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'Very, very sad' day in Hill

| Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009

Customers trickled into the Hill District building that used to be the home of Dwelling House Savings and Loan Association on Monday, stunned and saddened that it no longer contained their bank.

The deposits and other transactions now belong to PNC Bank, which took over the minority-owned bank after federal regulators seized Dwelling House at day's end Friday because they determined it to be unsound.

"I just found out now," said Thomas Jones, 50, as he exited Dwelling House yesterday morning. "I'm so sad I could cry."

"I've banked with them since I was a kid," said Jones, now of the North Side but who grew up in the Hill. "They've been a pillar of the community."

Robert R. Lavelle, a director and former CEO, made it so. Now over 93, the African-American was named to the board of "Dwelling House Building and Loan" in 1957 when whites were leaving the Hill District and pulling out their money.

Equipped with a master's degree in accounting and economics from the University of Pittsburgh, he brought in other black talent, raised deposit interest rates and attracted loyal blacks for decades "because we needed to have a bank for black people," he said.

"I got the news about 5 o'clock Friday. I was dumbfounded," said Lavelle, who said he never took a salary in order to build up Dwelling House's capital. His income came from a real-estate business he operated.

"This man has done so much," said customer Ivella Davis, as she exited the bank. "It's very, very sad. It's another one of our black institutions closing."

Inside Dwelling House is a small and modest lobby with two teller windows, plus cookies and bottled water set out yesterday for parched customers who stepped in from the heat. On the walls hang three large photographs taken and signed by the Hill District's late great photographer, Charles "Teenie" Harris.

Within 90 days, PNC will shutter the facility at Centre and Herron avenues, and move the deposits and related business to PNC's branch at 1860 Centre Ave., said PNC spokesman Fred Solomon.

Of the 400 or so banking institutions solicited by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to acquire Dwelling House deposits and assets, the only bid the agency received was from PNC, said FDIC ombudsman Scott Hammer.

Dwelling House was the victim of Internet fraud that electronically siphoned about $3 million of its capital to numerous other institutions since late 2008. The S&L received an order from bank regulators in late May to raise at least $1 million by June 30, or be closed. The FBI and Pittsburgh police are investigating.

Several of the 62 financial institutions that were used by the Internet thieves agreed to remit to Dwelling House the amounts that were transferred into accounts at their institutions. The largest was Wells Fargo & Co., which sent $403,000 last week, along with nearly $500,000 from other, smaller banks.

Dollar Bank and five foundations also contributed $875,000 to make up the shortfall, said Dwelling House CEO John Haines Jr. But internal accounting errors discovered last week meant the S&L needed more than the $1.8 million it received at the eleventh hour.

"We just ran out of time," said Haines, a former Mellon Bank and General Motors executive. "And the regulators could not extend it any further."

The Office of Thrift Supervision on Friday said Dwelling House was "in an unsafe and unsound condition, was critically undercapitalized and had no reasonable prospect of recovery."

Dwelling House had $12.9 million in assets when it was taken over. About $9.1 million of that amount was in loans, including $8.3 million worth of home mortgages, said the FDIC.

More than 40 of the agency's employees worked through the weekend combing through Dwelling House's books. Most of them left yesterday, but a half-dozen will remain for another month or so to help answer customer questions, Hammer said.

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