Banking on it in Brooklyn

The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, long regarded as a historical fixture, is testament to Brooklyn’s changing landscape.

The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower has been a fixture on the Brooklyn skyline since Prohibition—decades before the legions of transplanted Midwesterners, dissonant rock bands and asymmetrical haircuts invaded the “Borough of Churches.” With 34 floors, it is the tallest building in Brooklyn and the second tallest on Long Island—only the Citibank Tower in neighboring Queens is taller.

When it was built by architecture firm Halsey, McCormack and Helmer between 1927 and 1929, the four-sided clock face was the largest in the world. The tower held this title until the completion of the Allen Bradley Building in Milwaukee in 1962, according to the Forgotten New York website. The website also notes that the building’s distinct dome is an architectural homage to the domed—though much shorter—Williamsburgh Savings Bank building that is actually located in the neighborhood of Williamsburg. (The tower sits on Hanson Place in downtown Brooklyn, near the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.)

In addition to offering breathtaking views of Manhattan, the elaborately decorated building once played host to all manner of medical offices, particularly dentists, in addition to its namesake bank. But if generations of Brooklyn kids were dragged to the building to get their cavities filled, at least they were able to have their dental work done in a stunning example of Roaring Twenties grandeur: The building’s elaborate first-floor banking hall sports terrazzo floors, decorative chandeliers, 63-foot vaulted ceilings, 40-foot windows and elaborate mosaics, while the building’s neo-Romanesque façade was constructed of Minnesota granite and Indiana limestone—with whimsical touches like carved lions, turtles and birds decorating the exterior.

But change comes to all things, even Brooklyn. The public observation deck on the 26th floor was closed in 1977. (The building was landmarked the same year.) In 1987, the bank—and its real estate—were folded into the Republic National Bank and, later, into the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC). Somewhere in there, Brooklyn began to change, too, and the rough-and-tumble borough became increasingly gentrified.

By 2005, the Canyon Johnson Urban Fund, a joint venture between Canyon Capital and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, acquired the building with plans to convert it into luxury condos anchored by a retail component with a Borders book store in the former bank. Renamed One Hanson Place, the tower sits in a corridor that is slated for a reported $3 billion in development over the coming years, including the controversial, large-scale Atlantic Yards development.

Despite the changes to the borough around it—and to the building itself—the “Willie” as its known to many a local, will no doubt continue to define the borough’s skyline for decades to come.