Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Thursday, June 02, 2005

A peek inside M&T Bank building brings back sweet memories

From the street, the interior renovation of the M&T Bank building grows more ominous every day.

Signs warning "Danger," "Hard Hat Area" and "No Trespassing" hang from chain-link and caution fences. Plywood covers one front window. A chute from the second floor spits trash into a Dumpster on High Street. From somewhere deep inside the lobby comes the angry sound of a jack hammer.

A few days ago, I glanced into the open front door. Besides the chandeliers, nothing visible remains of the opulent space that included, according to "Pierce's File: Commerce Bellefonte" of March 30, 1988, a counter "constructed of mahoganized cherry bearing a polish that brings out the richest color of the wood."

It is gone, along with the vaults and the brass tellers' cages.

The Centre County commissioners agreed a year ago to purchase the building from the parent company in Buffalo, N.Y., as a courthouse annex to provide much-needed space for a fourth county judge. The decision meant the building would be preserved, but changes would have to be made to the inside.

I remember being intimidated when I first opened an account about 25 years ago at what was then Mid-State Bank. First, there was the ceiling height, which seemed to soar to the stratosphere, diminishing everything at ground level, including me. Then there was the formal feeling of a bank that looked like a bank, not a gas station or a restaurant or a dentist's office.

But there also was a human side to the banking business, which I discovered when I wanted to take out a mortgage for a new home. The loan officer at Mid-State was not in; he had taken his son to a ballgame.

I tried the other banks. On that Friday afternoon in spring, there was no one in Bellefonte to lend me money. So on Monday, I went back to Mid-State.

Part of the mystique of the building was its rumored third-floor ballroom. When the commissioners ran a video tape of the building for an open house before the renovations began, there it was, in at least part of its former glory. Besides a ballroom, there also was a billiard room and lounge area for members of Mason Lodge, Bellefonte Chapter No. 241.

The exterior of the building is remarkably maintained, from its copper roof and weathervane-topped turret to its Palladian windows and pressed-brick walls.

Like any makeover, the process is painful. But the rewards, which we will see in November, should be worth it.