Re-purposed bank buildings offer business owners unique challenges, opportunities

The bank-themed escape room game being developed by Steve Ulrich, at the former Farmers First Bank in downtown Marietta, will feature the historic building 12-by-14-foot vault. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

Online banking and a dwindling number of competitors mean most banks no longer need a branch on every corner.

But what happens to all those buildings when the banks decide they don’t need them?

The U.S. had more than 3,000 fewer branches in 2016 than it did 10 years earlier, mostly due to downsizing by the nation’s largest banks, according to research by SNL Financial, a global financial analysis group now operating as S&P Global Market Intelligence.

The best use for an unwanted bank branch is, unsurprisingly, as another bank, said Bob Behler, an executive vice president and broker of record for York County-based Bennett Williams Realty. But that’s not always possible, either because of a lack of market demand or deed restrictions that prevent the building from being sold to a competing bank.

That means someone needs to buy the branch and make it into something else. The good news is that, despite recent mergers and branch closures, local Realtors still haven’t seen an onslaught of these types of buildings on the market, Behler said. And the ones that have put up for sale signs have typically been in high-demand, high-traffic locations.

The bad news is that immovable vaults, two-foot-thick concrete walls and hard-to-heat lobbies don’t exactly make for an easy-to-repurpose property.

Amy Spangler

Some business owners throughout the midstate, though, have taken bank properties and made them their own, playing up the buildings’ pasts and stately exteriors and making them into something they hope adds new value to their communities.

Bakery, petting zoo, house

Some of Jorie Hanson’s earliest memories of the Boiling Springs State Bank came decades after the building had taken its last deposit.

It was the early 1980s, and she was a Bubbler at Boiling Springs High School. She would ride her bike up to the years-vacant building, make her way through the six-foot-tall chain link fence surrounding the property and walk down a long hallway inside to grab frozen chicken for the bobcats at her family’s zoo down the road.

Although the building started its life as a bank, it had not served as one since Hanson’s family – specifically, her step-great grandfather John Kiracofe – bought it in the late 1930s. By the 1980s, it was vacant, with the Kiracofes using it to store supplies for the nearby zoo until they renovated the space in 1985.

Amy Spangler

The bank building, beside Boiling Springs’ Children’s Lake, is now Hanson’s home and site of her private photography studio. Little remains of the bank, which operated from about 1920 to 1938, aside from the remnants of two vaults and a sign above the front entrance bearing the name of Boiling Springs State Bank.

Hanson’s family, though, has found a multitude of uses for the 3,400-square-foot space since Kiracofe scooped it up in an auction in 1938.

For a few years, it housed the Lake View Apartments, where, Hanson heard, one tenant braided rugs from old clothes.

If you had walked by the house in the 1950s, you might have taken in the aroma of sticky buns and potato rolls from a bakery operated there by the Kiracofes.

And if you happened to step into the basement over a winter when the family operated the nearby zoo, you might have come face-to-face with an alligator or flamingo being sheltered from the cold.

Hanson grew up hearing that last story and, for much of her life, was skeptical of it. The house, however, has long had a connection to animals, serving as a petting zoo from 1964 to 1966 and later as a breeding area for locally uncommon birds like barnacle geese and nenes.

The family also ran a larger zoo down the street until 1982. After the zoo closed, Hanson helped care for some of the animals the family couldn’t relocate — thus the trips to the house to fetch chicken for the bobcats.

Now, the building houses nothing more exotic than Hanson’s dog, Handsome Red. Hanson moved into the space about a year-and-a-half ago after retiring from a career in Army intelligence.

Amy Spangler

The first floor of the home pays subtle homage to the building’s history. Framed photos of local birds and foliage adorn the walls of what was once a bank lobby but is now Hanson’s private studio. A framed check, deposit slip and receipt from the old bank hang among them.

Hanson’s hope is to eventually open the space to the public — not as a bank, petting zoo or bakery but as a photography studio. Hanson spends much of her time photographing local sights and has sold calendars, mugs and pillows showcasing what she feels is Boiling Springs’ natural beauty.

