A Whiting Landmark
By John Hmurovic
You can call it Chase Bank. Or, you might still call it Bank One, or Bank of Indiana. If you are older, it may be the State Bank of Whiting to you. The oldest among us may still remember it as the First National Bank. But most of us would agree that the building on the northwest corner of 119th Street and New York Avenue should be called a Whiting Landmark.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary says a landmark is “a structure (such as a building) of unusual historical and usually aesthetic interest.” For such a small community, Whiting-Robertsdale is blessed with several landmarks, including the Whiting Public Library, the Community Center, and the Hoosier Theatre. Those buildings add to the beauty of the community and give Whiting-Robertsdale a personality that makes it different from other cities. Landmarks are buildings which have been a part of our lives from our first days here. No matter how different we might be from our neighbors, we are bound together by living in the same community. Landmarks are a part of our common identity.
The bank building on the northwest corner of 119th and New York fits into the landmark category. It certainly holds “aesthetic interest.” More than any other bank in Whiting-Robertsdale, it looks like a bank. Or at least, it looks like a bank looked in 1914. That’s the year it was built. Its stately appearance adds to the attractiveness of downtown Whiting, much more than a modern building would at that busy intersection. That’s because it fits in with its neighbors: the 1930s-era Post Office across New York Avenue; the early 20th century buildings on the corners across 119th Street; and the Whiting City Hall building next door. Of all these old structures, the bank on the northwest corner is, arguably, the most interesting.
But besides aesthetic interest, it has historical importance. The building was constructed in 1914. It was built to be the home of the First National Bank of Whiting. “It will be one of the most beautiful and impressive buildings in Whiting,” wrote Louise Mattern and Marguerite Schaub in the 1914 edition of the Reflector, the yearbook of Whiting High School. “The people of Whiting can look forward with pride to its completion,” said the Whiting Call newspaper in 1913 when plans for the new building were announced.
The bank was established late in 1902, with Gallus J. Bader and Fred J. Smith as its principal creators. Its original home was just a block away, on the northwest corner of 119th and Oliver. It was in Dr. G.S. Hilliard’s brick building, a structure which still stands and is currently the home of the Comfort Roast coffee shop. Dr. Hilliard was a dentist who came to Whiting in 1897. His office was on the second floor of his building, while the bank shared the lower floor with a doctor’s office. The First National Bank grew rapidly, starting with $40,000 in deposits in 1903, to half a million dollars by 1914. More cashiers and clerks had to be hired. The Hilliard building was too small.
The new building was ground-breaking for Whiting in several ways. It was, for instance, the first major building in the city which reflected the fact that women were increasingly moving into the workforce. “An interesting illustration of the feminine invasion of the business world,” Miss Mattern and Miss Schaub wrote in the Reflector, “is in the waiting, or rest room, provided for the ladies.”
Another unique feature, which all city residents and visitors were able to enjoy, was the clock attached to the front of the building. It was nine feet high, three feet wide, with thirty-nine-inch dials. The name of the bank was above the face of the clock. The clock could be seen from a distance, in either direction, on 119th Street, even at night, because it was illuminated by electricity, another uncommon feature for signs in 1914. The clock could also be heard. Every quarter of an hour it had a different sound as it chimed. Then, at the top of each hour, the full Westminster chimes would play, followed by the strike of a chime for each hour, to let listeners know the time of day.
When the bank was built, the Congregational Church was just to its west, where Whiting City Hall is now located. The space between the church building and the bank was intentionally kept open. The idea was to create a space that was green and cheerful. It remains open to this day, and since 1970 it has gone by the name of Binhammer Park, named in honor of the bank’s long-time president, Carl Binhammer.
Another feature of the building, in its early years, was the placement of flower boxes on the ledges of the second-floor windows. “The First National Bank has blossomed out with window gardens,” the newspaper said in 1915, “greatly to the satisfaction and pleasure of all concerned.”
Architect M. Clifford Wiley of East Chicago designed the building. It cost between fifty and sixty thousand dollars to build in 1914. Its grand opening on March 27, 1915, was a big event in Whiting. Over four thousand people came to look. It was too early in the season for the outdoor flower boxes to be in bloom, but indoors there were flowers everywhere, and their fragrance filled the air. Most of the flowers came from other businesses, sent as a grand opening gift. The bank itself, greeted all women who visited that day with a large, American Beauty rose, while all girls received a carnation. The fresh smell of flowers was probably mixed with cigar smoke, because every adult male who visited received a cigar. The cigars were called “Jim’s Best,” and were made in Whiting.
But the bank building itself was the main attraction. Visitors were told to notice the floor of Tennessee marble; the fixtures of Skyros marble from Greece; and the African mahogany in the director’s office. The cages of the tellers were on the first floor. So were two offices which were important in a town filled with immigrants: A foreign exchange for money brought from overseas, and a steamship booking department to arrange journeys between Whiting and the home country of the immigrants. “Two immense vaults with time lock combinations on their massive doors,” were also available for viewing, according to an article in the Whiting Call.
Open house visitors could also go to the second floor, which had its own entrance on New York Avenue. There were five office suites upstairs, consisting of four rooms in each suite. The first occupants were attorneys (John H. Fetterhoff and George Michaely), and doctors (A.J. Lauer, B.W. Avery, and G.H. Hoskins).
The First National Bank building was constructed in a time of prosperity in Whiting. The refinery was booming, thanks in part to the huge demand for automobiles, and the need for gasoline to fuel those newfangled vehicles. That growth created more jobs, and more jobs led to a doubling of the city’s population between the bank’s founding in 1902, to the time its new building was constructed in 1914. So, it was no wonder that even though the building was two stories tall, it was built with expansion in mind. “The massive foundations and walls will permit its being enlarged to five stories, whenever the need shall require.”
But the good times did not last. In 1929, the national economy almost collapsed. Banks across the country shut down, never to reopen, as they ran out of money during the Great Depression. In 1932, every bank in Hammond shut its doors. In Whiting, the Central State Bank, which had just constructed Whiting’s tallest building a few years earlier, had to close forever. Two other banks were very close to collapse. But, then, Standard Oil stepped in. It was one of the best examples in Whiting history of the close relationship that existed between the refinery and the city.
“Officials of the Standard Oil Company realized that the banks…would close if something wasn’t done quickly,” said Walter E. Schrage, head of the Bank of Whiting. Standard, one of the nation’s largest companies, did not want to see the banks fail in the hometown of its largest refinery. The company stepped in to save the two that were closest to failure: First Trust and Savings, and the First National Bank. “A conference was held,” Schrage said, “and a new institution, the State Bank of Whiting, was organized.” Standard Oil used its resources to back up the new bank. The knowledge that Standard Oil was there, and would not let the new bank fail, kept depositors from panicking and withdrawing their money from the bank. The president of the new State Bank of Whiting was Edward G. Seubert, the president of the Standard Oil Company of Indiana.
Over the years, the State Bank of Whiting changed owners and names several times. The building, however, still stands on the corner of 119th and New York Avenue. Shortly after it was constructed, the building was hailed as “one of the great landmarks in Whiting history.” It was unique for its time, but it was probably premature to call it a landmark in 1914. But in the century-plus that has gone by, the building’s stately appearance has become something which every living generation of Whiting-Robertsdale residents recognizes. It has become a part of what gives downtown Whiting its character. Combine that with its rich history, and there can be no doubt that no matter what it is called, the bank on the northwest corner of 119th and New York is a Whiting Landmark.