Key Bank is leaving

Some locals hope buyer will look for hidden old facade

Key Bank’s Saranac Lake branch office at 75 Main St. stands out downtown for its plain brick front, which replaced an ornate facade in 1962. Some local residents suspect the old facade was merely covered up and remains behind the brick wall, possibly restorable. They tried to get bank leadership to help investigate, but to no avail. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

SARANAC LAKE — Key Bank plans to close its branch here this fall, citing a shortage of customers as the reason.

On Nov. 9, a Friday, the bank will close the branch at 75 Main St. as well as its drive-through outpost at 151 Church St. The bank made the announcement in a letter mailed to its customers and in a sign on the front door of its Main Street location.

It’s not part of a wave of closures; it’s just this branch, according to Matthew Pitts, the bank’s communications manager for western and central New York.

“This is purely a business decision, and it is based on customer traffic,” Pitts said Tuesday. He was not able to provide figures on the customer shortage in Saranac Lake or any further description of the trend.

Key Bank owns both of its Saranac Lake properties and will soon decide what to do with them, Pitts said.

The second, drive-through location of Key Bank’s Saranac Lake branch is at 151 Church St. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

Accounts going to Plattsburgh

The bank is consolidating the Saranac Lake branch with one on the west side of Plattsburgh, at 380 state Route 3 — one of three Key Bank branches in that city. Saranac Lake branch customers’ accounts will be transferred to the Plattsburgh West branch unless they decide to take their banking elsewhere.

“Even with all of our modern banking technology, I do like having a local branch,” Key Bank customer Chris Morris of Saranac Lake said Tuesday, “so I’ll probably be looking to switch over to another bank that has a location here in town.”

Adirondack National Bank is seen in a postcard from the early 20th century in a building where Key Bank is now located at 75 Main St., Saranac Lake. (Image courtesy of Janet Bristol, via Historic Saranac Lake)

Other than Plattsburgh, Key Bank’s next closest branches are in Malone and Potsdam. It also has branches all over New York and in 15 other states.

Saranac Lake’s other banks include Adirondack Bank, Champlain National Bank, Community Bank N.A., NBT Bank and Tri-Lakes Federal Credit Union, and there are other lending and financial businesses as well.

Ex-manager: Key didn’t care

The interior of Adirondack National Bank in downtown Saranac Lake is seen in the 1950s. (Enterprise photo, via Historic Saranac Lake)

The current Saranac Lake branch manager referred questions to Pitts, but former branch manager Esteban Munoz was willing to go on the record. He ran the branch from when it opened in fall 2016 — it had previously been a First Niagara bank, and before that HSBC and Marine Midland — until June. He now lives in the Hudson Valley and no longer works for Key Bank; he would not say why.

“I found out [about the Saranac Lake branch’s closure] like just about every other client found out, with a letter in the mail,” Munoz said. He hadn’t seen it coming when he worked there, but “I have to say it doesn’t really surprise me.” He noted that Key also closed branches in Dannemora and near Massena.

Munoz said Key Bank acts like it cares about the communities it is in, but in practice “it does not do much for the community unless it’s a really big PR [public relations] impact or an ROI [return on investment].”

Munoz said Key Bank’s regional leadership in Syracuse shot down his efforts to collaborate on community projects with the Adirondack Health Foundation, which raises money to support the local hospital network, the Downtown Advisory Board and Historic Saranac Lake.

“It was not met with welcoming eyes at all,” Munoz said. “They did not even want to entertain the idea of sitting down with someone.”

Tim Fortune paints in his Small Fortune Studio Tuesday in Saranac Lake. For 23 years he has looked out the front window at the featureless bank facade across Main Street and wondered whether the ornate old Adirondack National Bank facade still exists behind the brick wall. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

He said Key was noticeably less involved in the community than other Saranac Lake banks, and “It wasn’t for lack of trying on my end.

“Granted, Key Bank is a for-profit company, but really, they could have done a lot more.”

Munoz described customer traffic at the Saranac Lake branch as “moderately low — however, there was a fair amount of high-end traffic … say, doctors who moved to the area, because the footprint of Key Bank is so large.” He said he thought the branch could have performed well, especially if it tapped the Lake Placid market.

“It’s going to have a significant impact on several large and medium business clients,” he said of the closure.

Pitts said he could not respond to Munoz’s criticism on his own without first talking to bank leaders.

Hidden facade?

One curious feature of the bank’s Main Street building is its flat brick front wall, with a door on the side. It’s the only building in the heart of downtown with that kind of featureless mid-20th-century front. Its plainness stands out in a downtown filled with older and more ornate storefronts — yet this building had arguably downtown’s fanciest facade before its look was heavily changed in 1962.

Adirondack National Bank, as it was called then, was built in 1906 and 1907. On the front of the gray stone building, in between what looked like towers, was a two-story-high, arching glass window and front door. Inside, tellers helped customers in a vast room lit by windows and a skylight.

Northern New York Trust Company bought Adirondack National Bank in the 1950s, and then Marine Midland bought it in 1962. That year Marine Midland completely remodeled the building, inside and out, making what remains today.

Local historian Phil Gallos called the old Adirondack National Bank “the most beautiful commercial facade in the Adirondacks” and the current one “a hole in the smile of Main Street, a reminder of what can happen when a community forgets to guard its treasures, and a sad monument to the far reaching and unreachable powers of the faceless corporations that have attained such dominance in late 20th century American life.”

The bank’s interior was irrevocably changed, but many locals wonder whether the old facade still remains hidden behind that brick wall, possibly restorable.

“The best answer I can give you is we really don’t know what’s behind there,” Pitts said.

One person who obsesses over the question is Tim Fortune, a local artist and Downtown Advisory Board member who has stared at that facade for 23 years through the picture window of his painting studio across Main Street. He said he and Amy Catania, director of Historic Saranac Lake, worked with Munoz to see if Key Bank would investigate what is behind the wall.

“Amy actually secured an architect who said he’d be willing to make a probe of some sort, I think from the inside,” Fortune said Tuesday. He said it would have cost about $1,200, and the Adirondack North Country Association agreed to pay half.

“Obviously it was something that was not going to happen overnight,” Munoz said, but he said he tried to set up meetings between bank leaders and local advocates.

“We do believe that beautiful arch is there,” Fortune said.

Fortune said he was disappointed to hear Key Bank is leaving town.

“We’re kind of back to square one now,” he said. “We’re physically changing the look of downtown, and this facade is the worst visual structure in Saranac Lake. It just sticks out like a sore thumb. Hopefully the new owners will see that and be willing to do something with the facade.”


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