The Old Bank Building (2401 Mt Vernon)

The Potomac Trust Co.
 Those who have been Del Ray residents for more than about ten years are likely to remember having heard references to “the old bank building”. The more recent arrivals will just have to take my word for it – it was a standard point of reference. Now the sparkling home of United Bank at 2401 Mt. Vernon Avenue, this Del Ray landmark was previously a bank for such a short time and so long ago that it is a mystery why the name still stuck 80 years later. I guess it just always looked so much like a bank.

 The Town of Potomac, Virginia (the Del Ray section of Alexandria since annexation in 1930) began taking off in the nineteen-teens and into the “roaring twenties”, fueled by a booming economy and both public transit and the fast-rising automobile. Established banks seem to have been reluctant to move into the upstart town, so two very disparate groups simultaneously formed local banks, each starting with $25,000 in initial capital.

 A group of Potomac merchants and business leaders formed the very conventional Bank of Del Ray in June 1923. Just a few days earlier, however, another group had organized the Potomac Trust Co. This effort was aimed explicitly at the workers in Potomac Yard and other predominantly blue-collar occupations.

 In contrast to the Bank of Del Ray local commercial experience was quite thin among the ranks of the officers of the Potomac Trust Co. The chairman was a physician and the three vice presidents consisted of a union official, another physician, and a DC resident who identified himself as manager of a “mercantile establishment” there. True, the president was John Ellis, a Potomac realtor, but he was new to that trade, having until recently been a court clerk. Other members of the board included a second officer of the machinists union, a civil engineer, two lawyers, and a train engineer in Baltimore.

 While the competing Bank of Del Ray opted for a low-cost, low-key approach, the Potomac Trust Co. was determined to open with a bang. On 18 July 1923 the Potomac Trust Co. bought the north-east corner lot at the intersection of Oxford and Mt. Vernon Avenues. They immediately laid out $9,000 of their initial funding to build what remains the most prominent commercial building in Del Ray.

 Apparently to refill their coffers the bank took out a mortgage of $10,000 on the property in mid-October and held their official opening in their beautiful new building on 27 October 1923. The Washington Post noted that it “was said to be the first labor bank in Virginia” and that “the larger part of the stock is owned by laboring men”, although that ownership may have been indirect, as the directors included a vice president and the secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Machinists. In any event, they apparently counted on the many Potomac Yard railway workers in the town to flock to the bank.

The bank had only brief success in renting out the building after its failure. Here the Goodnow Company used it, apparently for only a few months, as an office. This from the Washington Evening Star of 11 July 1924

 Whatever business model the bank used was seriously flawed. On 8 January, less than three months after the official opening, the Potomac Trust Co shut its doors and began liquidating its affairs. The bank announced that the directors “after a careful survey of the situation” (which perhaps they should have done earlier) had come to the conclusion that “the volume of business in sight” would not support the bank. Its assets and liabilities were transferred to the Citizen's National Bank of Alexandria, and no depositors lost any money. Citizen's National, however, declined to add to its overhead by keeping the handsome bank building open.

Finally, in October 1924 the empty building was sold to Thomas and Caroline Lee, still subject to the $10,000 mortgage. The Lees now had to find tenants. Unfortunately, in the course of building a grand bank to fill their needs, the Potomac Trust Co. had put up a building that was good for little else. The first floor had very high ceilings, which was wasted space and increased heating costs. The inside was deep but quite narrow, with a reinforced-concrete walk-in vault at the left rear that could only be demolished at prohibitive cost. As a result the building spent much of the time simply vacant.

Desolation
 Lawrence Brady, a lawyer, and Martin J. Manning, a realtor, rented the lower floor in 1930, while a billiards parlor established itself upstairs in 1931, but the latter did not last long in the depression and the former moved out within two years. In 1934 the City rented the building to handle overflow from the crowded Mt. Vernon School, but with the opening of GW High School the next year it reverted to vacant for the next five years.

 It looks sort of like a church, you say? With the tall, palladian windows and deep configuration? Well, yes, others thought of that as well. In 1940 the Alexandria Church of the Nazarene moved in, followed shortly by the Advent Lutheran Church congregation. Neither stayed long, as the interior configuration was actually far from ideal for that use, the only access to other rooms being by means of stairs at the far end, where the altar would presumably be.

 Success, of sorts, finally came to The Old Bank Building in March 1944. Back in 1931 realtor Martin J. Manning, former tenant, had purchased the lot immediately north of the building and put up a single story structure at 2403 Mt. Vernon that is now “Lets Meat On The Avenue”. That housed, first, Brady & Manning Real Estate, and later MJ Manning Real Estate. He had apparently not lost his fondness for his former rental digs and in the spring of 1944 he purchased the old bank building from Thomas Lee, now a widower, and moved his offices in there. With that, Hamilton's Confectionery took over his old office at 2403.

 The candy store moved out after 17 years when Manning sold 2403 in July 1961, but he kept operating his realty firm out of The Old Bank Building for over 20 years until his death in 1969.

 Meanwhile, Poladian Construction had owned the northern half of that block for some time, and had built the large “Poladian Building” (now housing Cheesetique and the The Snack Bar) there. Harry Poladian wanted the rest of the block and in January 1970 he bought The Old Bank Building from the Manning estate, followed later that year by 2403 Mt. Vernon and the other shops between the properties.

 If there was a plan for this new aggregation of property it was well-hidden. The Old Bank Building briefly hosted a few City community organizations on an intermittent basis in the late 70s but from the early '80s it remained completely vacant and desolate.   

Redemption

Finally, after more than thirty years of empty hollowness, it (and other properties) was bought by Mount Vernon Avenue LLC in April 2002 for slightly under $5 million, and they promptly boarded up the beautiful windows to protect them to the mixed delight and concern of neighbors. In 2005 title was transferred to Mount Vernon Properties of Delaware, who painted it, restored the windows, completely redid the interior and rented it out to Virginia Commerce Bank, which was then taken over by the United Bank.

After over eighty years, much of it desolate, the building had come full circle, back to a beautiful bank building.

 And a thank-you to Mount Vernon Properties and Virginia Commerce Bank for a wonderful restoration of a Del Ray landmark that had been long subjected to undeserved indignities.

Surprisingly, the beautiful windows remained intact until they were finally partially boarded up in the early 2000s.