Building of the Day: 1 Hanson Place

You can’t celebrate Brooklyn or 10 years of Brownstoner without the Williamsburgh Bank building, one of Brooklyn’s greatest structures.

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Former Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building
Address: 1 Hanson Place, corner of Ashland Place
Neighborhood: Fort Greene
Year Built: 1927-29
Architectural Style: Art Deco, with Byzantine and Romanesque influences
Architect: Halsey, McCormack & Helmer
Other buildings by architects: Central Methodist Church, next door, redo of Former Dime SB at Fulton Mall, Former Kings County SB at Nostrand and Eastern Parkway, former Brevoort SB on Fulton Street, Bed Stuy.
Landmarked: Yes. Brooklyn Academy of Music HD,1977. Bank interior, lobby, landmarked in 1996.

The story: Like thousands of Brooklynites who worked or walked in the area, I used this building hundreds of times to check the time. My mother’s dentist was in this building. For many people, this building IS Brooklyn, almost as much as the Brooklyn Bridge is. For many years, Brooklyn’s tallest building, (second now, thanks to the Brooklyner) the Williamsburgh Bank Building is an icon of our borough, as well as one of New York City’s most beautiful skyscrapers.

The firm of Halsey, McCormack and Helmer produced some great bank buildings, not only in Brooklyn, but also the Dollar Savings Bank in the Bronx, and the Greenwich Savings Bank on 57th Street in Manhattan. The firm organized in 1920, with Hayward Halsey, a developer, former banker George H. McCormack, and architect Robert Helmer, who took charge of the design office, and is responsible for actually designing all of their buildings. If you think about it, this partnership was perfect. Banker McCormick was well-connected to the industry, and could get their foot in the door. He also knew intimately what was needed in the design of a proper bank. Helmer designed, and Halsey got it built.

The late 1920’s, early 1930’s was an interesting and challenging time to be a big-time architect. Not only was the world going through the Great Depression, but the world of architecture was in the middle of the Art Deco revolution. It was also a time of great skyscrapers, and a case could be made that New York City’s best skyscrapers were built during this period; the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and this one. Like both of those buildings, setbacks, which were instituted to assure light and air in extremely high buildings, give the WSB mass without seeming massive. Robert Helmer was quoted as saying that he intended to design a building to be regarded as a cathedral dedicated to the furtherance of thrift and prosperity. He did not want to put the dome on the tower, which forever makes this one of the most phallic buildings around, but had to at the insistence of Savings Bank officials. The four-sided clock tower is one of the tallest clock towers in the world, and when it was built, these were the largest clock faces in the world.

My favorite part of the exterior is all of the wonderful ornament Helmer piled on, most of it pertaining to American industry, thrift and patriotic pride. The huge iron window screens by Renee Chambellan feature Deco reliefs of workers and students and other toilers, beautifully highlighted by geometric shapes and designs. Chambellan also did the magnificent iron gates, and designed the relief carvings in stone. Everywhere, on the setbacks, the dome, the tower, are wonderful details and ornament. The detailed Art Deco lions at the door guard a strongbox, while the relief of a thief attempting to rob the bank shows humor. Around the exterior are carved owls of wisdom, squirrels saving nuts, beehives and turtles, all illustrating thrift, savings and patience. And then there is the landmarked lobby and bank interior, Helmer’s cathedral of thrift, which is going to have to be a BOTD of its own.

Contemporary photos by Suzanne Spellen except second photo, below, which is by Bridge and Tunnel Club, and last photo, which was taken in 1941 and is from the Brooklyn Public Library.

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