With dark windows and pale columns guarding glass doors — now locked for over a decade — 45 Church St. looms over Downtown New Haven like a tomb. Empty and silent since the Wells Fargo bank relocated to just down the street, the building is now merely the relic of a grand economic institution that once catalyzed growth and prosperity on the New Haven Green.
Egerton Swartwout, an early employee of McKim Mead & White and a 1891 Yale College graduate, designed the building as the home for the Connecticut Savings Bank in the early 20th century, according to Mary O’Leary of the New Haven Register. The bank represented a dramatic architectural departure from the rest of its block at the time: The ring of other classical buildings that lace their way around the Green today, such as the public library and the city and federal courthouse, were not yet built in 1906, the year Swartwout’s project was completed.
Swartwout’s ambition in appropriating such a grand style for a relatively small bank was matched by the city’s economic optimism in the early 20th century. Then, New Haven was home to a rapidly growing Winchester Arms company and saw growth fueled by generations of Southern and Eastern European immigrants during the mid-to-late 19th century, wrote Yale professor Douglas Rae in his book “City: Urbanism and Its End.”
The original Yale Club in New York City — one of Swartwout’s earlier designs — shows his taste for splendor, with its wood-paneled interiors and rich ornamentation. The same is true for his 1926 addition to the Yale University Art Gallery, a Romanesque exhibition space with a sweeping bridge that arches over High Street and connects the gallery to the former Yale School of Fine Arts.
Despite its distinct appearance, 45 Church St. firmly rooted itself within the city and, as the home of the Connecticut Savings Bank, remained a constant for almost 90 years. Held in place by its solid masonry and Ionic columns, the bank withstood the test of time. The original atrium and facade were never altered and the building was twice expanded — first, in the 1930s to accommodate meeting rooms and staff areas in the rear of the building, and again in the 1960s to increase use of the upper floor above the central lobby. The second renovation also included the 1962 addition of a bomb shelter in the basement. To this day, the space remains provisioned with drums of food and water, as well as cots for sleeping, according to property manager Nate Etzel.
And yet despite its resilience in the face of dramatic economic, social and political turmoil, the Connecticut Savings Bank was swept out of business and into dormancy by the savings and loans crisis in 1991.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s with the U.S. stock market in full boom, commercial banks across the country suffered from massive deposit withdrawals as consumers fled for more profitable havens for their capital. Federal interest rates were set too low for small commercial banks to remain competitive, and without their ability to maintain deposits or profit from long-term fixed rate mortgages, banks across the country folded.
New Haven’s Connecticut Savings Bank was such a casualty, but it was hardly the only one. Between 1989 and 2013, the yearly average for bank closures in Connecticut ranged from one to three; in 1991 and 1992, 20 and 11 banks respectively closed across the state, according to the Connecticut Department of Banking website.
Following its 1991 closure, the neighboring commercial real estate company Hurley Group purchased and maintained the bank as a Wells Fargo branch location for five years before it again became vacant — never to return to its former glory.
But in the past 18 months, Swartwout’s building arrived in the 21st century. In 2015, the building was sold by the Hurley Group and purchased by Yale benefactor Jason Carter for $1.65 million, a figure so low that Carter said he thought the building was “extremely undervalued.”
Carter envisioned preserving the former bank as an architectural icon to provide New Haven with a space to celebrate the history and culture of the city. To this end, Carter looked for a local institution that might have the resources and the vision to develop the project. He said he first approached Mayor Toni Harp’s office in the summer of 2015 and began to work with the New Haven Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism to develop a plan for the building’s use.
Despite Carter’s offer, the city was unable to gather the funds for the building’s renovation, leaving Carter to turn to other institutions.
“We always have to be cognizant of the check book,” said the department’s director, Andy Wolf.
The father of three Yale College graduates himself, Carter then approached the University with an offer for the building — again at no cost, but with the stipulation that it be used as a public cultural space. However, the University claimed the building was too far from its urban footprint and too expensive for its real estate budget to provide for upkeep and renovation. According to Bruce Alexander ’65, vice president for New Haven and state affairs, there simply “was not an appropriate University use” for the building.
In a third attempt, Carter tried to donate the building to Gateway Community College, but the institution was also unable to raise the funds necessary for the project.
Frustrated by these institutions’ inability to accommodate his vision or adopt a leadership role in the building’s preservation, Carter decided in October 2016 to arrange the building’s auction and sale by the year’s end.
The building’s sale to a private investor who would likely seek to subdivide it and alter the original structure seems an abrupt departure from the trend in New Haven toward preservation of architectural landmarks. For example, the city’s federal courthouse and post office — built by prominent architect James Gamble Rogers, class of 1889 — was saved from demolition in 2014; Carter’s effort to do the same with 45 Church St. seemed to speak to the vitality and resilience of grand structures in Downtown New Haven.
Today, architectural schemes exhibited in the old bank’s lobby try to tempt suitors to purchase the building. The schemes, there to attract buyers, are full of fresh ideas for the historic atrium — diagrams show floor plan extensions that cover the lobby with an extended upper balcony or a raised platform.
Such plans are commonly used to increase square footage and increase a building’s value. Here, they would mean leaving behind the original character of the lobby at 45 Church St., cluttering its space with the many impending retail possibilities.
Though it will be some time before the future of 45 Church St. is revealed to the public, its previous renovations and models for future use suggest that New Haven and its dominant institutions do not see the preservation of its second-oldest bank as a top priority. The historic building will likely move along to allow younger, innovative and more flexible structures to take its place in the urban fabric of New Haven.