Somebody must have really liked the building manager.
The hands-down best view I have seen of the Mississippi River in the Quad-Cities is from the penthouse apartment in the Davenport Bank/Wells Fargo Building at 3rd and Main streets in downtown Davenport, now called Davenport Bank Apartments.
And would you believe the penthouse was reserved for the building manager?
I know how that sounds, but I'd always assumed the most fabulous part of such an iconic, expensive structure would be reserved for someone more ... prestigious. I figured it was V.O. Figge's lair or a temporary-stay arrangement for elite bank customers — in from out of town.
Even in its current, um, organic, state, the penthouse is fantastic.
Here's the layout: The bank lobby is at street level, of course, and is two stories high. Then there are nine floors above it that are occupied by apartments and law offices. The 12th floor is for document storage, "for the lawyers," said Bob Bates, our tour guide and maintenance technician for the building.
After the 12th floor, the structure narrows, leaving lots of outdoor rooftop space.
We spent 30 minutes on the main roof, easily.
You may or may not have noticed them from the street, but there are giant eagles on the building's ledge, poised to take flight. You wouldn't guess it from below, but the eagles are six feet tall and made of limestone that, mercifully, was treated with a sealant many years ago. Standing next to them, you can plainly see they were assembled in sections, and the Midwest weather has betrayed their secrets, revealing large bolts at intervals in their stone/feather wings.
Even at a time when most important architecture was bejeweled in ornamentation, those eagles must have been a real status symbol.
"This stuff has held up tremendously," Bates said. "Just imagine all the hail storms they've survived. On a good day, you can watch the peregrine falcons hunt from here."
About that penthouse
Before entering the upper floors, Bates explained about the large structure that sits upon the main roof on the river side. It can only be described as looking like a mausoleum.
"That's the top of the elevator shaft," he said, pointing out that workmen must get at the mechanics through the giant mausoleum windows that are easily 100 feet above the street.
"How do they tie off with safety harnesses?" I asked.
Replied Bates, "You hold on for dear life."
On that note, we headed in.
On the 13th floor of the bank building, the penthouse begins.
The main room, the one I'd guess to be the living room, has built-in bookshelves. The matching-wood trim gives the space a craftsman feel, and there's a decent-sized kitchen and smallish bath. The built-in shower, however, is surprisingly large, even by today's standards.
More surprising was that the penthouse also occupies the 14th floor. And that's the money shot. That's where the views, upriver and down, could easily flirt their way onto six or eight pages of a 12-month photo calendar.
The seen-better-days condition of the main bedroom took nothing from its radiance. There are 9-foot windows, arched at the top — seven of them. They soak the room in light, and invite you to their ledge as if patting a comfortable spot on the sofa.
We guessed a smaller room was an office or second bedroom.
The 15th floor awaited, but I wasn't done imagining what it must have been like to stand — to exist — in that airy, timeless space during a lightning storm.
Lucky building manager.
Climbing to the clock tower
After the penthouse, the climb to the top of the clock tower gets a little dicey.
The entire building is said to contain 17 floors, counting the clock tower, and is (arguably) the tallest building in the Quad-Cities. Some say the old Kone tower on the Moline riverfront is its rival.
Hogging the entire 15th floor is a giant water tank whose elevation creates the gravity necessary to supply water pressure to the entire building. Bates estimates the tank holds 22,000 gallons. The only other thing sharing the 15th floor with the water tank is a series of stairs that Bates called "ship ladders," because they are as steep and narrow as those found on a ship.
If you count sets of steps, connected one on top another, it appears the bank building actually is 18 floors, but let's not confuse things.
Wasted on a water tank is a gorgeous patio/rooftop just outside the doors of the 15th floor. Four very large decorative urns anchor each corner of the rooftop railing/ledge, but you have to be willing to take your eyes off the view to appreciate them.
In New York and Chicago, buildings like the old Davenport Bank are a dime a dozen. Condos are stacked upon condos, and people live and work in the sky.
