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Banking on Preservation

Following are articles from the Contra Costa Times and East Bay Business Times about the grand opening of the Point Richmond Mechanics Bank Branch in the restored historic Santa Fe Reading Room/Trainmaster’s Office.


From boarded-up to a busy bank

·  Point Richmond residents saved structure at key intersection

By Katherine Tam


Article Launched: 10/30/2007 03:01:58 AM PDT


For more than a decade, Point Richmond's century-old railway building sat vacant, its windows boarded up and its floor damaged by rain seeping from the ceiling.

It was destined for the wrecking ball -- until residents rallied to save it. Locals banded together to take ownership, striking a deal with Mechanics Bank to move in and ensure the building does not languish again.

On Monday morning, amid the smell of fresh wood and paint, more than 100 city leaders, bank representatives and residents flung open the doors to the refurbished building and celebrated its $1.5 million restoration. The ATM beckoned. Bank tellers processed transactions.

Residents hope the addition will spruce up the intersection of South Garrard Boulevard and West Richmond Avenue, a primary entrance into the neighborhood. The restored railway building and plaza already have replaced the old gravel, weed-infested lot that once sat there, and residents expect the fresh foot traffic to bring a vitality to a corner that has been absent too long.

"Three-quarters of the people who come into Point Richmond come by this intersection," resident Jeff Lee said. "This corner in particular was extremely ugly, and this is a chance to revitalize it."

The 2,079-square-foot railway building is one of the few remnants from the days when railroads were key to commerce. In 1903, two years before Richmond incorporated, Santa Fe Railroad constructed the building as an employee reading room staffed by a librarian and stocked with newspapers and books.

In the 1940s, the room became the offices for the railyard master. By 1992, operations moved elsewhere and the room was abandoned.

The railroad company considered tearing it down, but a city consultant concluded the structure was historically significant. The consultant's findings helped spare the building, and the city took control in 1999, said Councilman Tom Butt, who was among those who led the charge to save it.

In 2004, the city passed the ownership torch to the nonprofit Point Richmond Gateway Foundation.

Crews moved the 80-ton railway building from the foot of South Macdonald Avenue to the new site in 2005, and restoration efforts came in the form of time, materials and money from private individuals and companies.

The interior had succumbed to rot after years of marinating in the rainwater from the leaky roof.

"It was in pretty bad shape," project manager Brian Hodges said. "We pretty much had to gut the inside."

Workers replaced the floor and put on a new roof. They repainted the exterior, using shades of yellow, green and red that would have been used in the early 1900s.

Some of the original building remains. The ceiling, including parts of the original brick chimneys for the potbelly stoves, is intact. Nearly all the double-hung, redwood-framed windows remain. The exterior siding is original.

Mechanics Bank signed a 10-year lease with the Point Richmond Gateway Foundation, which owns the building. Initial rent payments will be used to cover restoration costs. The foundation plans to funnel subsequent payments, up to $15,000 a year, into community projects.

The foundation awarded $9,000 in grants to eight local groups at Monday's event.

Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or ktam@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Banking on history: Mechanics Bank restores Trainmasters Building to open a branch office

East Bay Business Times - by Mavis Scanlon


Stephanie Secrest | East Bay Business Times


More than a century after it was first used as a reading room to improve the minds (and morals) of Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad employees, the historic Trainmasters Building will reopen Oct. 29 as the new Point Richmond office of The Mechanics Bank.

The Mechanics Bank signed a lease on the building in March, 18 months after it had been moved to its current location, at West Richmond Avenue near the entrance to Point Richmond. That move was the culmination of a 15-year fight to save the building, which had been empty for more than two decades and was badly deteriorated.

The 104-year old building's rich heritage dates back to the founding of the city of Richmond. "This is the only building left from the original Santa Fe Rail yards," said Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt, an architect and preservationist who is widely credited with leading the long fight to save the building from the wrecking ball. Richmond grew up to serve the railroad and the Chevron Corp. Richmond refinery.

At a time when the local entertainment consisted of "bars and bordellos," Butt said, the building stood out as a community center for railroad workers, and was one of many that the railroad built across the West.

The Mechanics Bank spent $1.4 million and seven months working with local architects to renovate the building with period details, from hand-built wood walls to old-fashioned globe light fixtures over desks that are shaped to conceal modern technological additions. No walls were cut open for ATMs to preserve the historical nature of the building. Instead, a kiosk was added at the front of the building.

"The experience that we're looking for is 'wow, I've just walked back in time,'" said Rauly Butler, senior vice president and retail banking manager of The Mechanics Bank.

Butler was scouting for a new location for the Point Richmond office when he spotted the building, which he dubbed "the yellow beacon." The bank's previous Point Richmond location, located across the street, was hard to see and had been the target of a number of robberies; the state was also looking to lease the space since the California Department of Justice operates a 68,000-square foot DNA crime lab nearby. High-tech security features such as digital cameras are small and inconspicuous, Butler noted. "We can't compromise on technology." At 2,000 square feet, the branch is about a third smaller than the previous office, so it is not only intimate, but laid out to the last detail, Butler said.

One big challenge for the bank was getting board approval to move to a location just across the street, and second, spending more than $1 million to do it. In his initial presentation to the board, Butler expected the bank to ultimately save money compared to the operating costs of the former, larger location. But the $1.4 million final cost was over the projected budget of $1 million and Butler now expects the project to break even. The compelling piece of the bank's argument to take on the project was its clear and demonstrated commitment to the community, Butler said. The project included landscaping a public park with almost 1,000 plants.

The renovation and the park have transformed the entrance to quaint Point Richmond.

"The entrance to town was quite ugly," said Martin McNair, a Mechanics Bank board member and president of the Point Richmond Gateway Foundation, which was formed to save the building. The bank will pay rent to the foundation, which will use the funds to maintain the small Gateway Park in front of the building and to make community grants.

In coming months the bank will hold community events at the new location, including holiday events and a "Taste of Point Richmond" planned for the spring.

The Mechanics Bank

Business: Banking and financial services
Headquarters: Richmond
Founded: 1905
President and CEO: Steven K. Buster
Employees: 630
2006 net interest and noninterest income: $118.7 million
2006 net income: $26.5 million
Address: 3170 Hilltop Mall Road, Richmond 94806
Phone: 510-262-7251
Web: www.mechbank.com

mscanlon@bizjournals.com | 925-598-1405