Little Fells Point bank defies traditional image

May 23, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

There's a little bank in Fells Point where some traditional rules of money lending get stood on their head.

Say you've been laid off. You're having trouble with the mortgage. At Kosciuszko Federal Saving Bank, you might have to pay only the interest until you make ends meet.

Sound like a poor way to run a bank? No indeed.

The bank is celebrating is 100th anniversary of knowing all its customers on a first-name basis and rarely foreclosing on a mortgage loan. In that century, the former savings and loan has had but one address, 1635 Eastern Ave.

Kosciuszko, chartered June 4, 1894, was founded by Polish immigrants so that neighborhood residents could buy their own homes and have a place to save. It is named for Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish patriot and military engineer who was an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

"It's a point of pride that we don't like to have foreclosures on our mortgages. In the past 28 years we've only had two and we were ordered to foreclose by the federal government. The people were in jail on drug charges," says Peter L. Kutz, the bank's president.

His desk sits only a few feet from the main counter so he can be near anyone who walks in the front door. Many days long-time depositors step in the front door and ask for a little help. Some can't read English. Some never learned at all. Others have trouble with their eyesight.

"There is one fellow who comes in here. The buttons are falling off his coat. His socks don't match. He brings me his mail and says, 'What's this, Pete?'

"What he's got are bank statements. He's got $100,000 with us. He's got $100,000 with Maryland National. The same with Signet. And Provident, too. And he looks like somebody who lives on the streets," the bank president says.

Not all his customers are super thrifty savers with six figures' worth of personal wealth salted away. Others are average breadwinners who from time to time lose a job or have some other woes.

"We try to work with people if they have a good history of paying on a mortgage but have had some trouble, maybe lost a job. If they come in and talk to us, we carry them a while. We ask them to pay the interest on the loan. When they are back on their feet, they pay us what is owed on the principal," Mr. Kutz says.

This bank president is regularly misidentified as "Mr. Kosciuszko" by some of his customers. Some address Christmas cards to him by that name.

"We don't discourage it. It's part of the charm," he says.

Other depositors arrive with presents, homemade bread, Italian sausage, candies, jars of peanut butter, apples, teddy bears and clown dolls.

"We have the most wonderful people who walk in here. They bring us things all the time," says Marie Elizabeth Belzner, the teller who instantly recognizes all her customers.

"Other banks have computers. We have file cards. Sometimes I just spend a lot of time looking up old mortgages for people who want to know when their grandparents had a house on Portugal Street," the teller says.

"There have been times when we've had so much money come in the front door that we couldn't put it in mortgages fast enough," says Mr. Kutz of the time in the middle 1980s when consumer confidence in some of the state's larger financial institutions went sour.

Kosciuszko remained true to its Southeast Baltimore origins and encouraged savings and conservative mortgages, the kind where the customer put down 20 percent or more on a home and did not ask for 30 years to pay it off. About half the loans the bank makes are in Fells Point, Canton, Highlandtown and Essex. The next largest loan category is in the Interstate 95 corridor, from Rosedale through to Fallston and Bel Air.

"You know the Polish people. They like to pay it off fast. They don't like to be paying a lot of interest. And they like passbooks, the kind you can hold in your hand. If they put $5 in, they want to see it written there on the pages of the book," the bank president says.

The bank was founded by local businessmen -- cabinetmakers, grocers and dentists. They met a couple of nights a week to scrutinize the paperwork. They liked making loans to young couples who had just been married and wanted a place of their own. They realized that the money entrusted to them was hard earned.

This style and philosophy of running a bank has worked well for 100 years. The anniversary party consisted of sauerkraut and sausage and free 12-inch wooden rulers -- old-fashioned and practical.

There are also some touches you won't find at the banking corporate giants.

At the table where customers endorse their checks are cubbyholes filled with deposit slips. At Kosciuszko, someone has loaded one of these slots with small cards printed with the words of the traditional Catholic prayer, the Memorare, "Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that ever was it known . . ."

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