Banker's death recalls move of institution to new home

February 26, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

THIS WEEK'S DEATH of banker William E. McGuirk Jr. reminded me of the summer day 35 years ago when the police shut down Redwood Street and posted guards at the intersections. McGuirk, president of the Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co., had decided that the time had come to transfer the fortune from the bank's curious collection of brick Victorian buildings, which resembled pudgy little strong boxes, to a central location. The armed trucks rolled back and forth for hours.

The bank he inherited had a little urban campus on South Street, at Baltimore Street, around the corner from my grandfather's favorite restaurant, Horn & Horn. On trips out for Sunday night suppers, I was fascinated by the way the streets and sidewalks sparkled in front of the old Safe Deposit buildings.

The old Safe Deposit and Trust Co., on the east side of South Street, near Redwood, was a marvelous little zany confection that, by Baltimore tradition and rumor, held the gold and silver wealth made during the 19th century. It was said that old families, who took the summer off and went anywhere but Baltimore, took their precious possessions downtown and locked them in the Mercantile vault for safekeeping.

The vault was reportedly second only to Fort Knox. The rumor also had some foundation. Both the Safe Deposit building and the Mercantile Trust Co. building at the northeast corner of Calvert and Redwood survived the Baltimore Fire, the Depression of the 1930s and the banking upheavals of the 1980s.

In 1970, McGuirk decided it was time to usher his institution into the 20th century by constructing a large office building alongside the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and facing the Fallon Federal Building, where the Mercantile remains today. It keeps a small museum of banking in its basement. (The dear old Safe Deposit buildings were slaughtered later for the One South Street high-rise.)

On that day, the armored trucks arrived and the goods stored in Baltimore's grand attic of banking and safe keeping made the trip to Hopkins Plaza.

The value of the Warner, Kirk, Stieff and Schofield silver transported couldn't begin to match the other assets the Mercantile controlled, the file cabinets of paper stock certificates, the securities, deeds and other financial instruments entrusted by generations of Baltimoreans.

Two of the city's best-known merchant bankers, William and Henry Walters, of art collecting fame, were much involved with the old Safe Deposit Co., which also financed one of their grand and successful business ventures, the Atlantic Coast Line, a Southern railroad.

When 19th-century risk takers and business people made money, oftentimes their financial genius was not passed down to their children, who were happy to let the prudent Mercantile officers run the show.

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