On February 24, 1931 the Old Merchants National Bank formally opened a new tower building in downtown Battle Creek on Main Street.   2,714 people rode the escalators, and newspaper accounts said it was the first bank building in the U.S.A. to have escalators.

 

The 149,000 square foot tower cost $1.7 million dollars to build.   It featured a cathedral-like common area on the second floor, a 34-car underground parking garage and retail and office space on the ground floor.  The Art Deco building has 19 floors, and the exterior is faced with 2,000 tons of gray Bedford (Indiana) limestone.  The base of the façade is trimmed with black granite.  On the interior, a monumental 46-foot central dome rises through the 4th floor.  Lore has it that when it was discovered that it might not be the tallest building in the city, a “dummy” half-floor was built near the top to extend the height.   There’s a vertical steel ladder that you can climb to observe it first-hand.

Old Merchants National Banks and Trust Company was the largest financial institution between Detroit and Chicago at the time.  They even issued their own national currency before the turn of the last century, and you can still buy “notes” issued by the Battle Creek bank on eBay.   During the Depression, the bank was forced to close its doors.

Old Merchants Bank 20 dollar bill-Ebay

 

Here’s a post-Depression timeline of some building highlights:

  • 1935 The bank reopened as the Security National Bank.
  • 1948 WBCK Radio first went on the air from its brand new studios on the 4th floor.  The station was there for 10 years until a fire destroyed the studios and nearly the building.
  • 1978 The tower was named the George C. McKay tower to honor the first chairman of the board for the Security National Bank.
  • 1982 Comerica Bank buys the building.
  • 1993 The Building was purchased by Dore Industrial Development and renamed the “Heritage tower”.   Owner Art Dore was perhaps best known as a promoter of “Toughman Contests” around the state of Michigan. He was quoted as saying Comerica had planned to tear down the building until he bought it and leased it back to them.
  • 2008 Dore sold it to Florida-based Random Acquisitions LLC, sight-unseen, for $3.2 million in an eBay auction in 2008.  The new owner was reportedly very unhappy when he discovered that the building was in poor condition.  He pretty much chased off any remaining tenants.
  • 2012 The building sat empty and was deteriorating rapidly.
  • 2013 Leaks started in the 16 roofs on the building. (There are many small roofs in addition to the main one.)  The Battle Creek Community Foundation came up with the money to get the main roof repaired. Their action saved the building, but not before a lot of damage was done.
  • 2015  Battle Creek Unlimited gets involved and starts working with developers to secure grants and save the building.
  • 2019 The building was renamed “The Milton” by MDH Development, which continues its $34 million renovations. Lead developer Mark Harmsen has said that the new name "stems from the City of Battle Creek’s rich history."  The settlement that became Battle Creek was called Milton Township in the 1830s. The redevelopment will create 85 residential units in the building, along with 32,000 square feet of retail and office space.

Here’s a video from a year ago showing progress on the renovation project.

The Heritage Tower In Downtown. (Credit: Google Street View)