A vlog that I enjoy has the name “Retail Archaeology”. I like the name just as much as the subject: predominantly an exploration of dead malls and nostalgia for the salad days of mall culture (mostly the 1970s and 80s). I’ve indulged in the subject more than a few times; it has resulted in some of my most popular and enduring articles, with readers who keep coming back to provide me updates on particularly ill-fated shopping palaces, long after my final visit. The vlog Retail Archaeology seems pretty Arizona-centric, which gives its creators plenty of fertile ground: the southwest has numerous dead and dying malls, stretching well into Nevada and southern California.
But that name is what gets me: Retail Archaeology. Why didn’t I think of it? Can I at least appropriate a part of it? Another common practice I’ve explored in this blog is scouring an old building’s details for evidence of its former uses. I could call it “architectural archaeology”, but, as fond as I am of consonance and alliteration, that name just seems clunky. So I’ll offer an alternative name for my practice, as I engage in the topic here with this article. I’ll call it architectural forensics, applying the use of the word “forensic” within the legal and criminological context, rather than speech and rhetoric.
And here we see the façade of an idiosyncratic building in the idiosyncratic suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland. At first blush, it looks like a pretty run-of-the-mill bedroom community that came of age between the two world wars: still very walkable, lots of balloon-frame homes with walk-up front porches, a skinny driveway leading to a (often detached) garage in the back. Today, it has a downtown befitting a municipality of around 17,500 people, with one unusual quirk: it’s split right down the middle across “state” lines. (I apply quotes to the “state” because the other “state” in question is District of Columbia, whose portion is really more of a neighborhood called Takoma.) For the purposes of this article, all photos are within the municipality Takoma Park in Maryland, but to show how stark these boundaries are, if I were to pivot 90 degrees from the photo above, I’d be looking into Washington DC. It’s there in the distance, right at the point of the first visible crosswalk stretching across Carroll Street. Here’s another view of downtown Takoma Park, which I’ve included mostly because the sky is so dramatic.
But it also shows a main street that stretches toward the horizon, and the next block (just out of the photo’s frame to the right) is once again in Washington DC. To further clarify, here’s a map, with the purple star representing where I stood in front of the focus building for this article.
But that’s not the point of this featurette: let’s get back to the forensic analysis of the original building. It’s a structure I’ve walked past at least a few dozen times, certainly every time I’ve been to Takoma Park. But this time around I noticed something new: an alarm box on the side.
It’s not the first time in recent months that I’ve spotted such a feature. But the previous example—in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania—was an antiquated but well-maintained item, potentially still fully functional, given that the the alarm box clung to the side of a building that housed a bank. This time?
Not a bank. The signage indicates that the building houses a Gelateria and an Italian restaurant. Probably not much need for an alarm box. (At first I thought the restaurant’s name was a clever pun: Trattoria da Lina, with the “lina” strongly resembling the Italian word for “line” (linea), given the proximity to a state line. But it turns out it’s merely a reformed variant on the owner’s mother’s last name, Linna. Perhaps an unintentional pun?)
Regardless of the naming scheme, the tenants today have nothing to do with a bank. But that wasn’t necessarily always the case. Continuing in the spirit of an architectural forensic analysis, a few other features to the building support my speculation that this was once a bank.
On the side of the building, to the left of the alarm box, a one-story protrusion accommodates Gusto Gelateria. The shape and style of the windows allow for them to slide open easily, while the passageway leading to this window is just wide enough to accommodate cars (it hosts outdoor seating in more favorable weather). Could it be…? Yes, it’s almost certainly the infrastructure for drive-thru banking. But notice that the bricks are a slightly lighter shade of brown than the building’s primary massing, suggesting that this addition came after the original construction (perhaps because the building itself predates the emergence of drive-thru banking as a trend), but also before pneumatic tubes and setbacks that adhere to modern drive-thru banking safety and security standards.
Do these features make sense when continuing the forensic analysis around the building’s remaining sides? Sort of. That façade is a tough nut to crack.
It’s not typical for a bank, particularly one in a building more than a half-century old, to offer so many generous windows. Several months ago, I noted a century-old mansion in Malvern, Pennsylvania, which a small local bank purchased to turn into one of its three locations. Lots of windows, but the windows needed iron bars, despite Malvern being an affluent and generally very safe suburb of Philadelphia. This structure in Takoma Park lacks bars and offers generous fenestration—not typical of an older building. But let’s scroll across the entire façade.
