New look for old bank retains historical style

The site of a bank robbery so iconic that it inspired a Steve McQueen movie is being downsized. But don’t worry. You’ll still be able to deposit and withdraw money there, as bank customers have for nearly 100 years.

In developing its plan for the historic former Southwest Bank building at the corner of Kingshighway Boulevard and Southwest Avenue, BMO Harris Bank worked closely with the community and the city.  

“Not only was it a good deal for the community, but a good deal for the city,” said Sean Spencer, executive director of the Tower Grove Neighborhoods Community Development Corp.

As first proposed, BMO Harris Bank, wanted to tear down the entire 40,0000-square-foot former Southwest Bank building at 2301 S. Kingshighway Blvd. and replace it with suburban style buildings, Spencer said .

A total of 36,000 of the original 40,000 square feet of the building will be removed. But the bank and the historic look will remain, said Sandy Washington, market president for BMO Harris. The 4,000-square-foot segment that remained was The 4,000-square-foot segment remained was gutted, redone and reopened in March.

It’s the result of changes – mainly digital – that reduce the need for larger banks, Washington said.

“It’s always been a bank since the 1920s, and (the community) wanted the bank to remain,” Washington said.

“As banking has evolved, the majority of the building has become obsolete,” Washington said.

About four years ago, bank representatives met with neighbors and got the their blessing and the city’s to make changes, she told us. 

In keeping with a goal to preserve as much of the building as possible, the bank is retaining the exterior brick facade along Kingshighway, so that motorists may think a building is behind it. The entire facade will be painted the same color, so it looks uniform.

But that brick facade will actually be one wall of a new Walgreens that will be on the other side.  That Walgreens will replace a recently shuttered Southwest Avenue store.

A part of the Kingshighway facade that was built in 1973 was removed.

The company also donated a two-story building on the corner of Botanical Avenue and Kingshighway to the Tower Grove Community Development Corp. for an office.

The project began in the summer of 2018. The bank branch moved back into the renovated facility, which has a drive through, in March. Construction began on the new Walgreens around March, and completion is expected by late summer or early fall.  

“We would expect this project would be complete by the end of the year,” Washington said. A grand opening for the bank is planned for early summer.

The bank looked at other options for the 36,000 unoccupied square feet, like getting other tenants, but they didn’t work out, Washington said.

Marshall and Isley Bank (also known as M&I Bank)  merged with Southwest Bank in the early 2000s. BMO Harris Bank merged with Marshall and Isley in 2011. The original bank building was built in 1925.

The building gained notoriety during a dramatic bank robbery on April 24, 1953. The heist gone wrong included all the cliche-ridden aspects of a 1950s bank robbery movie.

Crowds of police officers and onlookers gather as terrified bank customers and employees crouch down to avoid the gunfire. When the shooting stops, a police officer is injured, two bank robbers are dead, and one is injured. The getaway car’s driver eludes police, but is quickly caught. In the best movie style, one robber takes his own life after declaring the police will never take him alive.

In fact, the story was made into a 1959 flick starring Steve McQueen, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery. It features scenes of the bank robbers crossing the Eads Bridge into St. Louis, the outside of the bank and Southtown Famous Barr. City cops who were at the scene played themselves in the movie.

The movie is available for free on YouTube.


Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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