulk," said Gill that day as the bank's doors opened.

Mercantile was meant to be an architectural strong box, with a pair of massive vaults, stacked one atop the other. Many Marylanders and Virginians had vivid memories of the Civil War and the looting that came with it. Within a few years, the Mercantile became a repository of some of the greatest fortunes in Baltimore. It was the Fort Knox and Tower of London of the Monumental City.

The bank also employed its own security staff, a guard with a loaded shotgun who was locked inside at night. There's also a pair of elevated windows along Redwood Street. Below them is a brass ring so that an outside watchman or city policeman could hoist himself up (there's a stone step to help reach the brass ring) to check on the guard inside.

In the past decade, usage of the the bank's hundreds of safe-deposit boxes has fallen off. Negotiable securities and stock certificates are no longer hand-carried to vaults and strong boxes. Nor do people store their silver for the summer.

At times, the basement vault became a kind of attic for goods and possessions that had no other place to go. For nearly 45 years, the steamer trunks of a Baltimorean sat in this sealed subterranean chamber.

The owner, a man who died unexpectedly in New York City, had a fine wardrobe of soft leather shoes, a tailor-made checked sport coat, fine wool slacks and even pima cotton baby blue pajamas. The clothing got tied up in his estate and landed at Calvert and Redwood where it remained until a few weeks ago.

The clothes had been hit by dry rot, but the shoes went to a local Goodwill.

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