The Old State Bank Building is a historic landmark located in Decatur, Morgan County. It was built in 1833, originally serving as the Decatur branch of the State Bank of Alabama. Now operating as a museum, the building is notable for its Jeffersonian-style architecture featuring a rare five-column design and two sets of double front doors. It is believed to be the oldest surviving bank building in the state of Alabama. The Old State Bank was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
In 1830, the Alabama General Assembly passed legislation to create the State Bank of Alabama. Headquartered in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, the bank would have additional branches in Mobile, Montgomery, and Decatur. The final branch location proved to be controversial because Decatur had at that time merely 200 residents; however, it had the benefit of proximity to the Tennessee River and major cotton plantations. Construction began that same year. The directors of the Bank wanted an imposing building that reflected their vision for the financial institution and for Decatur as well. Designed in the Jeffersonian tradition, which employs a combination of Federal and Greek Revival architectural elements, the building was constructed in fewer than nine months at a cost of around $10,000. The stone for the five columns in front was mined in nearby Trinity, Morgan County, and each column weighs one hundred tons. Most of the construction was done by enslaved workers from the plantation of James Fennell, one of Decatur's founders. The structure was so admired in the state that it influenced architecture in Alabama in the years before the Civil War. The Decatur branch of the Alabama State Bank opened for business on July 29, 1833. Despite a profitable start, the Bank accrued more than $1 million dollars in debt by 1840, and its franchise was withdrawn in 1845.
The building remained vacant until 1861, when it was occupied by Union troops in the area. It served as a field hospital, a storehouse, and a headquarters for the senior officers. With 22-inch-thick walls, the bank's vault provided shelter from bullets, mortars, and cannon fire, which allowed it to be used as an operating room for wounded Union soldiers. The Bank's columns still bear the scars left by cannonballs and bullets, as well as the carved initials and troop numbers of Union soldiers. Because of the bank's importance to the Union, it was one of only three buildings in Decatur that survived the Civil War.
After the war, the Old State Bank served many different purposes, including a 20-year stint as the First National Bank and as also a brief time as a doctor's office and residence, but it had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s. After being added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1972, the building was donated by the American Legion, Post No. 15, to the City of Decatur in 1975. An extensive restoration ensued, focusing on the era between 1833 and 1845 (when the building operated as a bank). The board of directors of the Old State Bank oversaw the restoration, and funding was provided by the City of Decatur, the board of directors, and the Alabama Historical Commission. The Old State Bank opened as a museum in 1984.
Exhibits in the museum include three teller cages built in 1833, currency issued from the bank, numerous maps and photographs, and other artifacts that tell the history of the Bank. The second floor of the building is the preserved residence of Washington Keyes, the bank's first manager. As Decatur was located on the frontier, the Alabama General Assembly required Keyes to live above the bank to provide security. The dining room, formal parlor, and bedroom are each restored as they would have looked when Keyes resided there.
The Old State Bank is located at 952 Bank Street Northeast, in Decatur. It is open Monday through Friday, from 9am to 5pm.
Dunnavant, Robert. Decatur, Alabama: Yankee Foothold in Dixie, 1861-1865. Little Rock: Pea Ridge Press, 1995.
Gamble, Robert. Historic Architecture in Alabama: A Guide to Styles and Types, 1810-1930. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
Published July 16, 2014
Last updated August 27, 2014