Buildings that are there for good

By Diana Melichar

When does a bank not look like a bank? When it looks more like a phone store or a sandwich shop. There’s a better approach.

It’s true that the banking business is becoming ever more digital in nature, and many banks have shifted to branch formats and layouts that echo the sleek digital platforms they provide. But I believe people still crave a human connection when it comes to their banking experience. Many customers and clients want to feel that they are safely depositing their hard-earned money into institutions that are solid and provide longevity. They should identify with and relate to their hometown banks and feel proud to be associated with them.

The right architectural approach can make all the difference, inside and out. When my firm was asked by Chicago-area Wintrust Financial to design three buildings and remodel another for its community bank subsidiaries, we did so using principles and practices that resulted in banks with the character embodied in their communities.

It may not be trendy, but here are four ways that banks can become more architecturally in tune with their surroundings.

The lobby of Waukegan Community Bank.

Honor history

Waukegan, Illinois, sits 36 miles north of Chicago and 60 miles south of Milwaukee. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, it became an important industrial hub for manufacturing and waterfront industries. It saw large population expansion and growth during and after World War II, and its downtown bustled with businessmen, shop owners and shoppers.

Waukegan Community Bank, a branch of Lake Forest Bank and Trust, had to reflect the city’s historical downtown, traditional in style and grand in stature, bank staff told us.

Although Waukegan Community Bank is located farther from the city’s downtown area, the community still associates it with the architecture of its historic main street. Lake Forest Bank and Trust asked that we take cues from Waukegan’s beautiful downtown buildings to provide a new bank that exuded quality and history, while fitting into an existing urban fabric and reflecting today’s demographics.

The design of the building evokes a 19th century feel, and the two-tone brick masonry makes the building stand out along a busy commercial strip. The interior is warm and welcoming in a way that the customer is the primary focus upon entering.

A vaulted interior at Libertyville Bank and Trust.

Adapt and reuse

Libertyville, Illinois, is about 40 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, bordered on its east by the Des Plaines River. The village’s downtown area was largely destroyed by fire in 1895; afterward, the village board mandated brick or stone to be used for reconstruction, resulting in a village center whose architecture is substantially unified by both period and building material and has been recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a “Great American Main Street.”

Libertyville Bank and Trust planned to update and adapt an early 20th century stone-facade building with a ’60s-era curtainwall into an efficient and modern banking facility along the village’s main street. Many of Wintrust’s facilities adaptively reuse buildings in traditional downtown settings, which is not only good for communities, but also contributes to a lower environmental footprint by not tearing down and rebuilding.

Palladian windows and columns line the facade of McHenry Bank and Trust.

Consider local materials

McHenry, Illinois, is another riverfront village northwest of Chicago that got its start in the 19th century. Still relatively quiet by Chicago suburban standards, it has a quirky downtown, a business incubator and a rapidly expanding commercial corridor heading north.

A branch of Crystal Lake Bank and Trust, McHenry Bank and Trust needed a location along this corridor that conveyed their hometown presence in a sea of chain restaurants, strip shopping centers and corporate bank branches. Looking at the historic architecture of the area, we created a building that long-time residents and newcomers could identify with. And on the exterior, the village’s heritage is reflected in our use of a brick like one produced locally called “Old McHenry Brick.”

The stripped classicism of Buffalo Grove Bank and Trust.

Stand out in the crowd

Buffalo Grove, Illinois, remained mostly rural until just after the Korean War, when it was “suburbanized” for returning veterans. This Chicago suburb experienced rapid growth in population and businesses, and today Buffalo Grove Bank and Trust, a branch of Northbrook Bank and Trust, is one of 11 banks with 15 branches serving a population of 40,000.

How to stand out? We designed Buffalo Grove Bank and Trust as a classic, small-town office building that could attractively house banking functions as well. Limestone detailing, tall windows and a brick exterior reflect quality of construction with an eye toward sustainability.

We already have too many cookie-cutter style banks. Like Wintrust and its subsidiaries, banks that want to try a different approach can consider how to build branches that reflect the aspirations of their community. Classic bank design signals the bank is there for good.

Diana Melichar, AIA, is president of Melichar Architects in Lake Forest, Illinois. All photos are provided courtesy of Melichar Architects.