Within a few city blocks, observers in downtown Pittsburgh can find polar opposites in how the city's banks approach real estate development.
At the corner of Fifth Avenue and Wood Street, PNC Financial Services Group is building what it calls one of the world's greenest skyscrapers. The 33-story tower will feature on-site water reuse, a solar chimney and other designs on the cutting edge of energy efficiency.
Just two blocks away, Dollar Bank has finished restoring its historic headquarters to museum-like quality. Twin stone lions, each weighing 13,000 pounds, sit aside the grand entrance at Fourth Avenue and Smithfield Street. The 144-year-old building's interior looks like a bank from the Gilded Age, with brass-clad loan-officer suites and marble counters and floors.
While it looks like a museum, the building is a working branch for Dollar Bank. And the $7 billion-asset mutual wants to keep it that way. Executives believe the elaborate building will give Dollar an edge over its competitors.
"It's very important for us to maintain this identity," said Jim McQuade, the bank's executive vice president for retail banking. "It's important for people to see that Dollar Bank is different."
In an age where banks are scrambling to retrofit branches to compete with the rise of mobile banking, Dollar Bank's approach is curious, said Jim Miller, senior director of banking services at J.D. Power. "In most cases, banks are trying to divest themselves from these beautiful old buildings," he said.
"They're expensive to maintain and really tough to staff," Miller added. "A lot of these old branches will have 15 teller windows but only two that are open. You'll see potted plants sitting in the closed windows, trying to hide them."
Dollar Bank doesn't view its downtown branch as something to hide. Though the privately owned bank won't disclose how much it has spent on the renovation, it certainly has not been cheap. One of the last tasks involved ripping out the old plaster ceiling, repairing water damage from a leak in the roof, and reinstalling the ceiling.
Dollar Bank's signature stone lions have proven to be especially challenging. After hiring a stone mason to carve new lions that could be exposed to the outdoors, Dollar Bank had to decide what to do with its original lions.
The bank offered them to the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, but Carnegie would only take one lion and Dollar Bank didn't want to separate the sculptures. The bank eventually built custom steel-support bases inside the Fourth Avenue branch, moving the original lions indoors.
McQuade said he routinely hears customers say they do business with Dollar Bank specifically because of things like the stone lions or its Beaux Arts, brownstone-clad Fourth Avenue branch.
"People who bank with us often say, my grandfather took me down to Dollar Bank to open my first passbook savings account and I remember seeing those lions," McQuade said.
Mary Floulis, who owns Zorba's restaurant in Pittsburgh, said she does business with Dollar Bank specifically because of the Fourth Avenue building.
"The other banks are cookie-cutters," Floulis said. "Dollar Bank has a tradition. It's nice to go in there. The architecture is amazing."
Still, Miller said he is skeptical of the value of a bank putting limited resources into something that doesn't produce a clear return on investment. "It's a tough expense environment to put a lot of dollars into a single, old location, as opposed to your digital strategy," he said.
Plenty of banks and credit unions are grappling with the same issue: What to do with legacy assets that don't have a clear purpose in 2015?
Perhaps Dollar Bank has decided that it would be too much of a public-relations black eye to do anything else with its famous lions, Miller said. "Everybody has got to go through these decisions about what to do with your branch network," he said.
"A lot of banks have these old main offices that are hard to justify keeping open," Miller added. "It's a lot easier if you're someone like Ally Bank and you never had branches in the first place."
To anyone who says Dollar Bank should redirect its resources elsewhere, McQuade said they wouldn't change any of their decisions.
"We haven't said how much we've spent on rehabbing the Fourth Avenue building, but we didn't do it to tell people, 'We've spent this much money'," McQuade said. "We did it because the building is a cultural icon and a part of the history of this city."