The bank first opened its doors in 1923 to primarily European residents, a demographic that changed rapidly during the Great Migration that took place between 1915 and 1950. As black populations moved in, whites moved out. The building deteriorated after it closed in the 1980s and was soon slated to go the way of many beautiful, crumbling structures: demolition. But before it reached this critical point, Gates purchased it from the city for one dollar and set about fundraising for its restoration. According to the Rebuild Foundation’s development manager Amy Schachman, the bank’s cheap sale was a strategic move by the city, who knowingly “gave” him the building with the understanding that he would have the financial means to restore it.
But bringing the building back to life was no small feat. When Gates acquired it in 2012, the bank’s basement was flooded with almost five feet of water and the roof and ornate plaster ceilings were collapsing. Gates raised $4.5 million for the project, in part by removing fragments of the bank’s marble slabs, which he called “bank bonds,” and selling them as works of art.
Following the restoration, the building’s history still seeps from every crack in the interior. The lofted first-floor ceilings have been recovered, their ornamented crown moldings cleaned and revived. The building itself is landmarked, along with certain fixtures. Those features, such as an iron staircase railing and textured glass windows, have been repurposed; the railing is now placed decoratively in the first-floor promenade, while the new third-floor offices benefit from the privacy granted them by the building’s opaque windows.