HISTORY FROM OHA: Syracuse Savings Bank: Syracuse’s first savings bank

More than 500 floral arrangements greeted Syracuse Savings Bank customers in November 1982 during the Syracuse Annual Professional Florists’ Holiday Flower Festival. (PHOTO CREDIT: OHA COLLECTION)

The year was 1849. Thousands of 49ers caught gold fever and hoped to strike it rich in California, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman doctor in the U.S., and Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in Maryland. And, Syracuse Savings Bank was founded.

Syracuse was incorporated as a city the year before in 1848 and had elected Harvey Baldwin as the first mayor. The new city comprised four wards with 23,000 residents and was attracting more people looking for new opportunities. Trade was burgeoning via the Erie and Oswego Canals, the railroad, and corduroy and plank roads. Syracuse exported salt and other products. The young, prosperous city displayed canal-side warehouses, brick sidewalks, and some cobblestone streets. The city also boasted a public-education system that taught 3,000 students, 25 churches and two synagogues, and the National Theater.

Economic advancements and an increase in citizens’ personal wealth called for a savings bank that encouraged people to save and protect the wealth they were accumulating. On March 30, 1849, 18 leading citizens received a charter from New York State to establish the Syracuse Savings Institution, the 25th savings bank in the state. On May 4, 1849, eight of the bank’s founders met in the law office of Harvey Baldwin to elect officers, name committees, and create the new bank’s operation. At this first meeting, Baldwin was elected as the bank’s first president. At the nascent bank’s second meeting, William Teall was elected treasurer, and the bank’s first location was set up inside Teall’s home, located at 409 East Fayette St. on the north side of Fayette Park. The Teall Carriage House still exists today (it’s currently a beauty salon called Joseph’s at the Carriage House) behind the CNY Philanthropy Center at 431 East Fayette St. Octavius Cottle, a conductor on the Syracuse & Utica Railroad, made the first deposit of $1 (worth about $33 today) at the newly minted bank. Fifty-five other bank customers deposited $6,737 (valued at $227,000 today) during the rest of 1849.

Syracuse Savings Institution remained in William Teall’s house until it moved to larger quarters in the Bastable Block in 1851, the current site of the State Tower Building. Three years later, the bank bought the vault and fixtures of the defunct Syracuse City Bank and occupied the counting house of Syracuse City Bank, located at the corner of North Salina and Willow streets, until 1862.

The New York Legislature officially changed the name of the bank from Syracuse Savings Institution to Syracuse Savings Bank on March 10, 1870. 

Bank officials then purchased the Star Building at the corner of James and North Salina streets, which became the bank’s final location. The four-story Star Building served as Syracuse Savings Bank’s headquarters until a new building opened on the site in June 1876.

For two years, a building committee formed by the bank’s trustees studied design plans drawn by six architects, eventually selecting the design submitted by Joseph L. Silsbee. Silsbee had just moved to Syracuse in 1874 and opened an office that he maintained for the next 10 years. While working in Syracuse, Silsbee also designed the White Memorial Building, the Amos Block, and Oakwood Cemetery’s chapel. 

The building committee and Silsbee thought the bank’s setting adjacent to the Erie Canal should emulate the Venetian palaces that lined Venice’s canals. Silsbee’s building designs, therefore, reflect the Venetian Gothic tradition, dominated by pointed arches, trefoils, and Gothic moldings. The six-story building included buff-colored sandstone from Ohio, red sandstone from New Jersey, and featured Italian-stone carvings. The total cost of the Syracuse Savings Bank building was $281,000 (worth about $7.2 million today). Silsbee received $8,000 and, the builder, John Moore, received $212,000. After the original construction, Charles Fasoldt of Albany, installed a system of electric clocks throughout the building. 

When the Syracuse Savings Bank building opened in June 1876, it was the tallest structure in Syracuse at 176 feet. The building included the first passenger elevator installed in the city. Its tower provided a magnificent view of the city. So many visitors wanted to view the city from the top that bank that officials imposed a 10-cent fee to ride the elevator to the top. VIP visitors to Syracuse — including James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, and others — were escorted to the top of Syracuse Savings Bank to behold the industrial factories, vast salt sites surrounding Onondaga Lake, and fertile farmland beyond. Visitors may also have seen the bank’s architect, Joseph Silsbee, evidently so impressed with his own design that he moved his architect’s office to the top of the tower. Silsbee stayed there until he left the Salt City for Chicago in 1885.

By 1880, Syracuse boasted 55,000 residents who resided in eight city wards. About 7,500 of those citizens had deposited $2.1 million into Syracuse Savings Bank.

The bank was a favorite banking institution of many German citizens. In 1886, some of these citizens living in Syracuse’s Second Ward became alarmed with a rumor that there was a run on Syracuse Savings Bank that June. Although the rumor was false, several went to the bank to see for themselves. Bank president, Henry Duguid, assured the depositors that the rumor was false. However, some wary depositors removed their money regardless of the truth. When a Syracuse Standard newspaper reporter asked the bank president to comment on the rumor, he confidently stated that if every depositor removed every cent, the bank would remain solvent due to its monetary surplus.

In the spring of 1899, Syracuse Savings Bank celebrated its 50th anniversary. The Syracuse Journal reported that the bank’s sound business policies, administration, and trustees were responsible for its continued success. Long before the Federal Depositors Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was established in 1933, recognizable local business leaders — Frank Hiscock, Ansel J. Northrup, Edward Joy, Francis Hendricks, Jacob Amos, and Hamilton White — took their roles as conservative bank trustees seriously. That year, the bank’s assets totaled $10 million and it had a surplus of more than $835,000.