Here, we don't spend much time off the ground. And the most time we spend looking into the sky is when we rush out to the yard during a tornado warning.
The beauty of being the tallest building in town is the powerful perspective you get from looking down on everything else. I was surprised to see how much work was being done on downtown rooftops on a Wednesday afternoon. The good weather no doubt brought out the HVAC workers and AC repairmen and rooftop gardeners.
The top of the Union Arcade building at 3rd and Brady streets looks like an orchard that grows air conditioning condensers. I didn't count, but it looked like there was one for each of the building's 68 apartments.
Standing in the doorway of the 15th-floor roof, Bates spread his arms wide and said, "All of these buildings downtown were at one time owned by this bank."
He then turned his attention back to the building itself and, rubbing his hand against the coarse stone, said, "The mountain they carved this off isn't there, anymore."
When he noticed me studying an odd crack in one window, Bates explained, "Birds strike the windows, often trying to escape the falcons."
Shaking off the buzzkill, I remarked to photographer Andy Abeyta that I could see how far the floodwaters had breached LeClaire Park, and he said the water was higher than it had been earlier in the day. We also spotted people on the plaza behind the Figge Art Museum and noted they looked like chess pieces from our distance.
Reluctantly, we went back inside and headed upward one more time.
Clock is huge and tiny
Climbing past the top of the water tank on more ship ladders to the 16th floor, I instantly noticed our light was improving.
I recalled a similar reaction when entering the underbelly of the Interstate 74 bridge and upon stepping inside the control house that rests atop the swing span of the Government Bridge. When looking up at these structures, they appear as incorrectly small as things on the ground appear when you are looking down.
The four clock faces are 10 feet in diameter each, and their hands are about eight-feet long. The hands are made of balsa wood, wrapped in metal.
The clock faces are made of something that looks like milk glass, because they aren't transparent, but they permit lots of light. I expected to find an elaborate collection of gears and wrist-watch-type mechanisms in the actual clock tower. But it wasn't like that at all.
The space could accommodate much more mechanical equipment than the four-way gear system that runs the clock. We paced off the room and decided it is just shy of 160 square feet, and the ceiling is 20 feet high. The smallish gears and drive arms barely take up any space.
Unfortunately, Bates said, the clock runs, but it doesn't keep time.
"The original plans for the clock don't exist," he said. "What is here now could be an upgrade from the original. We really don't know.
"We're working on it, but you have to have priorities with a building this size. There are some hybrid components in use, but we're not using baling wire and chewing gum, yet."
There was more to see.
We climbed another ladder above the clock room to a strange square room, a bit smaller, whose light source is four portholes. Brick covers part of the walls, beginning at the floor, but most of the room is a web of crisscrossing steel bars and beams.
Years and years of clock-tower workers left their mark in graffiti. The earliest signature we found was from 1948.
At the center of the room is a long metal pole, reaching into the roof, with a hand crank near the base. It is used for lowering the beacon that lights up the top of the old bank to warn aircraft of a hazard. Bates lowered the beacon, so we could get a look.
The beacon gave a bit of a wobble on its way down and got stuck, briefly, in its hole in the ceiling. But Bates jiggled it into submission, and down it came.
"When there's a problem with the lenses for the beacon, replacement parts would have to be ordered from a lighthouse supplier," he said.
We (and by "we," I mean Andy the photographer) wanted to press on and up the last flight of stairs. One last ladder leads to the manhole-sized opening where the beacon fits into its nest — an estimated 220 feet above Main Street. But Bates thought better of it, adding that he's not too keen on the climb himself.
"There's some stuff, from a safety perspective, that we have to farm out at times of repair," he said. "I don't bounce as high as I used to. Some things you can cobble together, and some things have to be farmed out to the experts.
"My dad said, 'You don't have to be an expert at everything, but you have to know enough that the experts aren't able to take advantage of you.'
"I know how to take care of a lot of things on this old building, and she's in pretty good shape for being almost 90.
"It's a cliche, but they don't make ’em like this anymore."