Though the rest of the city has grown up around it, the Historic Lafayette Apartments building was Butler’s first skyscraper, originally the Butler County National Bank. Its facade is constructed in the French Renaissance Revival style, and the sign on the front says “Lafayette,” but this building has been known by several names in the last century. Since 1903 it has gone from an economic center and symbol of prosperity, to low income housing for seniors. It all started with J.W. Ritts, and the Butler County National Bank.
The oil boom in Butler led to the founding of the Butler County National Bank (BCNB) in 1890. In a short time it became the largest financial institution in the county. By the turn of the century, the BCNB needed more space, and they began by demolishing the Butler Citizen building. This site was next to the Mechling House, whose claim to fame was a visit from Marquis de Lafayette during his historic tour of the United States in the 19th century. Lafayette was a French general who assisted in the American Revolution, and was a key figure in the early years of the French Revolution. This visit inspired the current name for the building
Preliminary plans for the building were announced by April of 1902. The Henry Shank Company, the same company that built the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library, was in charge of construction. The building officially opened its doors on October 29th, 1903. The local papers praised the beautiful building and its rich mahogany. Advertisements in the Butler Eagle directed hopeful customers to “the big bank on the corner by the courthouse.” The Butler post office shared the space from 1903-1913, when they moved to Washington Street. In 1929, BCNB built on a two-story addition - just in time for the Great Depression. By 1930, the bank, like so many others, hit hard times and sold out to the Mellbank Group. In 1937 the founder of the BCNB, J.W. Ritts, passed away. Eleven years later, the building officially became the Butler Branch of Mellon Bank.
Extensive renovations in 1950 modernized the look of the bank by replacing wood railings and doors with aluminum, covering the marble floors in carpet or terrazzo, and updating the cast iron teller cages with plastic laminate counters. The vaults, nearly indestructible, were left intact, and remain there today. In 1973, the Mellon Bank building made the news for testing solar panels on its rooftop.
In 1975, the bank was ready to expand to larger, newer facilities. Their eye was on the Nixon Hotel site across the street. The Mellon Bank left the old Butler Bank building behind, and the county purchased it two years later for $400,000. In May of 1980, the new courthouse annex opened, marked by a commemorative engraved stone. The eighty-five year old building still contained the nearly indestructible vaults, but the rest of the structure showed signs of its age. In 1987, the roof collapsed under the weight of storm water, devastating portions of the building.
The name prepared to change again in 1993 with plans to renovate for apartment buildings - specifically for low income housing for the county’s senior population. This has been the role of the Lafayette since then. In 2003 it changed hands from the Property Development Association to Historic Lafayette, Inc. who said the building would continue to offer low income housing for seniors for at least the next twenty-five years.
Though the original stencil for the Butler County National Bank can still be seen on the window, the names painted over it have changed several times since its opening day in October of 1903. The insides modernized from wood to aluminum, but the beautiful French face has remained largely unaltered in that time. No one calls it “the big bank on the corner by the courthouse” anymore, but even in her old age, she still manages to turn heads.