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PNC helps undo damage at historic Mellon Bank building

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
PNC Bank's new location at 500 Smithfield Street Downtown features old pieces from the 1924 bank building repurposed art. Fluted bronze columns (above) and old doors from the 1924 building (below) are examples.

You can entrust your history to PNC. Even, it seems, if you're the old Mellon Bank.

As most everyone in town knows, one of the most magnificent commercial interiors in the entire country was gutted 15 years ago when Mellon's marble-columned main branch Downtown was sold off to become a Lord & Taylor department store.

Although the exterior, at Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street, was left unchanged, the department store stripped the palatial, neo-classical interior and inserted five floors of routine retail space into the building, which once featured a 62-foot-high central banking hall. The 222-foot-long hall (remember, a football field is just 300 feet) was lined by 24 Ionic columns, made of white Italian marble, that reached to nearly the full height of the skylit ceiling.

This was a travesty. Absolutely the worst destruction of historic architecture this town has seen.

The department store, as it happened, failed in just four years, and the building then sat derelict for a decade.

Now comes PNC, an organization that has proven itself to be architecturally and historically astute, and it is giving the building new life as a call center staffed by more than 700 of its bank employees. PNC has moved in after two years of planning and construction. And, what's most significant, is that PNC has rescued and honored with its renovation just about as much of the building's history as possible.

There is, of course, no way that PNC or anyone else could even remotely restore the old banking hall. And it may seem dismaying that the inexorable arc of technology has brought a call center into what was once nicknamed “the Cathedral of Earning,” the heart of the Mellon financial empire.

PNC and its architects have done a lot to not only give the call-center employees a bright and airy building to work in, but they have done nearly everything possible to make the building's history abundantly clear.

For just one example, there's no PNC sign at all on the historical exterior. And even the old Mellon National Bank & Trust Co. night depository on the outside has been preserved.

Employees entering the building from the Oliver Avenue side, next to where the old main vault of the bank used to be, encounter a dramatically lit lobby four stories high that surrounds the four great Ionic marble columns that remained after the Lord & Taylor debacle. PNC has retained the escalators that Lord & Taylor installed in this space adjacent to the four columns. But that's a plus. The escalators give employees a far more graceful access to their work spaces than typical office elevators.

The walls of the lobby are lined with artifacts of the old bank that PNC found stacked in a basement. Doors, railings, classical bronze trim from the old teller's cages, metalwork that was once over interior entrance lobbies, all these have been resurrected from the basement and are displayed — with explanatory labels — on the walls. Even cafeteria tables are made from the bases of the old check-writing tables from the original Mellon Bank lobby.

Original lighting fixtures, carefully restored and outfitted with new LED bulbs, grace one floor. And framed reproductions of the building's original architectural drawings are hung on the walls throughout. In fact, all of the artwork in the building relates to the old bank.

The Mellon Bank building was designed by the New York firm of Trowbridge & Livingston with architect E.P. Mellon (a family member) as a partner. It opened for business in March 1924. At the time of its opening, a New York architecture magazine referred to it as “probably the finest edifice in the world devoted exclusively to banking.” The magazine's writer, remarking on the palatial dimensions of the space, thought it worthwhile to note that “there are some things not to be measured in terms of cash. There is a certain inspirational comeback to be derived from the spaciousness and elegance of these great rooms devoted to finance.”

Mellon Bank, of course, eventually sold off all its retail banking operations to what is now Citizens Bank, and it merged with Bank of New York to create BNY Mellon — which still maintains a highly significant business presence in Pittsburgh, even without retail banking. Many of us can remember, of course, when PNC, as Pittsburgh National Bank, and Mellon Bank competed head-to-head at the retail banking level in Pittsburgh for many years.

The new interiors were planned by Gensler, the San Francisco firm that has designed a new skyscraper for PNC that's under construction at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Wood Street. Ellis Schmidlapp of Pittsburgh's Landmark Design Associates provided the historical direction.

PNC has become something of a corporate patron of good architecture and history. It maintains a “Legacy Project” to preserve the histories of various banks in 19 states that it has acquired in recent years. Here, in Pittsburgh, you can find in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel a display of archaeological artifacts that PNC encountered when excavating several years ago for Three PNC Plaza, at Liberty and Fifth. And PNC is responsible for the Lantern Building on Liberty Avenue — a project that rescued a small but prominent building at the head of Sixth Street, near Heinz Hall. For years, the building had been covered with billboards, and now, with a refined “translucent” modern exterior, houses an animated display of the history of the rebuilding of Downtown since the 1950s.

We can be grateful for this type of corporate citizenship. As the New York writer said 90 years ago, there is a certain “inspirational comeback” in all of this.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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