Hoosac Bank is spending nearly $3 million to make its new financial center look like an old restaurant.

Slated to open this year-and believed to be the first of its kind in New England-the financial center will house a bank branch, an insurance firm, and an investment products sales office under one roof. And to the delight of historic preservation groups, it will retain the original cupola, "pie- man" weathervane, and three dormers from the Howard Johnson's restaurant that was opened on the site 60 years ago.

"I'm glad the building is still there, and I'm glad there are still elements that retain the 1938 aspects," said Thomas W. Kelly, president of $188 million-asset Hoosac, which is based in North Adams.

Hoosac bought the building in nearby Williamstown, Mass., last year. And though the Howard Johnson's name disappeared in 1979-resurfacing briefly in later years-Hoosac has committed itself to restoring some of the original restaurant's features when it completes the renovation this year.

That a 20th century Howard Johnson's in historic Williamstown was thought to be worth preserving came as a surprise to the bank in the months after its $450,000 purchase. Nestled in the Berkshire Mountains and home to Williams College, the town is better known for its Colonial-era buildings, many of which are listed on the National Historic Register.

Arthur Krim, a Cambridge, Mass.-based consultant to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, told town fathers that, until recently, this was the oldest operating Howard Johnson's in America.

"It's part of the commercial architecture of New England," Mr. Krim said. Turning the building into a bank is like "converting the U.S.S. Constitution into a troop ship or hospital," he said.

Mr. Kelly said that as the project and public commentary developed, the bank became more committed to preserving aspects of the restaurant. Still, it refused to retain HoJo's signature orange roof, opting instead for traditional black shingle.

That displeased Mr. Krim and others, who fought to save the blaze-orange roof. The battle was widely reported in local papers and even spilled onto the pages of The Boston Globe.

The orange and turquoise colors used on the building are "antique," Mr. Krim explained. "We wouldn't use such colors today."

In the early 1940s about 400 Howard Johnson's restaurants were operated across New England. The roof color was an attempt to compete for attention against New England's brilliant fall colors, Mr. Krim said.

Charles Snell, president of New England Design, the Worcester, Mass., firm that drew up the renovation plans, showed little sympathy for the roof discussion.

He said Hoosac's effort to preserve the Howard Johnson's was remarkable, especially after three kitchen fires and numerous remodelings that had eroded the building's character.

"The bank probably should have razed the building," he said. Instead,"they asked us to work within the building and bring back the character."

A stock-owned bank probably would not have accepted the additional expense, said Mr. Kelly, who recently discussed the project in his Colonial-inspired office. The renovation project, which was delayed by historical commission debate, will cost more than $2.8 million.

Of course, the bank is not spending all that money just to garner good will. Mr. Kelly, a veteran of five bank mergers and a former Mellon Bank employee, expects that the new financial center will give Hoosac Bank a competitive edge over mutuals that do not offer insurance.

Pointing out that growth has been slow for banks and thrifts in this corner of Massachusetts, Mr. Kelly said, "It's a prudent strategy to sell more stuff to more people."

Plans for the financial center were already under way when he announced in May that Hoosac would buy North Adams-based Coakley, Pierpan, Dolan & Collins Insurance Agency Inc. The announcement came just a week after the Massachusetts General Court passed a law to let state-chartered banks own insurance agencies.

At the same time, Hoosac announced it would buy North Adams-based True North Financial Services Inc., a small financial planning firm that had been broken out of Coakley in May 1997. Both entities are part of Hoosac Financial Services Inc., the bank's new brokerage arm, and both will soon have offices in the center.

New England Design, which has done more than 300 bank projects in New England, believes combining insurance, investment products, and traditional bank products under one roof is a first in New England.

"I suspect this will be a prototype for others," said Mr. Snell, who said other institutions have shown interest in the concept.

Interest in creating such centers out of old restaurants, however, may be limited.

Though there are many examples of old bank branches being transformed into elegant restaurants-with tables placed in the vault-the reverse is rare.

Wayne Architects turned a rotisserie chicken restaurant into a Greenwich Bank and Trust Co. branch last year. But Mr. Wayne said that none of the Kenny Rogers restaurant features were retained. The walk-in freezer, for example, had no bank uses, he said.

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