Twentieth Century Main Street

Main Street’s Evolution

            Main Street is a common street name all over the United States; one is found in almost every city and town. It typically marks a city’s center of economic and business activity, and can be home to government buildings. Throughout American history, however, each Main Street has undergone changes that show its evolution over time. Main Street in Richmond is no stranger to these same changes that took place across the country. Two overarching trends, the growth of businesses and building height, can be seen by tracing the history of First and Merchants National Bank on Main Street, along with a backlash of the historic preservation movement, as Richmonders witness their old city disappear.

Upward expansion was a major trend taking place on Main Streets throughout the country by the middle of the twentieth century. Space on Main Streets throughout the United States was becoming more and more limited due to all of the development and commercialization taking place.[1] Richmond’s Main Street followed this national trend as well. In examining pictures of Main Street from the twentieth century, it is clear how the expansion proceeded. Most of the buildings during the early part of the twentieth century averaged four to five stories in height.[2] But by the 1960s, skyscrapers around the First and Merchant’s Bank included the Ross Building, the Mutual Building, and the Whittet and Shepperson Buildings.[3] Specifically, the First and Merchant’s National Bank building went through its own growth towards the sky. Before it became First and Merchant’s Bank, it was just First National Bank. Its original building on Main Street was only about three stories tall, and lay in the shadow of a much larger thirteen-story building.[4] The bank expanded, however, after it merged with Merchant’s National Bank in 1926. It became large enough that it required the office space contained in an eighteen-story building. [5] Later on in the bank’s history, it would grow large enough to require a building of 500,000 – 600,000 square feet, which equates to about twenty-five to thirty stories.[6] Why, however, did the bank need all of this commercial space to conduct all of its operations? The answer lies in the fact that First and Merchant’s National Bank continually expanded throughout its time in the city of Richmond.

First and Merchant’s National Bank began a series of mergers with other banks in Virginia in 1959. It announced a merger with Savings Bank and Trust Co on January 13, 1959, and later on in that same year it would merge with First National of Ashland on October 15. In 1961, First and Merchants merged with Petersburg Savings and American Trust Company on July 19. It would merge with two more banks, Augusta National Bank of Staunen on April 12, 1962, and the Bank of Chesapeake on January 11, 1966, before announcing its plans to expand its corporate headquarters.[7] Before its last merger in 1966, First and Merchant’s National Bank was already the largest bank in Virginia, and was even known as one of the most solid banking institutions in the nation, according to a headline in the Times Dispatch on April 24, 1965. But this large size also meant that it needed a large corporate headquarters, and so it set out to build one in its home on Main Street in Richmond.

The expansion of the bank further marks another trend taking place on Main Streets throughout the country. Beginning in the 1920s, a trend of corporate chains expanding took place.[8] First and Merchants National Bank is thus in this sense following this trend as it continually expanded, especially during the 1950s. Another portion to this trend on Main Streets throughout the country was that as corporate chains expanded, they were not afraid to “obliterate historic structures” as they proceeded with new construction projects.[9] At the same time that Corporate America was taking over on Main Street in Richmond, a national historical preservation movement was beginning.[10] Thus, as First and Merchant’s National Bank was planning on destroying a piece of Richmond’s downtown architectural history, the bank’s expansion would not go unprotected.

Like most large projects, the bank’s construction would not come without controversy. The site that the company picked out was contained between 11th and 12th Streets, and even included “about one-third of the adjacent block between 10th and 11th Streets.”[11] This would mean that all of the buildings between these street blocks would be destroyed. For some time there was controversy surrounding the buildings that would be destroyed in these blocks. The buildings were historic, and contained the famous iron fronts that marked an old era in Main Street’s architectural history. Photos reveal people protesting the expansion of the bank in these street blocks, specifically because they did not want to see the historic iron fronts disappear. After much protest, the bank gave in and agreed to preserve the iron fronts. [12] This was a victory for the historic preservation movement in Richmond, but still entire street blocks were destroyed. Images show the buildings boarded up and the wreckage of decades of history in the loss of these buildings. Yet, the bank was victorious in expanding. This marks the same trend that the Times Dispatch notes as being a cycle of change every ten years in the financial district. According to “The Changing Face of East Main Street,” “about every ten years the face of East Main Street undergoes a major face lifting.” In the sixties, it was seeing the construction of the Ross building, and now it would be the construction of the new $22 million bank. [13]

The Times Dispatch was not a fan of First and Merchants National Bank by any means, as it noted as early as 1959 that First and Merchants National Bank had made the old Richmond disappear as it merged with yet another bank. During the merge with Savings Bank and Trust Co, the city went from having nine banks to only eight, and the people were not even given any time to adjust. Instead, old customers of Savings Bank and Trust Co were vying to be the first customers at the new bank.[14] This is culture shock to many old Richmonders who grew up with the bank, and did not like to see the growth of big corporate banks.

Main Street in Richmond follows the typical development pattern of main streets in the United States. During the mid twentieth century, like all other main streets, it was in the process of building towards the sky, due to lack of space elsewhere. It was also falling victim to expanding corporate interests, as it saw the loss of many other smaller banks all merging with First and Merchants National Bank. Main Street in Richmond also saw its own taste of the historical preservation movement, in that people did not want to see the disappearance of their beloved iron fronts. Whether the changes that Main Street underwent can be seen as a destruction of its old character and individual uniqueness, it is undeniable that it is no longer the same street today that it was in the early twentieth century.  Perhaps this just shows the fact that modernization is a fact, and that streets are the first to adapt.

[1] Richard Francaviglia, MainStreet Revisited (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996), 59-60.

[2] Francaviglia, Main Street Revisited, 3-4.

[3] Photographs of these images are available at the Valentine museum; Ross Building image date October 1965, Mutual Building image date April 1964, Whittet and Shepperson Building image date February 1967; courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

[4] First National Bank Richmond image, 1924; courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

[5] Information on the back of image showing First National Bank, Cook Collection 125; Valentine Richmond History Center

[6] Elliot Cooper, “Bank to Buy Prime Area for Building,” Times-Dispatch, March 19, 1970, F-1.

[7] Freeman File Microfeeches of the Richmond Times Dispatch, FIR-FLO (80)

[8] Francaviglia, Main Street Revisited, 58.

[9] Francaviglia, Main Street Revisited, 58.

[10] Francaviglia, Main Street Revisited, 51.

[11] Elliot Cooper, “Bank to Buy Prime Area for Building,” Times-Dispatch, March 19, 1970, F-1.

[12] Image and information on back of image showing people Picketing the destruction of the iron fronts in front of First and Merchants bank, Valentine Richmond History Center, Aprill 11, 1971

[13] “Changing Face of East Main Street,” Times Dispatch, April 11, 1971

[14] John Gunn, “’Bit of Old Richmond Gone’ As Banks Merge,” Times Dispatch, January 31, 1959, 9

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