A step back in time

What in the world were they thinking?

192219652005
Full circle: The ‘modern’ 1965 makeover, left, of a neoclassical building designed by well-known architect Ronald Greene in 1922, above, left it unrecognizable.
The recent renovation commissioned by Asheville Savings Bank returned the building to its former glory, below, right down to recreating the intricate cornices that had been knocked off to accommodate the 1965 makeover.

When Asheville Federal Savings and Loan Association (now Asheville Savings Bank) bought its current headquarters at 11 Church St. from First Union National Bank of North Carolina back in 1962, the new owners decided to give the building a whole new look.

The neoclassical structure Asheville Federal acquired was designed in 1922 by well-known architect Ronald Greene for the National Bank of Commerce. Greene’s handiwork was actually a renovation and reconfiguration of two turn-of-the-century buildings that shared a common masonry wall. Both had brick facades fronting on Church Street, which Greene covered with a facing of artificial stone. (In the late 1940s, a third building was joined to the bank, creating an even larger space.)

But after waiting a few years for First Union to complete its new premises and actually move out, Asheville Federal commissioned a complete overhaul of the Church Street structure. As described by the Asheville Citizen at the time, the plans called for covering the existing facade with pink panels of porcelainized steel, covering up some of the windows, and replacing the rest with “direction glass [blocks] and thermopane.” Interior changes included accenting the main floor with “a lay-in ceiling of fiberglass and aluminum framework with an interspersed arrangement of flush fluorescent lights” and replacing the original flooring with “a vinyl covering in a travertine Italian marble pattern,” according to a Feb. 7, 1965, article titled “Asheville Federal Plans New Location.”

To many people today, these alterations may seem little short of sacrilegious. But this was the ’60s — a time when experimentation with new materials was rampant, and the more futuristic a building looked, the better. And for whatever reasons, the 1920s didn’t seem quite as exotic as they do today. Indeed, “It all sparkles like new money,” the Citizen proclaimed about the face-lift in another story later that same year.

Flash forward 37 years. By 2002, Asheville Savings Bank had outgrown the Church Street facility and had long since moved many of its administrative and support staff to other locations. But the building remained crowded and “chopped up in terms of access,” Executive Vice President Steve Young explains, and something had to change.

Bank leaders considered razing the aging structure and building a new one in its place, or selling the property and moving to a new facility out of town. In the end, however, they decided to restore the current building to its 1920s glory and keep the main branch operations, the business-banking division and the executive offices downtown. Renovation of the downtown structure began in November of 2003 and was completed this February (the administrative and support staff were moved to Enka-Candler in 2003).

As bank President/CEO John B. Dickson puts it: “We are the oldest locally managed, independent financial institution in Asheville and an important part of the history of this town. … Our roots are here, in this building and in the downtown area. It’s where we belong.”

The renovation was an expensive undertaking — costing approximately $3 million — but with the assistance of private consultant Sybil A. Bowers, the bank was able to secure the approval of the Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County, making the project eligible for historic-preservation tax credits.

And though old photographs showed “a nice neoclassical exterior,” it wasn’t until the 1960s panels were actually removed “that we knew that it was restorable — that there was enough of the old material there to really work with,” lead architect John Murrell-Kisner of Fisher Architects explains. That “old material” included artificial stone blocks (originally provided by the Curry Concrete Manufacturing Company of Biltmore) at the front of the building and scored stucco toward the back (both stemming from the 1922 renovation) as well as the turn-of-the-century brick from the additional building that was integrated into the bank facade in the ’40s.

But that doesn’t mean it was all smooth sailing. “The job was challenging because of the variety of materials that needed to be restored,” notes Ken Fussell of McCarroll Construction, the general contractor for the project. He gives particular credit to Carolina Waterproofing and Restoration (which redid the brick, the concrete facade and the cornice work) and to J.L. Wallen Inc. (which restored the exterior stucco). Liberty Wood Products custom-made the exterior framework at the main entrance.

The cornice work proved particularly problematic, because the original cornice had been knocked off to accommodate the 1960s panels, Murrell-Kisner explains. But the renovation team did have resources to guide them: historic photos as well as a reference book that was popular in the 1920s and ’30s, The American Vignola: A Guide to the Making of Classical Architecture by William R. Ware. And though the new cornice had to be made of a lightweight composite material rather than the original concrete in order to satisfy the modern building code, it “is exactly what the original cornice would have looked like,” says the architect.

During the restoration process, Murrell-Kisner found that Greene had used a blend of Doric and Tuscan (two of the five orders of classical architecture) in the 1922 project. The Tuscan order can be seen in the very solid walls and columns, while the more ornate entablature at the top of the building is Doric. “It’s very unusual to see orders mixed like this,” notes Murrell-Kisner. “But Ronald Greene was really one of the most sophisticated architects working around here, and to mix orders like that is something that not many architects would have attempted.”

Greene also designed a number of other Asheville landmarks during the ’20s, including Claxton Elementary School (which is similar in style to the Church Street structure), the Westall Building, the Jackson Building (Western North Carolina’s first skyscraper), the Municipal Building and the Longchamps Apartments.

New windows were also fabricated to look like the 1922 originals — complete with intricate, X-shaped mullions — only this time around, they were made of aluminum instead of wood. The current renovation also re-established the dual character the building had after the 1922 makeover — Greene’s neoclassical facade and the adjoining turn-of-the-century building, which once again has its own brick facade fronting Church Street and will be rented out to tenants.

Restoring the interior was even trickier, says Murrell-Kisner. There wasn’t much left of the original, and they had no old photos to provide clues. There was a local man who remembered what the building had looked like when he was a child and his father had a law office there, and a newspaper description from the 1922 opening helped a little. But “we didn’t know the old floor plan,” the architect recalls.

Still, several original interior features were retained, such as the black-and-white mosaic tile in the basement and also in the ladies room. Visions Design Group, the interior-design firm for the project, used that black-and-white theme in redoing all the restrooms, explains company President B.J. Miller.

The ladies room may have been the first such facility in a downtown business other than a shop or restaurant. Up till then, notes Murrell-Kisner, women weren’t expected to visit banks. If they did have to make a financial transaction, they usually sent a male relative or acquaintance on their behalf.

In describing the 1922 renovation, an Asheville Times article from Aug. 23 of that year notes, “There are two additional tellers’ windows, facing on a separate enclosure, for the special use of ladies.” A few paragraphs down, the article continues: “A ladies rest room is included, which represents the latest departure in service for bank customers. This rest room is completely furnished for the comfort of lady customers, with chairs and other furniture of old mahogany.”

The team was able to restore one room — called the Board Room in the 1922 article — to its original state. “The [wood-beamed and gold-leaf-stenciled] ceiling of that room and about 75 percent of the walls were [about] the only things left intact from the old building that had gone through so many generations of renovations,” Murrell-Kisner reports.

For the most part, however, the renovation team didn’t try to re-create the actual physical layout of the 1920s structure. Because of the demands of modern mechanical systems and building codes — not to mention the very different needs of 21st-century banking — that just wasn’t feasible. But the new interior does incorporate many features that pay homage to an earlier time, notes Murrell-Kisner: a vintage color scheme, lots of wood trim, scored plaster, wide-slat blinds on the windows, a rustic-looking wood floor, and period-appropriate light fixtures. There’s also an elegant, concave teller area whose Tuscan columns echo the exterior.

But the architectural renovation isn’t Asheville Savings’ only step back in time, notes Young. Back in the day, the Board Room was offered to the public as a place to hold community meetings. And as a nod to its history, the restored space — renamed the Community Room — is once again made available to nonprofits and bank customers for such gatherings.

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