Streets of Washington Presents The Equitable Building

Streets of Washington is the brilliant blog covering some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history written by John DeFerrari. John is also the author of the equally brilliant Lost Washington DC. ‘Streets of Washington Presents…’ will feature some fascinating buildings and history from around PoPville.

The former home of the Equitable Co-operative Building Association at 915 F Street NW, completed in 1912, is a small but eminently distinguished bank building. One glance at the facade dominated by four great Ionic columns, and you know what type of business operated here. What’s less obvious is that this was a uniquely progressive financial institution, meant to help the “little guy” save money, and it was founded by one of Washington’s most prominent and civic-minded citizens, John Joy Edson (1846-1935). The unique building—designated as an historic landmark both for its exterior and main banking room—has survived years of neglect as a nightclub and is currently being rehabilitated for retail use by the Douglas Development Corporation. It will be the site of the D.C. Preservation League’s 41st annual gala fundraiser on April 26, 2012, where attendees will have a unique opportunity to enjoy the beautiful former banking room inside.

The Equitable Building in 2010. Photo by the author.

Equitable was founded in 1879 by a group of leading citizens, including John Joy Edson, who would become its president in 1893. It was one of the first such associations to be founded in Washington. The intent of these small institutions was to encourage ordinary people to save money and also to make it easier for them to purchase homes by making loans on better terms than traditional banks offered. Members would “subscribe” to one or more shares of the association, pay modest monthly dues on those shares, and receive dividends in return as well as access to low-rate loans.

John Joy Edson, circa 1903. Source; Library of Congress.

Edson, Equitable’s leading light, was born in Jefferson, Ohio, in 1846. His family later moved to New York City, where in 1861, at the age of 15, he enlisted in the 61st New York Infantry (he said he was 19). He fought with the Army of the Potomac in several major Civil War engagements, including the Battle of Fredericksburg, where he was wounded. He was taken to the Armory Hospital on the Mall in Washington and discharged in March 1863. Once out of the army, he got a position as a clerk in the Treasury Department and went to school at night, earning a law degree from Columbian College (now George Washington University). In 1875 he went into practice as a patent lawyer and also began his involvement in banking, participating in the organization of several institutions, including Equitable in 1879 and the Washington Loan & Trust Company in 1889. He became president of Washington Loan & Trust in 1894, a year after assuming the same position at Equitable.

Washington Loan & Trust was the first trust company in the city and for many years the largest. It built and occupied the huge Romanesque Revival structure on the southwest corner of 9th and F Street, NW, across the street from Equitable. In running the two institutions, Edson had both the power and prestige of the large savings and loan company as well as the good karma of the smaller cooperative association across the street.

Continues after the jump.

The Washington Loan & Trust Company building. Photo by the author.

Equitable’s first building, of red pressed brick, had been two blocks west, on the site now occupied by the massive Woodward & Lothrop building. Woodies originally had just one corner of that block but took over more and more of it as the store grew. In 1910, Woodies negotiated with Equitable to acquire its old site and relocate the bank to 915 F Street, constructing a new building there.

The Equitable building was designed by two distinguished Washington architects, Frederick B. Pyle (1867-1934) and Arthur B. Heaton (1875-1951). Pyle was an accomplished Washington architect who designed several landmark D.C. buildings, including the restrained, neoclassical “modern” half of the Woodward & Lothrop building, the 1903 Hecht Company building at 7th and F Streets NW, and the King’s Palace store at 810 7th Street NW. He also served on Equitable’s board, so his connections made him a logical choice for the new building. However, it was Heaton who probably did most of the actual design work. Heaton was an extraordinarily prolific and versatile architect who worked on many buildings in a wide range of styles, including the National Cathedral, the Highland Apartments at 1915 Connecticut Avenue NW, and a variety of banks, such as Chevy Chase National Bank at 5524 Connecticut Avenue NW. For the Equitable, he designed an elegant, neoclassical structure of buff-colored brick with columns and trimwork of white Dover marble. A pair of massive bronze doors marks the entrance. Despite the modest size of the building, the main banking room inside is a grand, soaring space with monumental Corinthian pilasters along the walls and a gently arched, coffered ceiling with a central skylight. The wood finishes are Mexican mahogany. The Washington Post found the new building beautiful and noteworthy, and the Evening Star called it an “ornament for F Street.”

The entrance. Photo courtesy of the D.C. Preservation League archives.

