A piece of Bel Air's history will be turned to rubble when the old Branch Banking and Trust building in downtown Bel Air is demolished later this winter.
The building is one of the survivors of the great Bel Air fire on Groundhog Day 1972 that destroyed the buildings along Main Street between the bank and the Boyd and Fulford Drugs building.
The Town of Bel Air purchased the 0.19-acre lot containing the vacant bank building, along with a quarter-acre parking lot, for more $1,032,400 in August with plans to tear down the building and turn it into a 33-space metered parking lot.
Originally, the Commercial & Savings Bank, most of the 19,700-square-foot building to be torn down was built in the late 1960s; however, archival photographs and other material indicate a bank building has been on the same site since around 1900. Eugene Streett, owner of Boyd and Fulford, says the original bank building was a blocky "stucco building that looked like something you would find in the Midwest;" in other words something right out of the Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger era of the 1930s.
The south wall of the existing BBT building abuts the wall of a larger building next door that is owned by the Harford County government and is the headquarters of the sheriff's office. The latter building was constructed in 1963, originally to house county administrative offices.
Both adjoining buildings were designed by the late Alexander Shaw, a prominent architect based in Bel Air in the middle of the 20th century who designed a number of commercial and institutional buildings in Harford County.
Two buildings immediately to the south of the BBT building — the forerunner of the current Main Street Tower restaurant and an old hotel — were destroyed by an early morning fire on Feb. 2, 1972, that was caused by a leaking fuel oil tank on the roof of one of the buildings.
The fire is considered by many to be among the most destructive and dangerous in the town's history. It threatened to spread throughout the entire downtown, which was still largely a collection of wood frame buildings. The space between BBT and Main Street Tower has been used for parking since the fire.
The parking lot and building are at 33-37 S. Main St. and will potentially house a new municipal building in the future. For now, however, town commissioners have approved a $251,230 contract to a New Jersey contractor to demolish the building.
A contract was awarded to Richard E. Pierson Construction Company in Pilesgrove, N.J., who is expected to start on the project in late February or early March, Town Administrator Chris Schlehr said Friday.
The town received six bids for the project, which was budgeted between $250,000 and $300,000, ranging from the awarded bid of $251,230 up to $420,000, as Public Works Director Randolph Robertson said at a December work session.
The contract will include having the building demolished and the site repaved for the parking lot, as well as making sure all of the hazardous materials, such as asbestos, are properly taken care of, Robertson said at the December session.
It does not, however, cover the removal of an old oil tank on the property because that will be handled once this project is completed, he added.
Once the project starts in the next couple of months, Schlehr said Friday, it should take about a week to complete.