A BANK THAT LOOKS LIKE A BANK

Medallion Name – A BANK THAT LOOKS LIKE A BANK

Colorado National Bank Building

918 17th St., Denver, CO 80202

added to the National Register of Historic Places: 4/27/10, 10000215

State Register:  5DV.524

Significance – The Colorado National Bank Building epitomizes the concept of Wall Street of the West. The white marble bank with Corinthian columns, a lofty arcade and a vault with three-and-a-half inches thick doors conveyed a feeling of majesty and security. It was strategically designed to be “the bank that looks like a bank” to attract Wall Street investors looking venture into Denver’s economic boom.

Inscription

A Bank That Looks Like A Bank

In 1915, this was the Colorado National Bank’s slogan.

Designed by W.E. and A.A. Fischer, the building’s bronze vault and door weighs 73,000 lbs with supports walls three-and-a-half inches thick. Inside the vaults, the doors alone weigh 62,000 lbs. or twice the weight of the complete vault and safe of 1874.

 Location – 39°44’51.8″N 104°59’35.5″W

Details – The Colorado National Bank name was coined by the four Kountze Brothers in 1862, when they set up a business to buy gold from miners and sell it to East Coast financial institutions. Designed by prominent Denver architects William and Arthur Fisher, the neoclassical building with unique Greek columns used the slogan, “The Bank that Looks like a Bank.”

More than a century ago when this branch of the Colorado National Bank opened their doors at 700 17th St., it was mighty powerful looking building. Remodeled several times over the years, the edifice is still easily-identifiable. The locally curious classic Greek columns are landmarked and remain iconic to the structure. Inside resembles a European palace with a classic marble colonnade with a lofty coffered ceiling. The cosmopolitan mezzanine graced by a local touch – 16 large murals by Colorado’s premier native-born artist, Allen Tupper True. (The series of murals, collectively called Indian Memories, recall the days before the white man when the Indians roamed the untouched reaches of the West.)

This Wall Street-influenced structure housed one of the region’s biggest banks throughout the area’s early, urban heyday. Scores of people held accounts there, and thousands were employed. There was a state-of-the-art vault, with a unique bronze door. CNB was no stranger to bank robberies; they were an issue since the Kountze Brothers got into banking in 1866.

In the early days of the West, banks had stand-alone safes which were placed in the corner of the room. Unsuccessful prospectors sometimes turned to robbing banks and would break into the bank using a pickaxe and hammer. The safe was usually small enough that the thief could get it out a window, and take it to a secluded spot to break it open.

Then came the vault, a secure space that was built into the building. With walls and doors several feet thick, vaults protect their contents with armored walls and a tightly fashioned door closed with a complex lock. Vault technology developed in a type of arms race with bank robbers. As burglars came up with new ways to break into vaults, vault makers found innovative ways to foil them.

Older vaults were typically made with steel-reinforced concrete. The CNB vault was renowned for its sturdy design, and unique because of its sophisticated bronze door. Indeed, the vault and door weigh 73,000 lbs with supports walls three-and-a-half inches thick. Inside the vaults, the doors alone weigh 62,000 lbs.

The Bronze Vault was uniquely designed to psychologically deter potential bank robbers and also withstand angry mobs and natural disasters. You see, the latest invention in bank robbery was the cutting torch. It was in use as early as 1907, but became wide spread with World War I. Interesting statistic: In 1924, robbers used cutting torches in more than 200 bank robberies. Manufacturers learned to sandwich a copper alloy into vault doors. If heated, the copper alloy melted and flowed. As soon as the burglar removed the heat, the copper resolidified, sealing the hole. The Colorado Nation Bank Bronze Vault deterred robbers simply by its color. Indeed, the copper design improvement led to a dramatic drop in bank burglaries by the end of the 1920s.

Today vaults are made with thinner, lighter materials that, while still secure, are easier to dismantle than their earlier counterparts. Still, technology continues to race with bank robbers, leading new devices such as heat sensors, motion detectors, and alarms. Bank robbers have in turn developed even more technological tools to find ways around these systems. Although the number of bank robberies has been cut dramatically, they are still attempted.

Colorado National Bank was proudly run by bank’s founding family until it was sold First Bank System of Minneapolis in 1992.

The Colorado National Bank building, like many historic properties around Denver, sat vacant for a number of years. A black swan of sorts, it had adaptive reuse limitations because of the building’s position of honor on the National Register of Historic Places and a contributing building to the Downtown Denver Historic District.

In stepped the Marriott and Stonebridge Cos. During the heart of the Recession, they paid $4.5 million for the iconic structure. The hotel became part of the Marriott Renaissance collection – a Marriott brand which is respected features hotels in historic or converted buildings.

“It is an innovative adaptive reuse of an iconic and historic building,” praised Tami Door, president and chief executive of the Downtown Denver Partnership in the Denver Post.

Adaptive reuse is the renovation of an old site or building for something other than its original use, and the CNB has become a magnificent hotel. There is a lounge in the mezzanine overlooking the lobby. The unique Bronze Vault was built so well that it is almost impossible to destroy, so they renovated around it and redirected the energy to make it a powerful meeting room. The main pedestrian entrance of the 230-room hotel faces 17th Street and features the bank’s grand metal doors.

By the way, if you want to dine in an Old West bank vault, the Broker Restaurant at 821 17th St, Denver is a restoration of the1903 Denver National Bank.

Quiz Questions

  1. Why does a bank, like Colorado National Bank, have a unique architectural style?
  2. Who is one of Colorado’s premier native-born artists?
  3. How is a vault different from a safe?
  4. What 1920s vault innovation brought about a dramatic drop in bank burglaries?
  5. What is the meaning of the term adaptive reuse?

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