"Wonderful Old Lawrence" by Elfriede Fischer Rowe

Watkins Bank Building

     DISCUSSION ON HOW TO SAVE the Watkins National Bank building, now more commonly known as "City Hall", for the people of Lawrence, prompts one to turn back the clock half a century.

     But first, let's go back to 1895 when the Lawrence Memorial Album was published by joint publishers, E. S. Tucker and George 0. Foster. Two pages of pictures, both exterior and interior views of the bank, are shown and we quote some of the outstanding features: "The walls are of pressed Trenton brick trimmed with figured terra cotta and Lake Superior and Cottonwood stone. One floor of the interior is finished in richly carved quartersawed white oak. Another in the exquisitely handsome curly pine of Southwest Louisiana. The lobby floors are a marble mosaic. The wainscotting of the lobbies and stairway are of marble, eight different varieties being artistically arranged."

     The publishers of the Album boasted also of six fire-proof vaults, electric call bells, handsome gas and electric light fixtures on every desk. They did not mention the brass hand rails that lead up the stairs, and the plate glass windows and the beautiful colored Tiffany type leaded glass windows in the lobbies.

     When the bank first opened in 1888, it stressed the accommodation of stockmen and cattle feeders. The banking business was conducted on the first floor. The second floor was occupied by the Watkins Land Mortgage Company, one of the pioneer mortgage companies of Kansas. It had "much to do with the upbuilding of the West in furnishing to deserving farmers at reasonable rates capital with which to open up and improve new and fertile lands."

     In the basement were living quarters for Will Morris, the janitor. What were in the other rooms down there are unknown, because later as a youngster we were not interested nor curious enough then to find out what they housed.

     The Watkins National Bank came into focus for me when I was a student at Central School, located on the southwest corner of 9th and Kentucky streets. It now houses apartments and offices. At Central School, one of my friends was Dorothy Tucker (Mrs. Harry Stucker), whose father was "Charlie" (C. H.) Tucker, cashier of the Watkins bank. Many times after school, Dorothy and I would walk up to the bank. It was the opposite direction to home for me, but I was easily persuaded to go with her, knowing what was in store.

     We would walk into the south entrance or back door of the bank. Neither the outside door nor the back door leading into the bank proper, was ever locked as long as Morris was in the building. I would stand in the back of the bank near the door while Dorothy conducted what business she had with her father.

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     Along the back wall, was a huge supply cabinet with shelves and cubby holes. Here all the banking stationery supplies were stored -- pencils, blotters with colored pictures on them, erasers, pens, calendars, rulers, letterheads and scratch pads -- a school child's paradise. When we departed, we were allowed to take one yellow pencil with Watkins National Bank printed on it, and a blotter.

     These blotters were very colorful and pretty. One turned up in an attic recently and it has the picture of a young Japanese girl standing reading from a scroll in one hand and a fan in the other The caption reads "The Poem". Printed also is "Copyright 1904 by Mizru." Below the girl's feet is printed, "J. B. Watkins, Pres.; C. A. Hill, Vice Pres.; C. H. Tucker, Cashier; W. E. Hazen Asst. Cashier -- The Watkins National Bank -- Lawrence, Kansas -- Capital $100,000 -- Surplus $20,000."

     Many years later, after four years in college and one year of secretarial schooling at the Lawrence Business College, then located three floors above the Lawrence National Bank, the Watkins building again came into focus for me. This time my involvement was with the Watkins Land Mortgage Company on the second floor. In those days, it apparently was the custom to go to the father to ask permission to offer his daughter a job. Mr. Thomas ("Tommy") Green, who was in charge of the office of the Mortgage Company did just that. And so I was hired as a secretary at $90. a month. It was said at the time to be the highest secretarial pay in town. Banking hours were kept, 9 to 4 and an hour for lunch, and closed on Saturdays.

     The first morning I arrived for work, I thought I had stepped into Mr. Scrooge's office. Tall desks like Bob Cratchet's were lined along the north side. A door leading off to the west disclosed a small room holding three wooden secretarial desks. Large plate glass windows covered the north side. I could the choose the desk I preferred, so I chose the furthest one back. I could look out in the street from there and anyone walking along on the sidewalk that I knew, I could beckon to them to come on up and see me.

     A huge vault like the one in the bank, was on the west side. On the door was a colorful scene painted in oils. One roll-top desk after the other lined the south side of the room and all unoccupied except two. Mr. Watkins had a glassed-in office at the east end. And it boasted a fire place on the north. In the winter months, if Morris knew Mr. Watkins was coming down, he would have a wood fire burning. We used to sit on the sills of the front windows and watch parades march by.

