When Banks Were Good: The Oldest S&L in America

Oriental Building Association

The Oriental Building Association in its latest incarnation (Photo By: heydayjoe)

McCain reveals his true gnomic character during the 2008 presidential debates

McCain reveals his true gnomic character during the 2008 presidential debates.

Long before their predatory practices were scandalously defended by presidential hopeful and secret gremlin John McCain, the savings and loan association was a godsend to families who needed a leg up in the world.

In the early 1800s, most folks didn’t need a bank unless they had boatloads of money. Barter was still common, and if people did have some extra cash, they stashed it in a safe or under a mattress.

Along came the savings and loan association (S&L). Also known as thrifts, savings and loan associations were for the little guy. They were cooperative organizations that lent money to people to buy a house, make home improvements or build on their land. Before the birth of the S&L, it was the insurance companies that provided home mortgage services, with short-term deals highly in their favor. Needless to say, many people lost their homes and their shirts.

The S&Ls, however, were different. The goal was to help develop communities. Anyone who deposited money into the association was a shareholder and received dividends in proportion to the organization’s profits. A member’s saving account was, therefore, an investment in the community.

DC’s oldest S&L, the Oriental Building Association, was founded in 1861. Located at 600 F Street NW in Penn Quarter, the Oriental Building Association No. 6 Building, also known as the OBA Federal Savings & Loan Association, until 2003 housed the oldest continually operating savings & loan association in America.

Located just two blocks from the heart of today’s Chinatown, the bank would presumably have been founded by Chinese businessmen. But the Chinese did not call themselves “Oriental” (Westerners did), Chinatown until 1929 was actually located several blocks away (along Pennsylvania Avenue between 1st and 3rd streets NW) and what we think of today as Chinatown was known then as Germantown.

600 block of F Street NW Washington DC

The 600 block of F Street NW in 1900, looking west, taken in front of what would become the Oriental Association Building. The buildings on the right were replaced by Verizon Center, with the exception of the U.S. Patent Building in the distance (now the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum).

The four German businessmen who founded the Oriental Building Association were members of the Oriental Lodge, a fraternal organization of the Freemasons. Derived from the Latin for “east,” Orient is a common term among Freemasons; the regional governing body of a Freemason group, a Masonic “Grand Lodge,” is also referred to as a “Grand Orient.”

Oriental Building Association

Oriental Building Association – get your chicken wings here (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The Oriental Building Association Building was designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival Style by Albert Goehner in 1909 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. (Goehner also designed the Concordia German Evangelical Church and Rectory, at 20th & G, which was posted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.) The OBA Building is one of the last remnants of the original downtown DC to survive from the neighborhood’s turn-of-the-century heyday as a thriving downtown business sector.

Today the OBA Building is home to ground-level retail tenant Fuel Pizza & Wings, office tenant Terra Eclipse and upstairs event rental space The Loft at 600 F Street.

Despite federal deregulation in the 1980s, the massive subsequent (and expected) bank fraud and the ultimate failure of nearly half of all S&Ls in the U.S., the Oriental Building Association lives on. In 2003, it moved a few blocks to 700 7th Street NW, and the Oriental Building Association remains the oldest continually operating S&L in the nation.

DC as Canvas: From Crack to Canvas to Condo

Hanover Place DC street art

A taste of the murals that formerly graced Hanover Place NW (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Before it became home to one of the greatest collections of street art in Washington, DC, Hanover Place NW in Truxton Circle was a narrow, dead-end street where you could easily see the cops coming. It was also the place to buy cocaine in the 1980s, so much so that newspapers called it the city’s “cocaine supermarket.”

Until a few weeks ago, the west end of Hanover Place was lined with spectacular murals, but today most of the paintings are lost in a pile of rubble. What was once stables, then one of the city’s first automobile garages, a box factory, then part of a brass knob warehouse and lastly an artists’ space, is now debris, soon to be cleared away for new condos.

Hanover Place DC street art

Before (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Hanover Place DC

And after (Photo By: Bradley Glanzrock)

The building at 79 Hanover Place NW, most recently home to the artist-run warehouse and studio space called Wonderbox, was built in 1906 as a three-story stable and box factory. In 1928, it was converted into a storage warehouse, with only the first-floor walls of the stable remaining intact. The stable-turned-warehouse was formerly part of Chapman Coal Company Stable and Garage, an N Street complex that stretched north to fill the space between N Street and Hanover Place. Chapman Stables had originally been built as a coal yard with stables for horses and later transitioned into a garage for cars and buses. Wonderbox transformed the interior by hosting art openings, performance art shows and modern dance, although some might argue that the building continued to be home to a bunch of horseshit.

Hanover Place DC street art

Kelly Towles mural (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The murals first appeared as part of the But Is It Art? Fair, a DIY contemporary art show held at Wonderbox in September 2011. Created by Kelly Towles, Alicia “Decoy” Cosnahan and Aaron Lim, these paintings gave life to an otherwise bland stretch of blank building facades facing Hanover Place.

Hanover Place DC street art

(Photo By: heydayjoe)

Hanover Place DC street art

(Photo By: heydayjoe)

Before the Preservation League submitted a proposal to the Historic Preservation Review Board, plans had been in the works to raze all the Chapman Stables buildings to make way for new development. The main Chapman building on N Street, previously home to the Brass Knob Warehouse, was saved from demolition when it was entered into the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in April 2013. Six months later, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Chapman Stable DC

Chapman Coal Company Stable and Garage (and later, Brass Knob Warehouse) on N Street NW (Photo Courtesy of NPS)

The former storage warehouse and bus garage didn’t fare so well. Both were deemed to have “no artistic distinction … [or] architectural value” and were torn down in early September 2014.

But let’s get back to crack. In July 1984, police launched “Operation Beat It” to confront powder cocaine dealing on Hanover Place. (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, with the hit song “Beat It,” had been the No. 1 album in the country until April 1984.) The law-enforcement action was at first successful, but dealers were back on the streets just five months later.

By December 1985, Washington, DC, outranked all other U.S. cities in per capita drug arrests. (We’re still No. 1 in per capita arrests for PCP – in your face, L.A.!) And by 1986, crack had hit the streets of DC, edging out heroin for the first time as the city’s most popular illicit drug.

Hanover Place was in full swing as the most notorious open-air drug market in crack-infested Washington, DC. From the east end of the block, one could look down Capitol Street and clearly see the white dome of the Capitol Building. Dealers used to quip: “Over there, they make the laws; over here, we break the laws.”

To keep the police from raiding the market, kids acted as sentries at the corners, hollering “OLE-ER-RAY” (pig Latin for “rollers”) whenever they saw a police cruiser approach. But for the most part, the street was a self-regulating marketplace. And with the trafficking came traffic. Sometimes the line of cars turning onto Hanover Place was so long it backed up traffic on Capitol Street, with cars honking to keep the checkout lines moving.

Hanover Place DC crack

The Hanover Place drug market, open for business on the early evening of Dec. 6, 1984 (Photo By: Linda Wheeler/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

By this point, the cops had had enough and decided to crack down on Hanover Place. A year-long, 24/7 occupation ensued, with a command-center trailer on the street and a daily rotation of 60 officers patrolling the immediate area. It was still 1986, but Hanover Place was closed for business.

Two decades later, Hanover Place is mostly quiet. The housing prices have rebounded from their 1990s lows and are now selling for five to 10 times as much. The artists have come and gone, and the condo-dwellers are about to arrive.

Here are more photos of the art of Hanover Place. Some of these murals remain. Others are gone but not forgotten.