Syracuse Savings Bank administrators renovated the bank building several times between 1876 and the late 1920s. The last major renovation occurred between 1928 and 1929 with Melvin L. King as architect and Dawson Brothers as the mason contractor, both from Syracuse. The original Gothic style was maintained, however, to meet the demand for additional and more modern banking services. The entire front portion of the second floor was also removed, leaving the remainder of that floor as a balcony area and a board of trustees’ meeting room. The first floor then became the bank’s main business office. The marble columns and the grillwork were removed to create a more-open design. The main entrance on North Salina Street was through bronze doors weighing about 1.5 tons. Two large chandeliers, made from Swedish wrought iron, were hung from the 27-foot tall ceiling in the main bank floor. Crews cleaned the exterior and installed a new roof. The building renovation cost more than twice the original construction sum. In 1929, when the renovated bank building reopened, its assets totaled more than $25 million, and it had more than 32,000 depositors.

Syracuse Savings Bank not only survived, but thrived, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1930, the bank was more than 80 years old, and was serving the fourth generation of savers by offering 4.5 percent interest on accounts up to $7,500. The bank’s motto at the time was “Put Your Savings in a Savings Bank.”

During WW II, Syracuse Savings Bank sold defense stamps and bonds to help defray the cost of the war. On average, Syracuse Savings Bank completed one real-estate transaction each day during the war years. Advertisements in the local newspapers promoted the bank’s mortgage lending department and encouraged renters to affordably buy a house instead of continuing to rent. The bank held the mortgages to several residential properties with prices that ranged from $3,000 to $8,000 ($52,000 to $138,000 in today’s dollars). Patriotic ads also encouraged thriftiness: “Don’t waste money!” and “I don’t spend it – I save it!” By being thrifty, saving their hard-earned money, which they deposited, citizens were helping the bank to lend that money to the federal government to buy necessary war products. Once the war ended, depositors could share their savings with returning veterans to help them become reacclimated to civilian life. 

Syracuse Savings Bank celebrated its centennial anniversary on March 30, 1949. On that day, bank officials held a two-hour open house for depositors and the general public. During the open house, female bank employees modeled mid-19th century apparel in the bank’s lobby, and distributed roses, carnations, and souvenirs. Bank administrators also created a typical bank office from 1849 to illustrate how modern the bank had become in 100 years. An anniversary cake shaped like the bank building was displayed in the lobby. That evening, 300 invited guests packed the ballroom at Hotel Syracuse for an anniversary dinner. Descendants of original bank trustees and special banking guests attended the event. The bank’s president, Frederick W. Barker, recalled highlights of the bank’s long history and reiterated that “thrift is fundamental and essential, and that Syracusans of the future will need savings institutions just as they do today.” In 1949, Syracuse Savings Bank asserted that it had more than 43,000 depositors whose deposits exceeded $66 million. 

By September 1963, Syracuse Savings Bank had satellite offices in Eastwood, Brewerton, and a second downtown branch at 499 South Warren St.. Syracuse Savings Bank continued to grow at an extraordinary rate. In just the 14 years since the bank celebrated its centennial, its assets had grown by more than 2.5 times and customers had more than tripled. Home-mortgage loans had skyrocketed from $24 million to $171 million, financing more than 12,000 mortgages. In the days before online banking, board president, George W. Lee, stated that more bank offices made it more convenient for customers to bank close to their homes and workplaces. 

In May 1973, Syracuse Savings Bank’s assets met another milestone — $500 million in assets and more than 130,000 depositors. Its mortgage lending had also increased to $350 million. By the end of the 1970s, Syracuse Savings Bank expanded its services to include additional satellite offices, a six-day banking schedule, and a pay-by-phone computer system.

The 1980s was a pivotal decade for Syracuse Savings Bank. In the early part of the decade, the bank expanded by merging with four other regional banks: Oswego Savings Bank in 1981, the Dime Federal Savings & Loan Association of Cortland and Mechanics Savings Bank in Elmira in 1982, and Auburn Savings Bank (which was also founded in 1849) in 1983. With these mergers, Syracuse Savings Bank enlarged its banking coverage to 24 offices in Onondaga, Cayuga, Cortland, and Chemung counties.

Then, after almost 140 years of banking business in Central New York, Syracuse Savings Bank was itself acquired by Albany–based Norstar Bankcorp in May 1987. Tragically, Syracuse Savings Bank was forced to sell the bank after a real-estate developer defaulted on loans on an Atlantic City, New Jersey real-estate deal. The developer was arrested on a 57-count indictment that included grand larceny and conspiracy. The venerable Syracuse Savings Bank went out of business and unceremoniously became a component of the $12 billion Norstar Bancorp. Over the next six to eight weeks, the bank’s signs changed names and depositors were issued new passbooks and checks. Just to add “insult to injury,” on the day that Norstar announced purchasing Syracuse Savings Bank, a bank robber stole Norstar’s thunder by robbing the main downtown branch of an undisclosed amount of cash. Only a few hours earlier, bank employees had installed signs welcoming depositors to the new Norstar Bank.

Just one year later, Norstar Bancorp merged with New England–based Fleet National Bank to form Fleet/Norstar Financial Group. Via a series of subsequent mergers in the 1990s, Fleet/Norstar became Fleet Financial Group, then, in 1999, became FleetBoston Financial. In 2004, this financial group merged with Bank of America, which still operates a branch and offices in the former Syracuse Savings Bank building. Bank of America occupies the first three floors of the building, which it leases from JF Real Estate in Syracuse; residential apartments occupy the upper three floors. Several Hall Groat paintings (which Syracuse Savings Bank commissioned in 1977) illustrating life in Syracuse during the 19th century decorate the bank’s main lobby. Although Syracuse Savings Bank as a banking institution is now gone, remnants of its proud history remain on display throughout the bank. The bank building also is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation it received in February 1971.        

Thomas Hunter is curator of collections at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.

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