Downtown Toledo and the National City Bank Building

Koerner, Ray and Glover played a gig at the Toledo Museum of Art in June, 2001. We’re staying the Radisson on the edge of downtown, so I’m walking around the loop, unwinding after the concert. It’s a smallish downtown, but well-preserved, with some classic Twenties and Thirties architecture. The phone building is particularly impressive, with its columnar style, huge grated windows and arched entryway. There’s a big doorway in the middle of what must be the fourth floor, on the alley side, that opens into the void. I don’t know what that was for – maybe there was an upper-level walkway to a since-demolished companion building; saved the workers from going all the way down to the street and back up again.

As I’m walking northeast along the phone company street, I see a beautifully restored, or maybe just beautifully maintained, white marble building with a terrific frieze around the top, like a nice, big cake right in the middle of downtown. It looks like the Physicians and Surgeons Building in my own loop, one of the few that hasn’t been sacrificed on the developer’s altar. Across the street, a row of brownstones, three or four stories tall, freshly painted and pointed and looking very firm. Standing on the corner, I can see that the City Fathers and Mothers are paying attention to their heritage. The setbacks are comfortable, the buildings don’t look crowded and I don’t feel like I’m in a concrete canyon. Now I’m skirting the west side of the building whose upper stories had pulled me to this area, and as I take a right onto Madison, I can see the carved stone gargoyles sticking out all over the National City Bank Building.

This is a drop-dead gorgeous, multi-level, early 20th Century skyscraper, under thirty stories tall. There are a few of those antennas on top and some external johnny-come-lately fire-sprinkler pipes and other paraphernalia, but WHOA! what the hell is that? Some ersatz, tubular steel, arched contraption with the name of bank on it, stuck at an unlikely angle on the corner of the building. Just past this glued-on gizmo, I can see the future of the downtown area: a bunch of nameless, faceless, glass curtainwall boxes with “landscaped public spaces” and recessed revolving doors. Containers for the disposable work force.

I’m standing head-on to this beautiful building, gazing straight up from across the street at the hugely appealing symmetry of the windows and decorations, admiring the way the design swoops my eyes up to the pinnacle, taking in the fabulous sticking-out gargoyles when WHAT THE?! Who pasted those green things on there?

Right between the classically placed tall windows of the first and second floors, starting at about the middle of the first floor and going up to the middle of the second floor, some moron authorized the attachment of vertical sheets of green plastic or aluminum-flutes on angle brackets that stick out about a foot from the surface of the granite and separate the spaces between the windows. It looks sort of Fifties, or maybe Eighties, when the duffs in the boardroom decided to make a change in order to ‘go modern’ and attract the new money of Toledo. It probably happened when National City took over from the real bank that used to be in the building, Ohio Citizens. I’ve seen that bilious shade of green on other National City Bank buildings. The vertical page tab thingies are just the architectural coup that got counted when the young lions dominated over the old guard and took operational control of the bank.

What’s truly insulting about this crapulous frou-frou is the intended subtlety. I know whoever ordained this abomination had the agreement of all his partners that this would be the key statement that the old can contain the new, that The Bank wants me to know, even though they’ve been here for seventy-five years, that they’re going to be here another seventy-five to bring me the kind of service I’ve grown to know as The Bank service. They want to help me reach my goals, they want to serve my needs, and they’re going to prove it by an understated and well-groomed addition to the traditional style they’ve always pursued. With my help, they’re moving into the Twenty-First Century. They’re doing their part to revitalize the cherished downtown area and, this is the wave of the future, they know this is an integral part of forging a New Bond with the citizens, hanging this statement of modernity on the façade of their old building.

What it really is, it’s a pine-tree air freshener on the rearview mirror of a Bentley. It’s ripping out the Barney’s tag and sewing it on the outside of your raincoat so everyone knows where you got it. It’s a Nike swoosh, a Hilfiger Team jacket, a cap worn backwards, a pair of Dockers. It’s a huge error by uneducated and artless dwoops who got their jobs by knowing someone at the right school. It’s an intrusion into the aesthetic field by people who should stick to accounting; it’s a bloody insult to the eye and a shocking display of nouveau riche gone nouveau gauche.

My wife said “big threat” when I told her I was going to write the bank a letter and tell them that, if I had an account there, I’d cancel it unless they took down those tacky green banners and got rid of the anodized McDonald arches sign. She’s right: it’s too late. Sometimes, though, I do wish I had plenty money. Then I could put it in that bank before I wrote the letter. As it is, I have to employ what is becoming a highly-developed talent: looking with the selective eye. After I calmed down and quit fulminating to the empty streets, I was able to see the façade without the green crap, and it is a remarkably beautiful building. In downtown Toledo, it’s time for one of those judicious neutrino bombs that wipes out the bad thinkers and leaves the architecture alone.