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New London will lose a little of its soul with bank closing

February 3, 2019

I’d like to borrow an anecdote here from a 1993 story in The Day by my former colleague Stan DeCoster, who was writing about the collapse of New England Savings Bank of New London, a bank with a rich history that began with the spoils of whaling.

“Formerly the Savings Bank of New London, the institution was born the morning of July 2, 1827, when Robert Jones, a black seaman, handed 195 million in bad assets, most related to the real estate bust, it was purchased by Citizens Financial Group, which, for all the years since, has kept the lights on in the old bank headquarters on Eugene O’Neill Drive.

In April, Citizens, now just a tenant in the landmark stone building on the main street into the downtown — what used to be called Main Street — plans to move out, opening a new branch in a modern building on Howard Street, on the outskirts of downtown.

It seems unlikely this iconic building will be used again as a bank, and I think that will be a sad loss of a little piece of the city’s soul, a functioning reminder of its glory days of whaling.

One can only imagine to what new use the grand lobby of the bank, with its marble-encased teller stations and elaborate gold paint trim under the simulated skylights, will become. You can’t walk into that bank lobby and not feel good about leaving your money with the proprietors of such a grand space.

It’s a wonderful reminder of times when a bank’s best branding was done with brick and mortar, long before anyone dreamed of banking on their phone.

The city and region have lost their share of grand bank headquarters.

The home of New London’s 1833 Whaling Bank, eventually housed behind a brick and stone Greek Revival façade on State Street, is now owned by a church. The impressive Industrial Trust building in downtown Westerly is owned by a land trust. The beautiful stone bank in downtown Mystic that was most recently a Bank of America is now a Realtor’s office.

I will feel especially sad to see the old Savings Bank of New London, where I have been cashing paychecks for the last 40 years, drift into history for good.

The building is a contributing site to the downtown district on the National Register of Historic Places. The current building, erected as the bank matured, dates to 1870. The two wings were built in 1890 and the entire façade was reworked in 1905.

If you look carefully, you will notice the façade, like the front of The Day building beside it, is built in a slight arc that matches the curve in the road.

There’s a little time left to visit the building while it is still functioning as a bank. If you go, notice the oil paintings that hang around the perimeter of the main room, depicting scenes of whaling hunts. You can also peek into the magnificent board room and president’s office, with their rich wood paneling, marble fireplaces and brass Victorian chandeliers.

Maybe New London Landmarks, which gets credit for saving so much New London history, could stage a fundraiser in the bank, before it goes, a last hurrah, a reminder of a time when the city had a place where you could proudly and publicly deposit your riches.

And maybe it could be made somehow into a harbinger of hope, the city’s next great era to come.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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