Walkabout: Photographing the Dime

1950 Photo via New York Public Library

The Dime Savings Bank, on the corner of DeKalb Ave and Albee Square is an undisputed masterpiece of commercial architecture. Savings banks were organized to hold and manage the people’s money; the everyday working person who opened a savings account, and came to the bank to secure a mortgage, or a loan.

When the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn first began in 1859, it operated in a room in the Post Office on Montague Street. It was possible at the time to open an account with only a dime, an image the bank never forgot.

The bank was very successful, and outgrew two other shared locations, the first on Court St, where the Temple Bar Building now stands, and the second in the Arbuckle Building, on Fulton St. across from City Hall. By 1884, the Dime Savings Bank had 40,000 depositors and over twelve million dollars in deposits.

Downtown Brooklyn -- Dime Savings Bank

1950 Photo via New York Public Library

That year, they built their own structure on the corner of Court and Remsen Street. By 1908, commerce had moved to downtown Brooklyn, and the Dime made its final move to the now familiar corner of DeKalb and what was then Fleet Street. The original design was by Lewis M. Mobray and Justin M. Uffinger, who had mostly designed residential architecture.

In Brooklyn, they are on record for several homes in Park Slope, as well as the 1904 People’s Trust Bank at 184 Montague St, now home to Citibank. The Dime continued to grow, and an addition, no longer in existence, was added in 1918. By 1920, the bank had doubled its depositors again, and by 1932, had over $170 million dollars in deposits, making it the busiest bank in Brooklyn, and the only one to have more than one branch. There were now branches in Bensonhurst and Flatbush.

Banks, both commercial and savings, have always tried through their appearance and architecture to be both impressive and prosperous. No one will trust a bank that looks like it can’t afford a decent space, especially in the days before federal regulation and the FDIC.

Downtown Brooklyn -- Dime Savings Bank

1940 Photo via New York Public Library

In hard economic times, a bank must convey solidity and stability to a wary public. Classical architecture, with its references to the monuments of the Greeks and Romans, has always been a popular motif for financial institutions, and the Dime is a Roman temple of the first order.

In 1931, with the Depression in full swing, the Dime began an ambitious program of expansion, by commissioning the firm of Halsey, McCormack and Helmer to make additions both on the interior and exterior of the bank.

This firm was well known for its bank buildings, and its most famous Brooklyn bank is the iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building at Hanson Place, which had just been finished two years earlier.

Downtown Brooklyn -- Dime Savings Bank

1940 Photo via New York Public Library

They vastly expanded the building, adding offices around the rotunda, in the basements, and in a separate wing in the back of the original building. They reused the original columns on the front and sides, while expanding out the dimensions of the building.

Above the top story, they added the now familiar dome, with offices in the spaces in the square 5th floor attic, lit by now patinated copper clad windows. They also added the allegorical figures, called Morning and Evening of Life, on the front of the bank, figures depicting activities which encouraged industry and savings. In the exterior and interior, the Winged Cap Dime, or Mercury Dime motif was used everywhere.

The interior was totally redesigned and still retains a distinctly Art Deco feel in combination with the Classical elements. When the bank re-opened, in 1932, it must have elicited gasps of amazement, as it truly is an impressive Temple of Money.

Downtown Brooklyn -- Dime Savings Bank

1940 Photo via New York Public Library

Unfortunately, like all things, the institution known as the Dime Savings Bank passed into oblivion, done in by over expansion, a huge portfolio of bad mortgages, followed by layoffs, and compounding of their mistakes by trying to buy out of it with the acquisition of more bad mortgages. The Albee Square branch saw its signage change several times, as subsequent banks also bit the dust, and is now a branch of HSBC. The Dime was once the fourth largest thrift institution in the country.

Because the Dime was such an iconic and powerful symbol of banking, it is not surprising that it was also the subject of great photographers.

My inadvertent discovery of a series of photographs in the collection of the New York Public Library by the great architectural photographer F.S. Lincoln led to today’s article, as these photos convey the majesty and economic power that the bank and its architects meant to impress upon their depositors and potential depositors, especially in the dark days of the Great Depression.

1940 Photo via New York Public Library

1940 Photo via New York Public Library

Fay Sturdevant Lincoln was born in Keene, New Hampshire in 1894. After graduation from M.I.T. with a degree in engineering, he came to New York City, and became a professional photographer in 1929, beginning with partner Peter Nyholm. He soon opened his own studio at 114 East 3rd St, and went on to become a successful photographer of architecture.

Some of his better known projects are a photographic study of Paris’ Mont St. Michel in 1934, a series of photographs of Colonial Williamsburg in 1935, and the antebellum mansions of the Deep South in 1938.

He was widely published in the 1930’s and ‘40’s in magazines and periodicals, such as The Architectural Record, House Beautiful, National Geographic, Country Life and The Architectural Forum.

1940 Photo via New York Public Library

1940 Photo via New York Public Library

In 1946, he published a book called Charleston: Photographic Studies. He operated his studio until 1965, then moved to Pennsylvania, and died in 1975. Much of his work resides at the University of Pennsylvania.

F.S. Lincoln’s photographs of New York City’s architecture are some of the best in the NY Public Library’s collections. They have hundred of photos from locations all over the city. He also shot the Williamsburgh Savings bank and other banks in the borough. He shot this series of the Dime Savings Bank in 1940. (see Flickr for more)

The new interior was only eight years old. From the angles of the shots, and the care taken to frame and enhance the design elements, it is obvious that Mr. Lincoln was as enamored of his subject as many of us still are today.

1940 Photo via New York Public Library

1940 Photo via New York Public Library

The sepia photographs bring out the details of the ornament in a way that color cannot. If you have never been in this bank before, get there soon. It is one of Brooklyn’s free events that is, actually, quite priceless.

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