MACHEN SQUARE WEST

In the early 1880s, a welcome wave of prosperity created a need for more financial institutions in Brunswick. Major Columbia Downing, successful local businessman and leader, chartered the National Bank of Brunswick in 1884. On the southern side of Machen Square West, the bank built a grand facility. Well-known Savannah-based architect Alfred Eichberg, who also designed Historic City Hall, drew the plans for the building. The project was completed in 1894.

Masterpiece on Machen Square

The three-story National Bank of Brunswick was an excellent example of the popular Richardson-Romanesque revival style. Notable features of the genre were alternating bands of red brick and contrasting light gray granite. Blocks of rough-cut, or rusticated, stone formed the bases of sturdy pillars supporting an arcade row of recessed arches along the building’s front entrance. Typical Victorian touches were incorporated into the design, including a group of benign imaginary beasts peering through acanthus leaves, beaming down on bank customers and passers- by.

A Hospitality Landmark

The bank’s location was advantageous in several respects. The business district was expanding northward into what was known as New Town. An enormously ambitious project, the magnificent Oglethorpe Hotel, was completed in 1888 on the adjoining block. This Victorian masterpiece was the pride of Brunswick, offering spacious guest rooms, modern conveniences, fine dining and a grand ballroom that hosted civic functions and celebrations for over seven decades. Development of the hotel was a decade-long community effort, requiring commitments from civic leaders, local investors and a group of out-of-state financial backers to realize the dream. Tourists from all over the nation flocked to Brunswick to enjoy mild climate and scenic beauty of the Georgia coast, and to partake of the healing mineral waters from the Hanover Square fountain.

A “New Look”

In 1958, the bank changed its name to the First National Bank of Brunswick, and sold the building to the S.H. Kress Corporation, which operated an adjacent 5¢-10¢-25¢ store. Both structures were demolished and replaced by a retail store, styled in what a local newspaper article called "a new look" that would replace "two monuments to the past." The two buildings were combined into a single two-story structure with a porcelain-enamel façade on the Newcastle Street frontage. At the request of the Chamber of Commerce, developers included a public restroom- the only one in the downtown area- as well as a luncheon counter.

Demolition Fever

 

Soon, another episode of demolition fever changed the landscape of Brunswick forever. The Oglethorpe Hotel was torn down and replaced by a three-story flat-roofed motor hotel called the Cabana Inn. Local citizens were dismayed, but plans were set in motion without any recourse for preservationists at the time.

Brunswick resident, Huling Tower Armstrong, Director of Engineering for local Naval Air Station Glynco, was invited to visit the site before the demolition was complete, and was allowed to salvage hundreds of the Hotel’s signature pink and white Italian marble tiles from the dining room. Plans to use the tiles in a home project never materialized, and after his death, his children, Katherine Armstrong Clark of Dublin, Georgia and Richard Fielder Armstrong of St. Simons Island, donated hundreds of tiles to Signature Squares in 2005 in their parents' honor. An artistic presentation of these tiles will greet visitors to the Square as they enter from Newcastle Street.

MACHEN SQUARE EAST

A Dramatic Neighbor

When the city’s growth spread into the 1500 block of Newcastle Street, Machen Square acquired an important neighbor–the Grand Opera House. The building was completed in only three months, and sported castle-like crenelations across its Newcastle Street frontage. In keeping with the prevailing style of architecture of the city at the turn of the century, the construction was in red brick with contrasting granite elements. Third story windows were topped with a lively collection of stonework "tiaras."

The offices of the Brunswick and Birmingham Railroad were located in the top two floors above the front ticket and lobby area of the theatre. Shops were located along the Newcastle Street frontage of building, right to the edge of the open space of Machen Square. Over the years, the Newcastle Street frontage of the Opera House changed, exchanging the long, uniform sidewalk shelter for pedestrians for smaller, individual canvas awnings for each shop.

The Hollywood Era

In the mid-1920s, local Dixie Investment Company purchased the Opera House and transformed the Victorian structure into an Art Deco moving picture palace, renaming it The Ritz. The complex roofline was squared off, and the façade of the building was painted white, subduing the contrasting stonework and brick into a monochrome appearance. In 2001, a major renovation project restored much of the original coloration, and further work preserved the vintage windows and cascading glass sign in 2010-2011.

Floats and Flutes

Machen Square was a convenient spot for push-cart vendors who sold everything from ice cream to comic books to tourists and townspeople in the summer months. Popular local shops, selling fine clothing, jewelry and shoes, bordered Machen Square. Professional and medical offices typically occupied the upper floors of Newcastle Street retail stores. Like other squares in Brunswick, Machen was also an ideal place to gather and watch parades. The Glynn Academy Jazz band also offered free concerts in Machen Square, much to the delight of downtown business people and shoppers.

Historic Discovery

In 2009, Alex and Carol Snyder of Brunswick discovered that a pile of massive granite pieces in their back yard were elements of the original National Bank of Brunswick façade. A former owner of the home had placed the stones on the property’s creek bank for erosion control. The Snyders generously donated the elaborately carved blocks to Signature Squares of Brunswick.

Landscape architect Jerry Spencer incorporated the stonework in a charming fountain in Machen Square East. A grant from the DeLong-Sweet Foundation funded the recovery and transformation of the space into a community park for all to enjoy.



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