     When I came to the Mortgage Company to work, there were only three others employed -- Miss Anna Hutt; Mr. Green; and Mr. Stanton. I was told the Watkins Mortgage Company was winding up its business. It had been in receivership.

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     The Watkins Land Mortgage Company in early years, sold debenture bonds to small investors throughout this country, and to many school teachers in England. The Mortgage Company had offices in London, New York and Dallas. Their money was invested in mortgages in western Kansas, Texas, and Louisiana, and were largely farm mortgages. These debentures were issued in series secured by a certain number of mortgages and in this way it gave the investor more security. Then came the depression in the 1890's and the prices of all farm crops and property plunged down. As a result, the Mortgage Company could not meet its payments and a receiver was appointed.

     Later, two committees were formed; one American and one English. Mr. T. H. Chalkley was sent over from England to represent the English investors. Mr. M. Summerfield, father of Solon Summerfield, the K. U. benefactor, was a receiver. When I came along, the liquidation was in the process of completion. Mr. Watkins was determined that the investors were to be paid back their principal, 100%, and it took many years to accomplish this.

     Jabez Bunting Watkins was a small, stooped man, with piercing eyes. He came to the office only occasionally. When he died in 1921, Mrs. Watkins had the responsibility of carrying on his wishes. She was well qualified to do so as she had been his secretary before they were married, and she knew everything about the business.

     Mr. Green ran the office. Quality and perfection were his criteria, not only in all work, but everything the office used in stationery and equipment were of the best. He loved young people and gaiety and colorful clothes. If you arrived at the office carrying your golf bag to take to the Country Club to play after work, he would appear at your desk around two or three and insist that you leave -- that there was nothing more to do that day. He was the perfect boss.

     The office was dead quiet unless you were typing -- rather ghostly. Mr. Stanton worked at one of the Bob Cratchet desks, but he always appeared to be busy. The phone seldom rang and Mr. Green took all the calls. There was no phone at our end of the building. To my surprise, I found no carbon paper for office copy. There was a large press and you would put your letter typed on heavy bond paper between two sheets in a book of tissue paper sheets, use a brush to moisten the tissue and turn the wheel of the press. A copy of the letter would come off on the tissue sheet. There was a special kind of typewriter ribbon used to do this. The tissue sheets were in bound books and were stored like books.

     Will Morris kept the office spotless. He was a very fine looking Negro and an immaculate dresser. When he smiled, he showed a mouthful of beautiful gold teeth extending all across

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the front of his mouth. We had linen towels in the wash room. Coffee breaks were unheard of then, but in the summer, when it was very hot, (no air conditioning, but ceiling fans), Morris would appear in a white waiter's jacket. He'd set up a table with a white linen tea cloth and serve us punch from a large crystal punch bowl resting on a silver tray, ladling it out with a silver ladle into glass punch cups. We would stand around the table, sipping punch and nibbling on home made cookies. Some recall that in early times, when the bank stockholders held their annual meeting in the basement of the bank, Morris would put on a turkey dinner and some of the young daughters of the officers, helped serve. When he wore the white jacket, Morris always wore a long narrow black ribbon around his neck which held his eye glasses. These were the kind that folded up and would spring open when a catch was released. They were rimless and you pinched them on the bridge of your nose to hold them on.

     The long, plate glass windows were kept sparkling clean. In fact, so clean, you could scarcely tell if the windows were open or closed.

     Mr. Green had one bad habit. He chewed tobacco. Usually the first thing in the morning he would come in and sit on the window ledge and visit a little. If the window was open, he might get rid of the excess tobacco juice through the open window. One such morning, after he walked out, I felt chilly and got up and closed the window. Mr. Green had an after-thought and came back in. He didn't see that the window was closed. You can guess the rest. Morris was called in haste to wash things off.

     There was a back stairs on the second floor that led to the bank. Mr. Tucker would come up those stairs from the bank to talk business with Mr. Green. One day he came up and told us Jess Willard, the heavyweight champion, was in the bank. We tore down the stairs and into the bank lobby to stand beside Mr. Willard at the tellers window. The tall, powerfully built, fine looking man made the rest of us feel and look like pygmies. The most memorable thing about him was his huge hands.

     And what does the building look like today? The marble stairs look a little worn down, the brass railing is not so shiny, the windows not so sparkling perhaps, but the building still has its air of elegance. And you walk out of it with the feeling, the "Old Girl" holds her age well and is probably good for many, many more years to come.

     Printed in Journal-World, Dec. 26, 1969

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