It’s redolent with zigzags and chevrons, features that somewhat unexpectedly evoke Native American imagery, which isolated instances of the Art Deco movement embraced. (Among the most high-profile examples are the Guardian and Penobscot buildings in downtown Detroit.) If this structure in Takoma Park originally dates from the 1920s (as it most likely does), those lintels at the cornice line (above the second-floor windows) make perfect sense. Less logical are the transoms separating the first and second floor windows.
Though the powder blue color is compatible, the vertical alignment of what appears to be wood paneling is most likely a modification from a half century later. These first floor windows looked very different when (or if) this used to host a bank. They may have been absent altogether.
From an architectural forensic perspective, however, the most important characteristic are the subtle differences between different sections of the façade.
Returning to the photo that shows the entire south frontage along Carroll Avenue, notice that massing of the lefthand one-third of the building is bulkier than the rest: it’s a bit taller, the exterior and dividing walls are thicker, and the whole portion protrudes into the sidewalk a tiny bit more. These beefed-up dimensions further support the notion of a bank as the original tenant; prior to the advent of motion detectors and cameras, a bank’s best means of protecting the large volumes of currency inside were an outer fortification to supplement the inner vault and safe. So many great old banks of yesteryear continue to stand strong long after the banks have left, largely because the structures are so sturdy and impenetrable.
With the forensic analysis nearly complete, here’s my final take. This Takoma Park structure has always been commercial, perhaps with apartments on the second floor, though just as easily offices. A bank was the original tenant for the westernmost portion, with other office and/or retail related tenants taking the remainder of the building’s first floor. Chances are good that a neighboring building occupied the parking lot next door, on the side wall that accommodates the alarm box and Gusto Gelateria. Over time, that building came down, giving the owners of this Art Deco structure (potentially the bank itself) ample space to expand a narrow walkway into an alley wide enough for drive-thru banking, which also compelled the protruding addition with the sliding windows. Meanwhile, the building’s façade curves toward the north (paralleling Carroll Avenue). Here’s what it looks like on the east-facing portion, home to other small shops.
And here’s the alley that provides vehicular ingress toward the drive-thru bank, wrapped around the back of the building, now used as outdoor seating for restaurants.
From what I can tell using my best application of architectural forensics (it’s like dendrochronology, but replace the trees with buildings), it’s been many years since a bank last occupied a portion of this building in Takoma Park. But it was most likely a fixture for many decades, dating from the original construction of the building (thus explaining the thick walls in one portion) all the way up to the point that drive-thru banking became a selling point, even in a walkable community like this one. Then, in the decades that followed, the old bank hosted other service-oriented office uses, sat vacant or underutilized for some time, before the proprietors of Trattoria da Lina and Gusto took over several years ago.
I’ve often asserted (as one of my instructors did before me) that “function follows form” when it comes to architecture: that is, a building is likely to sit idle while awaiting a complementary use—one that can best harness its unique features. But “form follows function” when it comes to historic banks: the banks constructed their own buildings most of the time, and a bank’s proprietors knew it needed a higher investment in impenetrability than the average commercial structure. If I haven’t yet made my case, take a look at a much more conventional bank just a block away (and thus even closer to the Washington DC boundary).
A massive, bulky limestone structure with big prominent windows (may not have always been there, or at least designed with extreme caution to preclude easy breaking-and-entering). It has thick walls, a vaulted ceiling, and a patched-over spot below the corner window where an ATM used to be. That’s right: it’s vacant. Until very recently it was a Bank of America. But basic forensic understanding should tell anyone that BoA clearly that wasn’t the original tenant.
The owner (and presumed developer) of this fiduciary fortress was Takoma Park Bank. But Bank of America concealed part of that engraved lettering for as long as it was a tenant; as archived Google Street View indicates (the most superficial forensic analysis), it just said “Takoma”.
I wonder what this hulking limestone building’s next tenant will be? A Middle Eastern restaurant? A distillery? Probably not a bank—it doesn’t have a drive-thru option. And probably not a gelateria. Maybe an Amazon bookstore, like they have just a few miles away? Probably time for another architectural forensic analysis; get out the crime scene tape and be ready to make some chalk lines