On a dull afternoon last week, the heavy brass doors were wide open. They were still shiny entries to the building I will always call Davenport Bank. So I walked in. The vast hollow cathedral of the last bank to use this place was whisper-empty. I could hear my footsteps on the satiny marble floor.
It was a feeling of ghosts and great money past. I imagined that I could hear the stern voice of V.O. Figge — patriarch for nearly 60 years — giving an order to Vic Quinn, one of his vice presidents. I stood in awe in this magnificent empty lobby. I stared at the ceiling festoon of spirals, swans and masks and rosettes.
ONCE, THIS magnificent shell at 3rd and Main housed the biggest and soundest bank in Iowa. Davenport Bank & Trust Co. was its best-known tenant, followed by several successors. The last, Wells Fargo Bank, opened Monday in a swishy new downtown spot. Sentimentally, I remembered that here is where I got a mortgage for our first home 64 years ago.
I looked down the long, empty teller line. At the bank’s peak, there were 28 teller windows. Now, big lobbies and teller lines are no longer needed in the maze of drive-throughs and electronic banking.
Long-legged desktops, for filling out deposit slips or endorsing checks, are anchored to the marble floor. I leaned on one. It didn’t wiggle. It’s claimed those stands with their iron legs have been intact since the bank went up. The little chains on the stands, that once held pens, still dangle. But the pens are gone.
Along the wall are a few leather benches. I thought of the day when Joe Whitty waited on one of those benches to get a loan from V.O. To get his attention, Joe kept pumping one of those bulbous horns he used in his first pizza joint.
“Give that guy whatever he wants, but get that damned noise out of here,” V.O. yelled. Joe got his loan.
THE OLD DAVENPORT Bank was a big place. Vic Quinn remembers, “In 1992, the bank had 825 employees.” Around the place were offices of community icons like Ed Carmody and J.M. Hutchinson. They’ve long stood empty. Tucked away somewhere, surely, was the piano on which Tommy Keefe, an employee, played ragtime when there was a need for cheery music.
Standing in the lobby, I arched my neck, up to the 20-foot chandeliers that look to be at home in an old theater palace. When Davenport Bank was locked on a Saturday afternoon during the holiday season, selected officers climbed scaffolding to decorate those ornate chandeliers with Christmas roping and baubles and bangles. “We decorated the whole big, darned bank,” says Tom Otting. “It was an honor to be a decorator.” When the job was done, they all adjourned to the Italian Village to celebrate their work.
Once more, I was boggled by the artistic ceiling swirls and murals of local history. One is nine by 14 feet, the signing of the Black Hawk Treaty. I wondered how that ever could be moved. But the building’s owner promises the lobby will remain intact.
A FRIENDLY young woman approached. “Can I help you?” she asked. My companion volunteered that I was a friend of V.O. Figge. The woman invited us to visit his old office. Yet today, it is a polished alcove of butternut panels. It was a chill to stand behind V.O.’s desk where million-dollar deals were hashed out. I remembered the wall that once held a pair of elephant tusks from one of his hunting expeditions. I peeked inside his private restroom, shimmering from floor to ceiling in light green tile.
I left, with an eerie feeling of banking ghosts at my side. And I chuckled to recall the day when Clem Werner, a Davenport attorney who almost became mayor, stood before V.O. in the lobby. “You have everything else of mine; you might as well have these,” he said, emptying his pockets of change. Nickels and dimes and quartered tinkled to the floor in front of a startled V.O.
The shiny marble floor smiled.