The Bank of Del Ray

The growth experienced by the Town of Potomac, Virginia (now the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria) in the early 1920s made clear that the area could support a bank. Note “a” bank, singular. Two groups decided to leap into that niche simultaneously. The Potomac Trust Company and the Bank of Del Ray both incorporated in June 1923 with plans to open before the end of the year.

The Potomac Trust Company put up a rather grand building on Mt Vernon (now the Virginia Commerce Bank) and thus waited until October to open, while the Bank of Del Ray simply set up a desk in the Mt. Vernon Drug Store and began transacting business in July.

This was hardly an impressive grand opening but, unlike their competitor, everybody in the small town of Potomac knew the officers of the bank. Indeed, it was probably almost impossible not to run into at least one of them several times a week. The president of the bank, John R. Harding, had been buying up land in the town, was about to form the Potomac Coal Co. to supply the town, and lived in the grandest house on The Avenue, right in the middle of town. The sole vice-president, John Gary, also lived on Mt. Vernon Avenue, a block north of Harding. Of the five other directors two lived in Potomac and the other three were lawyers in Alexandria who had extensive real estate dealings in the town.

Indeed, the only difficult personnel decision, from outside the narrow confines of Potomac, appears to have been that of the full-time supervisor of the bank's day-to-day operations, the cashier. After several weeks the directors settled on Clay Brittle, a 25-year old from Fauquier county. He seems to have had at least five years of bank experience, almost certainly enhanced by the fact that he came from a banking family. In fact, his father was about to be named to the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

For the bank's permanent location the choice went to Mt. Vernon Avenue between Howell and Windsor. They purchased the northern half of the western side of that block in August 1923. They took their time putting up a fairly modest building at the corner of Mt. Vernon and Windsor and it finally opened in June 1924. More than 500 people attended the grand opening, presumably mostly outside the small building, to be entertained by the quartet of the Grace Dodge Hotel in DC. At the same time they sold the land off in three pieces with a lease-back on the portion with the building. This replenished the coffers of the bank during its start-up phase. It also presumably proved profitable to the three men who bought the bank building and leased it back – two bank directors and their new cashier. It should be noted that although it might seem to be self-dealing the practice of officers and directors of a corporation owning the land the corporation leases was not unusual, and is not so now.

Running a Bank

The bank ran along modestly, and even bought the building back in February 1927.

It also provided the most entertainment the town probably ever had – a real gun-toting bank robbery. While a getaway car with driver idled outside, five gunmen burst into the bank on the morning of 4 May 1929, yelling “stick 'em up” at the two clerks there, Mr. Charles Jones and Miss Mary Foard. Almost immediately 12-year-old Roy Thomas of Mt. Ida came in to deposit $20, and he was grabbed and tied to a chair with wire from the telephones that had been cut. In a pretty poor division of labor, three of the robbers guarded the door while the other two were left to paw through the drawers, collecting money. They got about $2,500 in cash, but had to leave behind about $500 in silver because it was too heavy for them to carry.

They herded the two clerks, plus another hapless customer who had wandered in, into the bank vault and attempted to lock them in there. On finding they did not know how to work the lock they made the three promise to wait a while, and then dashed out into the waiting car. After about ten minutes Mr Jones peered out around the vault door, saw no one, and ran out to notify the mayor and Potomac Police Sergeant AF Driscoll. The robbers were never caught, although the same crew apparently robbed a drug store in the district of 503 pints of “medicinal” whiskey a week later.

The robbery loss was covered by insurance and the bank even survived the initial effects of the 1929 depression. The threat from the inside, however, would prove fatal.

We will probably never know what caused Clay Brittle, son of a successful banking family, to turn. What we do know is that when state banking auditors began going over the books of the bank in January 1930 they quickly noticed things amiss. On 21 January the Commonwealth closed the bank for a full audit. It would never reopen.

In its last statement to the banking commission the bank had stated its resources at $104,560, loans at $75,146, and deposits of $54,048. Not stated, obviously, was that Brittle had in fact diverted at least $61,000 of those assets to his own use. Another $20,000 could not be accounted for at all. He was arrested on 29 January. He cooperated, turning over what real estate he had, along with other assets, but it was far from enough. A year and a half after the doors closed on the bank the receiver had made two payments to the 900 depositors, but these totalled only 43 percent of the value of their deposits, which must have been a crushing blow to many who may have hoped to weather the depression.

On 8 July 1930 Clay Brittle pleaded guilty to theft and was sentenced to six years in prison. He was immediately taken to the state penitentiary in Richmond, leaving his wife and two children at home in Warrenton.

PS:  Yes, I did do a short article on this for Out of the Attic in 2009, one I had forgotten about.

The Building Survives

Thus, by mid-1930 the Bank of Del Ray was shuttered and its cashier in prison. But what of its building? That building still stands, at 2018 Mt. Vernon Avenue. The bank held little property in its own name, but liquidating those in the market of the depression proved almost impossible. Indeed, it was not until April 1937 that the receiver managed to sell the bank building, to Isabel Goods of old town. In the meantime, he rented it out, for most of that period to the Enterprise Small Loan Company, who presumably appreciated the vault, if for appearance sake if nothing else.

Goods died in October 1939, her will specifying that all of her real estate was to go to a trust to be administered by the Citizen's National Bank, with the income therefrom to support her son and her sister. Only on their deaths could the bank liquidate the trust. Thus, for the next forty-five years the bank building was again run by a bank. They rented it out to a succession of tenants, including Keeler Realty from 1945 to 1954, and Outlook Engineering (a 6-person optronics research firm) during 1956-71, and even an undertaker's, briefly.

Finally, in December 1984 the bank was free to sell the building, and did so to Charles and Gloria Gee. They converted it from a storefront church to a snack bar, then sold it to the Mahmoods in September 1991.  Given the limited floor space, considerable conversion had been required. Once a full kitchen was put in the ground floor there was little room for patrons. The original bank design had featured a separate door at the rear, facing Windsor, that gave access to stairs leading to two small apartments above. The restaurant now featured interior stairs to give direct access to the second floor, allowing tables to be put up there. I ate at the luncheonette a few times in the early 1990s, sitting upstairs, and was not impressed. Much of their limited business seems to have come from the firehouse down the street.

In any event, the luncheonette was replaced by the current tenant, the much more successful  restaurant. The next time you're picking up your to-go, stop to consider high hopes, armed robbery, massive embezzlement, the broken dreams of 900 of the locals, and now, immigrants building their dream. As they say, every building has a story.

The grand opening of The Snack Bar in 1984.  Note the sign on the roof.