As recently as my last blog article, I alluded to an unusual dichotomy in the value of corner parcels: for the most part, residences on street corners are less valuable than homes on the rest of the block. People don’t the reduced privacy one expects when a property fronts two streets, when they can easily get a lot that only fronts one. So corner lots in residential zones are worth less. (The one big exception to this, as I noted earlier, is attached housing; rowhouses have a corner, and that home at the end of a row is worth more, thanks to an extra bit of lawn on the side, and the extra daylight through those side windows. Sharing a wall with only one neighbor essentially gives them more privacy.) In stark contrast to residential, corner commercial lots are nearly always more valuable; these property owners like having extra road access and enhanced visibility. Their desirability is so great, in fact, that some budget-minded businesses deliberately avoid them because of their higher costs; it’s typical that dollar stores seek a parcel right next to the corner to help keep expenses down.
But what about when commercial buildings are attached—when they stand shoulder-to-shoulder, just like rowhouses? This configuration characterizes the historic commercial structures in virtually all historic American main streets. The “summering town” of Geneva, New York, perched along Seneca Lake—the largest (and probably highest profile) of the eleven glacial lakes in Upstate New York’s Finger Lakes Region—features a downtown both larger and more vibrant than its 12,500 inhabitants would suggest.
But then, Geneva is a popular tourist destination during the warmer months, thanks in no small part to its lakefront views but also as one of the hubs to the budding agritourism industry that has boosted the economy of Finger Lakes municipalities as industry continues to ebb away. Creameries, breweries, produce stands, orchards, and (especially) vineyards all vie for turf across the comparatively flat and fertile plains between Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake (the closest “finger” to the east) and Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes (to the west). And, not surprisingly, the lakes themselves offer plenty of summer recreation, as well as sufficiently bountiful trout to elevate Geneva to the nickname “Lake Trout Capital of the World”.
Though Geneva has undoubtedly encountered hard times—its population is down almost 25% from its 1960 peak of over 17,000—the small city enjoys enough summertime visitors, counterbalanced by a mild collegiate environment (thanks primarily to Hobart and William Smith Colleges—one school) the other nine months. These influences ensure Geneva of a reasonably vibrant and well-kept downtown area, which has preserved a lot of its old commercial buildings long past the midcentury doldrums. And, it is from this appealing (if a tad confusing) downtown that one can see the high value of corner commercial lots. What’s the cue? A disproportionate number of these corners are banks.
Here’s a bank building in the heart of Geneva’s downtown: Lyons National Bank (LNB), a small mini-chain centered around the Finger Lakes Region and the suburbs of Rochester to the west. Upon further research, I’ve determined that this specific building is not a bank branch serving customers; it’s an operations center. The actual Geneva branch of LNB is a couple blocks away.
A bank owns the property, and regardless of exactly what takes place within its walls, it’s clearly a corner.
More telling are the architectural indicators of its age: brown brick, windows that are many multiples taller than they are wide, vaulted ceilings that only allow two floors for roughly the same height as the three-story structure adjacent to it. It’s a much more contemporary building than its neighbors, further evidenced by the photo below.
All the other structures on the block date from the 19th or very early 20th century, but our corner bank building is clearly a product of the 1970s or even the early 1980s. It’s an interesting and unlikely inclusion, but redolent of the developmental pressures affecting corner commercial lots.
Here’s my guess of what happened: Geneva’s downtown declined in the 1960s and 1970s, as is typical of most urban centers large and small. The obsolete old structure ultimately was a detriment to its fortuitous corner location. The land, still valuable enough for an office/commercial function (thanks to frontage on two roads instead of one), needed a new building, but only a business with deep-enough pockets could justify demolition and reconstruction. That business was a bank, as is often the case; long-running banks tend to be staid and stable, understanding markets well and making prudent investment decisions. The City of Geneva, eager to secure an investor at a time when interest in downtowns was waning, allowed the bank to demolish the historic corner (maybe two or three buildings) to erect this aesthetically incompatible structure, complete with some off-street parking spaces with frontage on the other street. Archived photos suggest that, as recently as the late 2000s, this brown-brick building hosted First Niagara Bank—not an operations center—a major Upstate New York bank that merged with Cleveland’s Key Bank in 2016. Forty years later, this post-Brutalist building may lack the nostalgic charm of its colorful vintage neighbors—it’ll never host a coffee shop or quirky restaurant—but it’s probably Class B or Class A office space for any variety of white collar, service-oriented functions. So its elevated value persists.
