Once upon a time, during the reign of Antoninus Pius, I lived and worked in Providence, Rhode Island.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a sixteen year old high school graduate I worked in the mail room of the First National City Bank of New York. It was 1959 and I made $52 a week opening letters in a suit and tie.
I got to see strange names on envelopes from all over the world. Banco di Roma, Credit Lyonnais, Svenska Handelsbanken, Bank Melli Iran, Banque de Paris et des Pays Bays. Where the hell was “Pays-Bays” I thought?
Soon I learned where all these letters came from yet there remained one name I always thought unusual: the Rhode Island Hospital Trust National Bank.
Now what kind of a bank was that? It had the word “hospital” in the title. Strange indeed.
Little did I know that in 20 years I would work there – a young thirty something Vice President in Corporate Banking.
Hospital Trust was established in 1867 to manage the financial affairs of the Rhode Island Hospital, which was built by wealthy locals to tend to Civil War veterans. Hospital Trust was the oldest trust company in New England, catering to blue blooded yankees such as the Brown family of Brown University. As wealthy Rhode Islanders passed away they left bequests to the hospital, managed by the Trust. It expanded from a trust bank to a full commercial bank becoming the second largest bank in the state behind Industrial National Bank (which changed it’s name to Fleet Bank). The Hospital Trust was always the premier trust bank in New England for those with money and lineage. During the period before the creation of the Fed, it issued it’s own currency.
By the time I joined the bank it had completed a new office tower adjacent to the old eleven story head office. But it was the “old” Hospital Trust at 11 Westminster on the Providence River which was a marvel.
The Hospital Trust banking floor. When the adjacent tower was built in the ’70s the branch was moved into the tower building, the teller’s cages were removed and turned into the corporate banking floor. I sat for years beneath the far window on the right.
Built in 1917 by Italian artisans, inside it was a masterpiece. The interior of marble began with a hall and magnificent ceiling leading to the bronze doors of the main banking floor. The branch banking facilities had been removed by this time and the floor housed the corporate banking unit and Hospital Trust’s gold trading officers.
I went through that door on the right for years.
Walking onto the floor was like walking into a mini-Vatican; a soaring cathedral of columns, marble floors and walls, officers desks surrounding a giant four faced clock hanging in the center on a heavy bronze chain. Private offices had fire places.
The old banking floor – now the RISD library – from the 2nd level
Hospital Trust was a major gold trading bank in the ‘70s providing inventory and physical gold to the Providence jewelry industry. It pioneered the loaning, consignment or “leasing” of gold to it’s customers; jewelry manufacturers would buy the gold at the spot price daily out of inventory as it was used. The bank would refill their inventory periodically so that the manufacturer’s balance sheet always carried a gold inventory valued on a FIFO basis. This helped reduce their profitability for tax purposes. You may look up LIFO vs. FIFO on Google. (smile) At it’s height, major Swiss banks and the Austrian central bank would deposit tons of gold with Hospital Trust; the tower, built in the seventies, had an entrance with inter-locking doors through which an armored car could drive directly to an elevator which would lower the vehicle and it’s cargo four stories down directly into the HT vault.
Working in this building, which would be declared a national historic site had a charm of its own. It was a bit warm in the Summer (hard to air condition) and chilly in Winter (hard to heat). During the Summer we would see all of our New York correspondent bankers on Friday afternoons – we were the perfect appointment on their way to Cape Cod. The wife and kids were usually in the car. We rated our correspondent bankers by whether or not they visited us in the dead of Winter.
The bank was acquired eventually – all of the good regional banks were – by Bank of Boston, which was eventually acquired by Fleet, eventually acquired by Bank of America. That’s when I retired. I was 62 .
The beautifully crafted building of marble and columns was no longer needed.
Across the Providence River sat the Rhode Island School of Design – the MIT of right brained people. Up the hill is Brown University.
The main floor where students now rule – I sat for years on that far wall in front of the windows on the right.
RISD bought the building and turned it into a commons, a library and the place to house the RISD archives. Students now read and lounge among the columns and around the clock where bankers used to sit. It is a fine new life for a fine old building; the arts now rule where capitalists used to sit doing deals.
My youngest daughter was born in nearby Warwick. The city was always alive with college students, Brown, RISD, Providence College, University of Rhode Island, Bryant, UMASS was not too far away. I taught a couple of evening courses at Providence College. There was always theater. Benefit Street with its original colonial homes, College Hill, Federal Hill.
And the people of Rhode Island cared for my profoundly disabled son like no other place that we had ever lived. It was why we settled there and stayed as long as we could. For their generosity I am profoundly grateful to this day. We still have the button: “I (heart) Rhode Island.”