For more than a century, the complex of bank buildings on the block bordered by St. Charles Avenue and Gravier, Common and Camp streets has been a key landmark in New Orleans' business and economic life.
Seven years after two of the storied names in Gulf South banking merged, Hancock and Whitney banks will come together under a unified name, wi…
But that will all change next month, when the last of Hancock Whitney Bank's 600 or so New Orleans-based employees decamp from the iconic buildings for new offices at the former One Shell Square, recently renamed the Hancock Whitney Center.
For a bank known throughout its history as an institution rooted firmly in the past, much has changed in recent years amid tighter industry regulations, the growth of online banking and the merger of New Orleans-based Whitney and Gulfport, Mississippi-based Hancock in 2011.
Now, the architecture will reflect the changing banking industry, as thick stone walls and gilded accents give way to open floor plans, glass and steel, a transformation that happened years ago across the world's financial centers but has finally come to "The Whitney."
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King Milling, a retired Whitney Bank president who began working at the bank more than a half-century ago and kept an office there until recently, said he was sad to see the era end.
"It's been a fantastic and inspirational spot to work," he said while helping guide a tour through the boardrooms and hallways. But, he noted, the bank "needed to go to expand."
About half of the employees have already made the move, leaving the warren of hallways and offices in the seven-building complex for the 51-story office tower on Poydras Street.
Bank employees grown accustomed to Italian marble, bronze fixtures and intricate ceiling designs will instead move into a sleeker spot in the city's tallest building. There, they'll inhabit nine floors of cubicles, modular walls and recycled material for insulation.
The new location is only a block or two from the bank's old building, which since its founding in the late 19th century has been a fixture in New Orleans' Central Business District.
The bank's first building at the site was built on Gravier Street in 1888, but more iconic is the 14-story St. Charles Tower, constructed in 1910-11 in the Beaux Arts Classical style popular at the time. When finished, it was the tallest building in New Orleans.
Even New Orleans natives may have trouble remembering Poydras Street before it was widened in the 1960s.
Upon entering the bank through the main St. Charles entrance, high, decorated ceilings, brass railings and long rows of pink marble teller stations embody the building's history as a locus of New Orleans' wealth over the last century.
In other parts or the building, dark wood covers the walls and plush carpets underfoot soften any echoes.
It's hard to imagine that the future accommodations could feel as majestic, but much of the space seems underused. Most of the teller stations sit idle. With the move underway, there are empty offices and desks, and little traffic flows in the hallways.
Few customers come into the building anymore. At the same time, the number of bank employees has grown, especially since the 2011 merger.
"We have to be focused on the future," said Joe Exnicios, the current bank president. "We've simply outgrown it."
The complex is actually several buildings quilted together over the years as the bank expanded. Those buildings occupy most of the city block, and the resulting maze of offices, hallways, nooks and staircases is disorienting — the source of employee jokes for decades, Exnicios said.
"I used to call my wife and tell her that if I wasn't home in half an hour, I'd probably fallen down the stairs," he said. "I might not be found for days."
During a 90-minute tour, Exnicios led a reporter and photographer up and down marble staircases, into wood-paneled meeting rooms and to the bank's massive original vault.
The rooms and hallways ooze New Orleans' commercial history. It was here that countless New Orleans homes were bought, businesses were started and nonprofits were launched.
In one smaller conference room, executives from Whitney and Hancock banks met to plot out the firms' merger, Exnicios said. But it was three floors down and one building over that much of the bank's major business was done.
That's the location of the board room, dominated by a 30-foot wooden table with seating for 19, plus carpeting and portraits of former bank presidents on the walls. The room is the centerpiece of the bank's main building, with an adjacent reception area and dining room.
"This was an intimidating place," Exnicios said.
Perhaps the building's most obvious nod to its history is the fifth-floor barber shop, still manned by Tony Trippi, who has been there some 50 years.
Prices have gone up — a haircut costs $30 now — but some things haven't changed from when the banking business was mostly a men's club. A Playboy magazine sat on the barber shop's couch.
The shop also is going to the new building, where it will have ground-level space with access outside, Exnicios said. The bank's other employees will occupy nine of the upper floors of the Hancock Whitney Center, with executives on the 34th floor where, notably, they will be able to look down on the old building just a block or so away.
As for what will happen to the old building, Exnicios said an announcement should be coming within 60 days. He said bank officials worked hard to find a developer who would modify the building while keeping as much of its original character as possible.
Milling said he was optimistic about what it could become.
"As beautiful as this institution is ... it can be utilized for the city in better ways," he said.
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