It’s been a long time since the banks put up buildings to remember. It used to be that they erected a structure of stone, something solid to assure customers their money was somewhere safe.

The best example of that in Hamilton is the 1928 Bank of Montreal building at Main and James. Though the bank left there long ago, that flagship is on the Registry of Historical Places of Canada. We are lucky to have it.

But two decades before BMO built that temple downtown, they opened a bank of stone at the corner of Barton and Victoria. Not a big one, but handsome. It is the oldest branch in the city.

And it is soon to close. Interestingly, this will be the second time the bank has shut that branch down.


This is the kind of temple the banks used to build. The Bank of Montreal located here on James South in 1928. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

BMO’s top man in Hamilton is Rick Jaques. He is vice-president of the bank’s South Central Ontario District, which means he watches over the bank’s interests from Niagara through to St. Thomas.

Drugstore becomes bank

In Hamilton, he is now putting the finishing touches on plans to give James Street North a new bank – and to take away the old one on Barton.

James North first.

There is already a branch there, just south of Barton. It’s been around for decades. A skinny place, just a plain storefront.

Jaques says they decided that area needed something bigger, a branch with space for all services – retail, commercial, financial planning.

So work starts now – just a few doors away at James and Colbourne – on a branch that will be twice the size. And with a dozen employees, twice the staff. There will be parking, something missing at the other location. And better wheelchair access.

It’s a $1-million investment, and will be a retrofit of a former Shoppers Drug Mart store that’s been empty too long.

The bank noticed

Everybody knows by now that James North is one part of the core that is finally seeing a renaissance. Jaques says the bank noticed too.


Rick Jaques, top-ranking BMO official in Hamilton, says the bank likes what's happening on James Street North. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

"We see what’s happening. We think it’s a story that’s unfolding."

And then there’s that 103-year-old outpost on Barton East, beside the General.

An heritage plaque out front shows that William Palmer Witton, one of Hamilton’s great architects, had a hand in this one.

There was industry all around when the branch went up, more arriving every year. In fact, BMO needed another branch just down the road at Barton and Westinghouse to handle all the business.

A couple of generations later, Hamilton’s muscle began to atrophy. In the mid-‘80s, BMO closed the branch at the corner of Westinghouse, a grand two-storey structure with lots of fancy trim.

Barton and Victoria carried on. But it was a quieter place, with a staff of three. In the glory days, there would have been 15.

Shut the branch down

In 1997, BMO declared it was shutting that branch down. The official word was that it just couldn’t "generate the volume of business we’d hoped."

Funny thing happened, though.

Not long after BMO left the building, the Banco Comercial Portugues moved in. BCP opened eight branches, the others in the GTA.


They've been coming through the Bank of Montreal door at Barton and Victoria since 1909. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

But then it discovered that it’s tough being a little bank in a big country. It put the Canadian operations up for sale – and BMO bought them.

And it declared that the branch they had once closed would stay open. Up went a new set of Bank of Montreal signs.

"We certainly want to reach out to new Canadians," said the BMO bank official of the day.

The question was asked. So is this a long-term return to Barton and Victoria? "For sure," he replied.

And now it’s five years later.

Vice president Jaques believes BMO is keeping its word by building a new bank that can serve the whole area better.

"It’s not as if we’re leaving the market," he says. "We’ll be just down the street a kilometre... with more staff, more offerings under one roof."

The new branch on James North is to open in late March. At the same time, the old branch on Barton will close – for good this time. | @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.