First federal bank of california -Rochester
First Federal was a local financial institution that started with humble roots and grew to become one of the largest savings and loan associations in the country.
The company built a still-standing downtown office tower with a revolutionary revolving restaurant that added to its legacy. First Federal launched a first-of-its-kind housing project in conjunction with the city of Rochester and perhaps was best remembered for its cartoon-like “Hard Working Dollar,” or H.W.D., advertising campaign.
During the housing-and-loan crisis of the 1980s, First Federal was reported to be the first such institution to become a ward of the federal government. The business survived and then thrived — unlike many of its contemporaries — but lasted only another decade or so before being bought out during its centennial year.
The company was founded in 1896 by working-class folks in the Dutchtown area of northwest Rochester who wanted to start a savings and loan association. The group met on the second floor of a grocery store at Campbell and Whitney streets and initially collected $97.50. State officials authorized the establishment of the 20th Ward Cooperative Savings and Loan Association, the name by which the company went for nearly 40 years.
First Federal’s history is well-chronicled in the book, 100 Years of the Hard-Working Dollar/The History of First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Rochester, by Richard O. Reisem. As the book recounts, the first business day was brisk.
“One by one the people in the line climbed the stairs to the second-floor hallway office and opened accounts, dropping their cash investments into a hat. Most made deposits of 50 cents or $1.”
The association formed as a way for low- to moderate-income households to buy a home. Many Dutchtown residents worked in nearby factories and had problems getting loans from commercial banks.
Business boomed quickly. Customers stopped by the store for Tuesday “bank nights.” In 1925, 20th Ward Cooperative moved to a new office at 764 Jay St. and went full-time.
Things were going great until the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Within a couple of years, 20th Ward Cooperative needed help. “Withdrawals were increasing to the extent that they threatened to wipe out all the cash,” the book states. A new president, E. Clinton Wolcott, transformed the company into a federally chartered savings and loan association.
The name was changed in early 1935 to First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Rochester, N.Y. The company opened its first downtown office that same year in the Temple Building at 18 Franklin St. That launched “an era of dramatic growth that would witness one of the greatest periods of new home construction in Rochester,” the book states.
Mergers made First Federal the largest savings and loan in central and western New York. Another downtown office opened, followed by the opening in 1942 of the first suburban branch at Twelve Corners in Brighton.
After World War II, returning military personnel used the GI Bill to buy homes with loans provided by First Federal, and business again accelerated. First Federal moved its main office from the Temple Building to 320 Main St. in 1951. A few years earlier, the company had unveiled its iconic “Hard Working Dollar” ad campaign.
“Alka Seltzer had its Speedy; Rochester Gas and Electric its Ready Kilowatt,” the Reisem book states. “First Federal wanted a friendly symbol for thrift.” The selected image of a silver dollar with a head (and smiling face), arms and legs was synonymous with First Federal for 35 years.
First Federal flooded the market with the image on dozens of items like thimbles, nail files, pencils, key rings, balloons and ashtrays. Radio commercials with a catchy jingle and TV ads with the cartoon image followed. The figure became a registered trademark in 1975.
A series of mergers in the 1970s made First Federal the state’s largest savings and loan institution. Company leaders built a new headquarters overlooking the Genesee River at 28 E. Main St. that was completed in 1977. The 21-story skyscraper included the iconic Changing Scene restaurant (profiled in an earlier Whatever Happened To?… story) and the 18th-floor Statesman’s Club.
Then came the problems of the 1980s that sank so many savings and loans. First Federal at one time was losing $1 million a week until changes were made. First Federal became a “one-stop center for all financial needs” and became the first S&L to join an ATM network. The business reportedly was the first savings and loan to offer telephone banking.
A major restructuring program boosted First Federal to prominence again. Then, federal regulators imposed new rules that again put First Federal in peril.
A Canadian-based firm, CT Financial Services, bought the company in the early 1990s. First Federal officials announced plans to build more than 40 new homes near the Public Market, a project called First Place. Mayor Thomas P. Ryan Jr. called the news “a very exciting day in Rochester,” and newspaper accounts called First Place “the first project of this magnitude between the city and a bank.”
The business that became First Federal turned 100 in 1996, but the end was near. Marine Midland Bank announced plans to buy First Federal that same year and merged the institutions in 1997.
As Reisem’s book says, “First Federal was destined to lose its identity forever.”
Morrell is a Rochester-based freelance writer.
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