FROM WHAT I’VE GATHERED, most people in Dallas never noticed the Mercantile. I can’t remember when I first noticed it. And once I did, I don’t think I particularly liked it.
However, it happened that back in early 2005 we moved into a place just down the street; one of our windows had a nice view of the building.
Photographing the spire As the weeks passed, I started spending more and more time at that window, watching the clouds drift past, the sun work its way around the tower. I stared at its windows, wondering what could be inside. At some point, the Mercantile began to mildly obsess me. I started to spend considerable amounts of time thinking about how I could get inside.
As I came to find out, I wasn’t the only person downtown who thought about this a lot. The Mercantile seemed to have a weirdly magnetic attraction on some people, the homeless population in particular. There were plenty of derelict buildings, and several of them were pretty easy to get into, so it wasn’t a question of limited selection. Yet night after night, the other buildings were frequently left in peace, while the Mercantile had its windows broken, doors pried open, and boards pulled off. Maybe there were fantastic rumors circulating of treasures left in the vaults, I don’t know. Maybe the building did have a sort of personality, which attracted people who were in touch with it. Or maybe it was the peculiar smell.
On the subject of the smell, I’d like to make a few observations here, since it was indeed somewhat unique.
1950. (Dallas Public Library Photographic Archive) It was a thick musty smell—not repulsive, and at least for me, more likely the opposite. It permeated the interior of the building, and crept out onto the surrounding sidewalks as well. There’s a long tunnel which runs underneath the Mercantile complex and several other buildings, connecting a couple parking garages to the rest of the tunnel system. I walked through it one day, and to my delight found that I had no problem telling when I was passing underneath the Mercantile, just by the smell.
One other thing unusual enough to mention is that the power was never turned off to the building, even though it sat vacant for close to 15 years. If you don’t turn them off, fluorescent lights will burn for years, gradually growing dimmer and dimmer. It was somehow unsettling, after walking through interminable black corridors, to come to a large room dimly lit by a sea of fluorescents, all still faintly glowing. Or after spending some length of time in the silence and darkness of the vaults, to press a button on the wall and hear an old elevator car come rattling down towards you from somewhere above. Much the same sort of shock you might get while looking at something dead, only to see it twitch.
I made several trips into the building that year. It was an immense space, 1.1 million square feet I’ve heard. Each time I’d go in thinking I could get all the rest of the photos I needed. And each time I’d leave knowing I was going to need one more trip. Finally the day came when I couldn’t go in any longer.
circa 1950. (Dallas Morning News Archives)
I still stand at my window, watching the building.
As far as the facts go, Mercantile Bank dates back to 1916, when R.L. Thornton founded Stiles, Thornton and Lund, Private Bankers. In 1917 that became Dallas County State Bank, and in 1925—Mercantile National Bank. Thornton served as president until 1947, and then Chairman of the Board until his death in 1964.
The Mercantile Bank tower, designed by Donald Nelson and Walter Ahlschlager, was built in 1941–43. The steel for the building had been ordered before the U.S. entered into WWII, but construction was almost halted, as most of the country’s resources and labor were diverted to the war effort. Thornton got a special disposition from the government to permit completion of the building, and it became not only the tallest building west of the Mississippi at the time, but the only large office building to be built in Dallas during the war. This created some tension around town, since many people saw the continued construction as decidedly unpatriotic. Once the building was completed, Thornton leased much of the space to the federal government in order to alleviate some of the ill will. I’ve heard that he sold the government on the idea of going ahead with construction by convincing them the building’s extreme height would make it the ideal lookout tower for advancing Japanese aviation. You have to admire a guy who can make a sale like that. (Of course, it is the federal government we’re talking about here... :-)
1941. Excavation. (photographer unknown)
Over the years, the Mercantile complex expanded to occupy the entire block between Main, Commerce, Ervay and St. Paul Streets. The 16-story Securities Building was added in 1949, the 20-story Dallas Building in 1957, and the 5-story Annex in 1972. Across the street were the Mercantile Commerce Building (1950), the 11-story Continental Building, and the 8-story Mercantile Jackson Building (1972?).
In 1984 Mercantile National Bank merged with Houston-based Bank of the Southwest to form MCorp, and the actual bank was renamed to MBank Dallas. The decline of the Mercantile building began in 1987, when MCorp built Momentum Place—more recently known as the Bank One Center—a 60-story skyscraper just across the street from the Mercantile, and began to move its offices to the new building. MCorp, however, was destined not to survive the Savings & Loan crisis of the 1980’s; in 1989 it was declared insolvent and the FDIC had to spend $2.8 billion bailing it out. MBank was bought up by Bank One, which has subsequently merged with J.P. Morgan Chase. The Mercantile complex’s last tenant left in early 1993.
01.2006. Woken after a 13 year sleep.
Several redevelopment deals came and went during the following years; none of them ever got off the ground. In 2005 the buildings were purchased by Forest City Enterprises, which broke ground on an apartment/retail conversion in December. The Mercantile’s main tower will remain, albeit with a totally new interior. The Continental Building will become condos; the other three buildings will be demolished and replaced with new construction. Estimated completion is 2008.
Location: U.S. / Texas / Dallas
Photography: Fall 2005