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.

The Architecture of Camouflage

What lurks behind these empty walls? (Image By: heydayjoe)

Hey, 400 block of 8th Street NW! Powell Elementary’s Drama Club called — they want their stage sets back! (Image By: heydayjoe)

If you’re a sharp-eyed passerby, or simply sighted, you may have noticed these lackluster building facades along 8th Street NW between D & E. What are they hiding?

Perhaps it’s the “Danger – High Voltage” signs hanging on the concrete doorways that give it away. Or maybe it’s the white trucks with the blue and green logo driving in and out of the buildings.

Despite some telltale signs of what hides behind these walls, we have to give props to these props. Though the design of these false fronts is far from grandiose, it does blend into the neighborhood better than, say, a concrete bunker surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, like one you might find at…

Pepco substation.

Yes, these phony facades hide a power substation of the Potomac Electric Power Company, aka Pepco, a large utility that serves Washington, DC, and the surrounding area. But why here, on a piece of prime real estate in trendy Penn Quarter? The answer: location. Substations have to be close to the neighborhoods they serve, and as the condo towers continue to rise, this substation in disguise is dishing out more power every day.

Thank you for your interest but due to security concerns we do not disseminate the type of information you have requested about our electric system. I apologize for not being able to accommodate your request.

Heyday contacted Pepco to get the scoop on this substation and others. When were the fake facades on 8th Street created? How much is the real estate they’re located on worth? How many substations are there in DC proper? The answers to these questions? We’ll never know, because Pepco wants to keep its utility under the radar. The quote to the right is the official response from Bob Hainey, Pepco’s media relations manager.

For the record, Heyday DC poses no nefarious threat; we are not that tricksy and our addiction to electricity leads us to respect Pepco’s right to substation secrecy. So Pepco, you keep hiding and we’ll keep seeking.

Pepco – giving you energy and light, while hiding in plain sight…

[UPDATE: The good people at the Washington DC History Network (@H_DC_DCHistory) pointed us to a 1997 Washington Post story with more information about the mysterious facades. The building fronts on this section of 8th Street NW are historical fragments from buildings that once stood along Pennsylvania Avenue. Starting with the building on the left (south) in the above photo, the facades are from Bassin’s, Washington’s first sidewalk cafe, originally located at 14th and Pennsylvania; Kann’s, once DC’s second largest department store, in the 700 block of Market Space (a three-bay cast-iron segment); 1201 Pennsylvania Ave., originally constructed in the 1890s and torn down in the 1960s to make way for the first modern office building on the west end of Pennsylvania Ave.; 405 7th Street NW; and 819 and 817 Market Space NW. It sure would be nice to have a commemorative plaque here that describes the origin of these building facades…]