The house looks nothing like a bank anymore thanks to a series of renovations — although, Hanson jokes, its residents are always happy to accept deposits.

Arcade, event venue, video game store

The former Wachovia building off of Hanover’s Center Square got a new life when Scott Roland called his wife to bring his checkbook to an auction he hadn’t expected to win.

A few strokes of a pen later, Roland owned a three-story building that still had fire-proof rooms, safe deposit boxes and wall-mounted security cameras.

“All of a sudden you have the tiger by the tail,” he recalled of his purchase, which closed in June 2012. “What do you do with it?”

Amy Spangler

Roland owns several commercial and residential rental properties throughout the borough, but the Wachovia building, which has housed various banks since it was built in the 1950s, was the first to come with a huge vault.

Almost five years later, the building has held an eclectic assortment of tenants.

Its most prominent and longest-lasting is Timeline Arcade, a popular retro gaming space on the former bank’s second floor. Behind the arcade is a 30-foot-by-30-foot map that uses hundreds of light bulbs to illustrate how troops moved through Gettysburg during the infamous Civil War battle. The kitschy piece was a staple of the Gettysburg National Military Park’s visitor center until the Park Service built a new visitor center in 2008.

On the first floor, a used video game business recently set up shop, and a large open area plays occasional host to events.

Roland admits the building’s revitalization has encountered its fair share of bumps. Two former tenants on the first floor — a coffee shop and another used video game store — closed last year after just a few weeks of operation. The electric map, which Roland bought with the hopes of attracting tourist groups, is closed for at least the remainder of the winter because of dwindling visitor numbers.

The building will also eventually need expensive updates like sprinklers and an elevator to bring it up to code.

Still, Roland remains optimistic about the space’s future. The arcade, he said, has done “very, very well.” He also has big plans to renovate the building’s first floor, which has already hosted several local gatherings, into a more consistent events venue. That will mean tearing out the teller area and cameras — and figuring out what to do with that massive vault.

Escape room

Amy Spangler

Steve Ulrich knew he was biting off a lot when he moved his businesses into a roughly 140-year-old bank in Marietta.

The space had all the issues of a less-than-perfectly preserved historic building, including outdated electrical panels, rotted floor joists and some nearly impossible to heat spaces.

It also, however, still has all the markings of the stately bank where Ulrich made his first deposit at the age of 13: the vaulted ceilings in its lobby, an immaculately maintained vault door and even a board room that still smells like cigars.

That history is what drew Ulrich to the former Farmer’s National Bank building at 100 W. Market St.

Ulrich found the space while looking for a home for his two businesses: My Digital Conversion, a media transfer service, and Wilkum Studios, which does video production.

He has big plans, though, to play up the building’s past with a third endeavor: a bank-themed escape room.

Escape rooms are games where teams of players work to solve a series of hands-on puzzles to “escape” a room. They’ve grown in popularity in recent years, with several rooms opening throughout the midstate.

Ulrich wants to play up the bank’s history in his games. In one, players might have to escape the 12-by-14-foot vault. In others, they might have to solve a puzzle in the bank’s board room or do a sort of mini-game in the bank’s old drive-through window.

Bringing the bank back to its former glory has taken more time than Ulrich had initially hoped. He originally planned to have the first game ready in the fall but was delayed by the building’s structural issues. With those resolved, he still has myriad cosmetic tasks he would like to undertake, not to mention finalizing the escape rooms themselves.

His plan now is to finish the vault escape room in the coming month, then chip away at the rest as he and his wife are able. The finished project, he hopes, will be something completely different from other escape rooms in the area: games that combine real historic artifacts, like the bank’s old deposit boxes, with seamlessly integrated technology like miniature computers and pressure sensors.

His main goal though, he said, is to serve as a steward to the historic building and make it something that adds value to the community for years to come.

Jennifer Wentz
Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at jwentz@cpbj.com.

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