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Old Posted Aug 19, 2005, 5:12 AM
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Condos are key to revival of South Side Bank building
By Charlene Prost
Of the Post-Dispatch

Front side of the South Side National Bank facing Gravois

The limestone, Art Deco landmark also could feature ground-level stores and a restaurant in the two-story banking hall.

After surviving a demolition threat and years of controversy about its fate, the South Side National Bank building is making a comeback. But don't expect to find bank tellers and deposit slips there anymore.

What's coming inside the limestone, Art Deco building are 13 condominiums in the slender seven-story tower. And in the two-level base beneath: ground-floor retail stores, and perhaps a restaurant in the ornate, two-story banking hall on the second floor.

Developer Arjomand Kalayeh and the Lawrence Group plan to spend about $8 million to revive the landmark, built in 1928. But they're not stopping there.

Stephen Smith, president at Lawrence Group, said his firm and Kalayeh recently acquired an empty, deteriorated three-story building across the street with a rare, interior shopping arcade. They also have a contract to buy vacant land just west of the former bank.

Smith said they'll put apartments above retail in the arcade building and decide later what to do with the land.

"This will reinforce what we are doing at South Side Bank," Smith said. "We want to upgrade the whole environment at that intersection (of South Grand Boulevard and Gravois Avenue), and doing one building alone won't do it."

The fate of the bank building, a longtime anchor for the neighborhood, became uncertain six years ago when South Side officials announced a deal to replace it with a Walgreens drug store and build a smaller, more modern bank.

Preservationists and neighborhood leaders rallied to save the building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as "one of St. Louis' best examples" of Art Deco architecture.

In 2001, South Side merged with the former Allegiant Bancorp, and Allegiant inherited the building. Allegiant - now merged into National City Corp. - later donated it to the Grand Oak Hill Community Corp.

After at least one other revival plan failed, the neighborhood group handed it over to the current owners after they paid off about $60,000 in back taxes.

Smith said construction will begin later this year, and the project should be finished by the end of next year.

The plan is to put two condos on each floor, except the top floor, which will have a penthouse. Prices will range from about $150,000 to $200,000 for 1,100-square-foot units. There's no price yet for the penthouse.

Views from the tower, much of it rented by the bank as office space over the years, will be one of the condo features.

"The building is on a high point, so from the upper floors you can see downtown, the Arch, office buildings in Clayton and, on a clear day, you can see the (Jefferson Barracks) Bridge," Smith said.

The most ornate area in the building is the banking hall, which still has the original teller windows, light fixtures, mezzanine level and a coffered ceiling with decorative plasterwork and beams 25 feet above the stone floor.

It's also on the second floor of the building, with stairs leading to it, an arrangement that might seem unusual today. But not when the building was designed, said Alderman Jennifer Florida, D-Ward 15, who worked for years to help save it.

"It was designed with steep steps to get to the lobby to discourage bank robbers," she said.

David Dwars, project architect at the Lawrence Group, said nearly all the original architectural and banking features in the hall remain and will be preserved, including a round, steel-and-brass bank vault door.

"If it becomes a restaurant, as we hope," he said, "we would create seating up against the teller windows and probably use the bank vault as a wine cellar."

Dwars said lobby areas on the first floor also will be restored. Drop ceilings were installed there, hiding original decorative plaster ceilings, and vinyl flooring covers parts of the original stone floor.

"We'll take out the drop ceilings and restore the plasterwork ... and we hope to be able to pull up the vinyl and restore the floor," Dwars said.

Smith said financing for the project will include a loan from Missouri State Bank, $1.4 million in city tax increment financing, and state and federal historic tax credits.

One reason for taking the project on, he said, is to try to expand on other redevelopment activity along South Grand Boulevard.

"At the bank building, you are only a mile (south) of Tower Grove Park, and eight blocks or so from the South Grand neighborhood," Smith said.

Reporter Charlene Prost
Phone: 314-340-8140
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