PITTSTON — Construction of the Dime Bank building changed the landscape of downtown Pittston. Now — 90 years later — the iconic building is looking more like its former self than it has for decades thanks to restoration efforts by Reilly and Associates.
The Pittston Dime Bank opened in 1911 with assets worth $57,795, by end of 1926 it was worth $2.7 million and was way too busy for its original site at 29 S. Main St., across from Charles Street. A 50-by-120-foot lot at Dock and Main streets was purchased for a bigger Dime Bank.
But before the new Dime Bank could go up, the burnt out hull of the Evans Brothers’ block had to go down. The demolition, which began Sept. 1, 1927, erased a significant piece of Pittston history.
Older Pittston residents better knew the Evans Block as the Kirby Block, which housed the city’s first public hall, Phoenix Hall, a three-story brick building with a stage. It hosted lectures, stump speeches, private dances, pool matches, skating, singing competitions and in the early 1900s, a new fangled game — basketball. The first floor housed merchants, undertakers, a private school, confectioners and several saloons.
J.P. Kirby bought the Phoenix in January 1902 for $11,500. Kirby sold the block to the Evans Brothers in 1909 for $38,000, who sold it to Dime Bank for $60,000.
Exactly 90 years ago, in mid-September 1927 with demolition complete, Dime Bank workmen dug excavations in the sandy soil for footings to distribute the tremendous weight of the steel girders that would make up the new bank’s skeleton.
Those workmen were from the Greater Pittston area, by agreement with the design-and-build general contractors Hoggson Brothers of New York City.
On Sept. 29, 1927, the Pittston Gazette ran a front page story with a huge rendering of what the bank would look like when it was finished in the spring of 1928. In the rendering, the outside of the bank looks exactly as it does today.
The story described the bank’s specifications in detail, calling it “One of the most attractive and spacious banks in the Valley.” The design called for 36 large offices on the upper floors and three storerooms in the basement with an entrance on Dock Street.
Built to be fireproof, the building would be all steel, concrete and stone, with the “Main and Dock elevations of Indiana limestone.”
Construction was expected to take nine to 10 months and the bank opened on July 2, 1928,
The bank also featured 13 teller cages or “wickets” for general banking on the 45-by-20-foot bank work floor, a school savings department for students, a 15-ton circular vault door and “a retiring room for ladies.”
By Thanksgiving 1927, the steel skeleton was three stories high. On May 28, the temporary safety fences surrounding the building came down, giving citizens a good look at the bank front.
Alexander Sloan was the first president of Dime Bank. Greater Pittston Historical Society Vice President Julio Caprari said Sloan was civic-minded.
“He was a life-long community leader, active in business, industry and church. He was president of the Pittston YMCA,” Caprari said. “Sloan served nearly a half-century in various roles at Pittston Stove Works, including treasurer, superintendent, director and foreman. He even held a patent for a stove grating-system that became an industry standard.”
The original tenants of the first floor storerooms were electrician A.W. Alexander, florist Bernard Donnelly, and barber Leo Cabot — who advertised four chairs for men and a private booth where women could have their hair done by “Mr. Sylpierlla, a permanent wave expert.”
Third floor tenants were MetLife and Prudential insurance, Dr. R.C. Gilroy, Mary Dougherty’s insurance, attorney Leo Whit, P.A. Sammon real estate and insurance, and Dr. B.J. McGuire.
On the fourth floor were attorneys Flannery and Gillespie and English, and Drs. M.J. Murphy, R.L. Mantione, A.G. Hinrichs.
As it happened, the timing wasn’t great for the Pittston Dime Bank. For all its grandeur, it couldn’t survive the stock market crash a year later and the ensuing Great Depression. It was sold to a group headed by legendary coal magnate John C. Kehoe. Caprari called the Dime Bank building “the most recognizable, artistic structure in Pittston.”
He described what happened when Kehoe bought the building.
“John Kehoe was a powerful political boss for over 30 years. From the 1920s through the 1950s, he was postmaster, Luzerne County assessor, Pittston City treasurer and president of Pittston school board.” Caprari said. “He supported both Democrats and Republicans. Candidates he supported rarely lost the election. After he purchased the Dime Bank, he bankrolled the start up of the Sunday Dispatch in the basement of the Dime Bank building. He wrote a weekly column ‘As Kehoe Knows It,’ which he used as a pulpit to bash his political enemies.”
In 1950s and ‘60s, the building housed the state employment office.
The most famous tenant was Henry Markowski, aka “Hank at the Bank.” He ran Hank’s Newsstand in the front of the first floor for 35 years into the 1990s.
Architect Ettore Lippi bought the building for his business after he was flooded out of his Kingston office in 1972. Lippi renovated the building for his purposes with little attention to its historical significance.
Reilly Associates bought the 24,000 square foot building in 2006 and spent $500,000 renovating the upper floors for its offices while restoring and preserving the original architectural integrity where possible.
Reilly Associates President Tom Reilly, the engineer for the city’s streetscape project, said a unique feature of the building is the ornate wrought iron façade with a gold colored coating over the front door on Main Street, which was uncovered and restored. It had been hidden by sheet metal in the 1970s renovation.
“We took out the drop ceiling and restored the plaster. We restored the railings and lobby floor,” Reilly said.
The triple sets of floor-to-ceiling, nine-panel windows on the second floor, some of which were covered with sheet metal, were replaced with double pane glass while retaining the original panoramic look.
During the 1970s renovation, a wall was built in front of the main vault door. Reilly said they are considered taking the wall out and exposing the vault at some point.
It‘s appropriate that Reilly Associates would own and preserve the Dime Bank Building. Not just because Tom’s grandfather, John J. Reilly, started the engineering firm just across South Main in the Penn Park building in 1930, but also because his great grandfather, also John J. Reilly, was the general contractor who built the first Dime Bank building in 1911.