By the time its new home opened in 1912, the bank’s president, John Joy Edson, was one of the city’s most prominent residents. Edson was a man with an extraordinary social conscience. Constance McLaughlin Green, in her seminal Washington: A History of the Capital 1800-1950, singles out Edson as a civic-minded leader of “exceptional vision and tireless vigor.” “His kindly, undistinguished face,” she writes, “partly hidden by untrimmed mustachios, showed little of the extraordinary force of his personality; he looked more like a small-town businessman than the powerful big city banker and the deeply religious, selfless social reformer that he was.” In a bow to his fellow Civil War veterans, he helped organize the first encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1892. As president of the Civil Service Reform Association, he persuaded Congress to enact curbs on the traditional practice of doling out government jobs as political favors and to replace it with a modern, professional civil service. Twice offered the position of commissioner of the District of Columbia, he declined both times, citing the numerous commitments he already had. He was on the boards of many charitable and educational institutions and directed the city’s board of charities. He also served as secretary of the National Geographic Society for many years, helping to build it up into a national institution. On his 75th birthday in 1921, a lavish dinner was held at the Willard Hotel to celebrate his lifetime of public service, with 400 prominent Washingtonians in attendance.

One day in May 1928, 82-year-old Edson was on F Street outside the Equitable building, and he stepped into the street, presumably to cross over to his other bank on the opposite side. He was struck by a car that was backing into a parking space and suffered a fractured skull. Doctors at first thought it unlikely that he would recover, but he quickly did and in fact lived another 7 years.

After Edson’s death, the Equitable Co-operative Building Association continued to prosper and grow for decades, changing its name to the Equitable Savings and Loan Association in 1955. The association had opened its first branch office in 1953 when it acquired a small Wheaton, Maryland, savings bank. It took over another small Maryland bank in 1962, and soon its directors decided that the institution’s future was in the suburbs. Despite legal obstacles, it was able to transfer its headquarters to Wheaton in 1971 and still keep its downtown location. However, in 1985, Equitable finally decided to close its venerable downtown home and move its operations entirely to Maryland. Renamed again in the 1990s, the Equitable Federal Savings Bank continued to operate from its Wheaton, Maryland headquarters until it was acquired by BB&T Corporation in 2003.

The building toward the end of its life as a bank. Photo courtesy of the D.C. Preservation League archives.

When Equitable abandoned its beautiful home on F Street in 1985, the building took on a new life. It had survived the worst of the bleak years of the 1960s and 1970s when everyone was turning their backs on downtown. The 1980s were a transitional decade; confidence was high that downtown was going to turn around, but it hadn’t completely gotten there yet. Across the street in the old Atlantic Building, the 9:30 Club had opened in 1980, ushering in a new era of downtown entertainment. Perhaps inspired by the 9:30 Club’s success, the first new tenant in the Equitable building was a nightclub called The Bank, which moved in in 1986, tearing out the mahogany tellers’ counters from the main banking room to turn it into a dance floor. The Bank lasted less than two years, however, and was replaced in 1989 by the Fifth Column, a dance club featuring lots of assertive, avant garde artwork that looked edgy and raw against the restrained elegance of the bank’s original architecture. The Fifth Column filed for bankruptcy in 1995 and was replaced by the Platinum nightclub, which initially got very favorable reviews. “I’ve always thought that old building (it says 1879 on an outside wall) was the best club space in town, and with the opening last month of the sleek and swank Platinum, I still think that,” wrote the Post’s Eric Brace in December 1999.

The building circa 1989. Photo courtesy of the D.C. Preservation League archives.

Platinum was successful for many years, but by the late 2000’s, the neighborhood had changed again, and there was less tolerance for rowdy entertainment. The 9:30 Club had moved out of the neighborhood in 1996 as buildings on the south side of the block were renovated or replaced. Much of the north side was renovated in 2006. Platinum finally closed in 2008. The space was then used briefly for a teen dance club called Club Bounce that was closed in October 2008 after a shooting incident nearby. New owners planned an events-oriented venue, to be called the “Museum of Arts and Sciences,” but the new club never officially opened. Finally, Douglas Development purchased the property in 2011, announcing that it would be renovated for retail or restaurant use rather than as another nightclub.

The main banking room is being used temporarily as an antiques showroom. Photo by the author.

The D.C. Preservation League nominated the building as an historic landmark in 1989, proposing that key interior spaces be included in the designation, specifically the main banking room, boardroom, and stairwell. However, the Historic Preservation Review Board approved only the exterior and main banking room for designation, stating that although the boardroom and stairwell had architectural features worthy of preservation, they weren’t as connected with the building’s public role as the facade and main banking room. Unfortunately, the exquisite, mahogany-paneled boardroom was recently destroyed during renovations and additions to the rear of the building. The beautiful, sky-lit main banking room, however, remains intact, as does the proud neoclassical facade.

Sources for this article included Fred A. Emery, “Banks and Bankers in the District of Columbia” in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 46-47 (1947); Merrill Edwards Gates, ed., Men of Mark in America (1905); Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington: A History of the Capital 1800-1950 (1962); John Clagett Proctor, ed., Washington Past and Present: A History (1930); the National Register of Historic Places registration form for the Equitable Co-operative Building Association (1994); the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board landmark decision (1994); and numerous newspaper articles.

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