And it’s not the only corner commercial lot of its kind in Geneva. Here’s another, a few blocks away.
This time it’s Community Bank, N.A. It offers many of the telltale architectural signals that it comes from the era of Saturday Night Fever (or Airplane! if comedy is more your style); brown brick, vaulted slit windows, and the heavy presence of concrete are clear throwbacks to post-Brutalist roots. It probably features a similar history to the structure housing the LNB Operations Center: an aging 19th century building sat on a valuable corner lot, and a bank offered to redevelop the site in the 1970s, which of course meant demolishing what was there. The City of Geneva complied.
And there’s one more, directly across the street from Community Bank:
At first blush, this structure appears quite different aesthetically from the first two banks. But it definitely adheres to that same late Brutalist style, perhaps more stringently: it’s much blockier and fortress-like, with relatively few windows (all recessed), and an unabashed fondness for concrete. This structure was vacant during my June 2022 visit; it appears to have been a Five Star Bank as recently as 2018. Again, the structures behind it, on the right side of the photo, reveal its architectural incompatibility. And its origins almost certainly resemble that of Community Bank and LNB.
So, in Geneva alone, three corner commercial lots became banks at some point in the 1970s or early 80s. Is the timing coincidental? Probably not. It was a period when most municipalities, large and small, were struggling to figure out what to do with their increasingly obsolete downtowns—lacking the abundant parking, loading docks, and expansive floor plates that made suburban retail the more desirable option. What about the fact that all three of these banks in Geneva evoke the same architectural period—is that a coincidence? Definitely not, if the the timing is what it appears to be. They’re all banks on corner commercial lots, with more walls exposed to the street. Given the possibility of high-value “merchandise” within them, it’s understandable that they’re blocky and fortress-like. Such was the nature of Brutalism as a whole, and a major reason why it was desirable in the high-crime 1970s. I’ve noted similar Brutalist banks in the larger city of Asheville, NC a couple years ago. The architectural decisions for brick and concrete echo the traditional choice of limestone to signal a bank structure throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. Geneva has an example of this too—a forerunner to the banks on corner commercial lots.
Farmers and Merchants probably hasn’t been a bank for decades (I think it’s now an art gallery?), but it follows every aesthetic archetype of the main street banking institution. The thick limestone, the Ionic order columns, the all-caps latin lettering just below the cornice—all neoclassical features that even Gen Z could recognize, even if they wouldn’t necessarily be to articulate it. (No fault of their own: most people can’t articulate it, but virtually all American adults can reasonably identify the building as a historic bank structure.)
Incidentally, as the photo above shows with Farmers and Merchants on the far-right margin, it also doesn’t sit on a street corner.
With three Brutalist bank structures all occupying corner commercial lots, in a small city with a downtown of only about eight blocks total, the architectural choice is more than just a coincidence. As austere and broadly disliked as Brutalism is in the 21st century, it was an appropriate style for conveying durability and security—conditions always expected of a bank and especially necessary during the social upheavals and high crime rates that characterizes most of urban American in the late 70s. I suspect that a small city (big town) like Geneva was spared the worst of the crime, which partially explains why two of these three Brutalist buildings can allow for generous windows. A generation earlier, the limestone banks often had few or now windows. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the windows were a late addition to the classic façade of the old Farmers and Merchants Bank featured above.) In the late 70s, new bank construction still wanted to convey impenetrability but it could compromise a bit with the some humanizing, translucent glass; security screening (alarms and cameras) were a bit stronger in 1980 than 1930.
Regardless of the precise architectural details, these three boxy bank buildings are outliers within downtown Geneva, in terms of massing, material, and engagement with the street. Most importantly, the reflect a different level of investment; the whole undertaking cost more. After all, these are corner commercial lots. As drive-thru banking became increasingly popular in the last few decades of the 20th century, that extra roadway access was a huge selling point—one that banks in particular could afford. I’ll concede that, in the years ahead, low public opinion for Brutalist architecture may end up devaluing the property; that’s precisely why it looked one of the aforementioned Asheville Brutalist banks earlier was gearing up for demolition. In a re-emergent (but not yet thriving) downtown like Geneva, they’re still a safe bet. Literally. Built to survive moderate blast and vehicle ramming, they are secure space for those banks that still elect to retain some cash on hand in a vault. In case any of these structures remains vacant for a long time, the local boosters of downtown Geneva shouldn’t expect to convert them to housing. People don’t want to live in Brutalist buildings. And, generally speaking, they don’t want to live on street corners.