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Speaking Not As A Former Customer

A long time ago, I had a very small savings account at the Dime Savings Bank in Queens. The building above was the headquarters of the Dime Savings Bank in Detroit, which was apparently an unrelated business. I guess people used to think about saving dimes a lot. In any case, this was a building I was happy to see in my Detroit wanderings, as I knew of it from some great pictures of its construction. First here’s a picture published on New Year’s Eve, 1912, shortly after construction was completed:

Construction fencing is still up at the storefronts, but it looks like the main entrance was open. The bottom three floors have been altered since then – “modernized” – and the acroteria have been removed from the parapet, but other than that it looks much the same. Here’s a reverse angle today (well, last week, but whatever):

That’s the Penobscot Building across the street, sixteen years younger and a lot more flamboyant. Here’s a close up of the new facade on the lower floors:

I guess having entrance rain protection is good, but that cloth canopy really does nothing for the facade. And I liked the old pediment. The lobby has a skylight that is definitely newish, but it’s hard to tell if it replaced an older skylight or (my guess) an ornate plaster ceiling:

The corinthian columns and frieze call for a ceiling, not a skylight, according to 1910 architectural design. In any case, here are the photos that made me like this building before I saw it in person:

A few thoughts. First, both pictures are listed at the Library of Congress as circa 1910, but 1911 is far more likely, given the 1912 end of construction. The building really stood out when built, towering over its neighbors in a way that it does not today and has not since Penobscot went up. The construction is pretty much the standard for that era, including the fact that the plain brick facade of the typical floors was advancing far more rapidly than the more ornate second and third floors, with the first floor left open for construction access. If you look at the entrance in the second photo, it looks like there was a series of steel beams to hold a gable roof behind the pediment, which suggests this was a solid roof, since that doesn’t match the current framing around the skylights.

More than anything else, and I’ve made this point before about other buildings, I’m struck by the relentless cartesian grid of steel of the bare frame. It would disappear soon enough behind concrete floors and masonry curtain walls, but here’s proof, if it was needed, of the close relationship between commercial architecture of that era and the economics of both rentable space and steel technology. The frame would have been easier to build and design without the light court, but the interior space would have been unrentable; the space might have been more valuable with a more decorative facade, but that would have required more secondary steel like that visible (in the last photo) for the main cornice.