After the 1929 merger, the bank decided to commission a new, larger building, designed by the Chicago firm of Weary and Alford. Construction began in May 1930, directed by the Detroit contractors, Walbridge and Aldinger.
The new bank was being built on the same site as the existing bank building, and the administration was unable to locate a suitable alternate site for its operations. In order to keep the bank open while construction was going on around it, a sequential construction system was developed. The east wing was completed first, while the banking business was carried on in the west side of the existing building. When the east wing was completed, the banking operations were moved into the new section and the old west wing was demolished.
The new west wing and the tower were then built simultaneously, during the last months of 1930.
As it happened, a rival bank -- the Central National Bank -- was also building a tower, just a block away at Michigan and McCamly streets. The firm of Holabird and Root were chosen to design this 18-story bank and tower and construction began in August 1930.
Daily officials of the two banks watched their rival towers rise above the city's skyline. The Central National Bank went faster, since they were not contending with the logistical problems of operating a bank and building a new structure at the same time. The structural steel work on this tower was topped off in January 1931 at 233 feet – 18-stories of retail and rental space plus a two- story residential penthouse.
The original design for Old Merchants (now Heritage Tower) also called for 18 stories. But the gauntlet had been thrown down by Central National and the challenge had to be met. Two stories were added to the plan at the last minute. The Old Merchants tower finally topped off at 238 feet and 6 inches -- just 5 and a half feet taller that its rival.
When it opened for business in May 1931, the Old Merchants National Bank and Trust Company was 70% occupied. The basement level housed the mechanical plant and parking garage. Retail stores were located on the ground floor in an arcade which ran through from Michigan Avenue to Jackson Street. The only banking function on this basement level was the safe deposit box vault. More than 5,000 boxes were protected in a vault over three feet thick, with a "two-ton blockade of stainless steel" for a door. The latest in anti-theft devices were installed, including the "most sensitized system known to science -- an alarm system operated by sound waves." The public was assured that to "tamper with this vault would be merely inviting a free ride in the 'Black Maria' to the police station."
The main banking floor was located on the mezzanine level. The monumental dome rises 46 above the floor, soaring up through the 3rd and 4th floors. Other bank offices are scattered around the dome on these upper levels. A half floor is nestled between the 4th and 5th levels to contain the ventilating equipment.
Rental space for offices occupied the 6th through 19th floors. In addition to the normal complement of administrative and professional offices, several suites in the building were specially equipped for doctors and dentists. "Compressed air, gas and special electrical current for X-ray and similar devices" as well as "sound-proofed doors and partitions" were furnished (to muffle the screams of the patients?).
In fact, the 13th floor was originally designated for rental to a group of doctors. The physicians were not superstitious, but apparently their patients were not so "scientific" and they began to express their fears about medical treatments going awry on the ill-fated floor. The offending floor 13 disappeared from the building.
The upper three floors, 17, 18, 19, were occupied by the Athelstan Club, a local social club for men. They installed a dining room, kitchen and woman's lounge as well as a card room, gentlemen's lounge and ball room in their space.
The exterior of the building is faced with 2,000 tons of gray Bedford (Indiana) limestone. The base of the Michigan Avenue facade is trimmed with black granite, the only use of this material in Michigan outside of Detroit at the time of construction. One of the few changes to the exterior has been the new entrance marquee installed when the pedestrian mall was built in the 1970s.
The interior of the building is marked by rich materials used in what the architects described as the "modified modern" style -- "the new preference for large, well proportioned, flat surfaces and vertical lines, avoiding the grotesque affected by so many."
The grilled aluminum gateway at the foot of the escalator is just one example of this style. The elaborately etched doors of the elevators and the embossed letterboxes are also notable.
The escalator itself -- Battle Creek's only "moving stairway" -- was a leading attraction for most bank patrons. As the newspaper wrote at the time of the bank opening -- "Blessed by the hurrying businessman as a time-saver, by the shopper as a step-saver and by the school boy as a free ride, the escalators are still viewed with a certain amount of suspicion by a few wary step-climbers who prefer the solid marble beneath their feet." Originally made of wood, the escalator could carry 4,000 adventurous patrons an hour at the speed of 90 feet per minute.
The walls of the lobby are faced with richly-grained red Levanto marble from Italy. The main banking floor is covered with Golden Travertine marble from Czechoslovakia.
The murals, with motifs of fruits, animals and cereals, used soft pastel colors and gold leaf to bring warmth into the room and offset the hard surface of the marble. The art work is designed by the architects and Alexander Rindskopf of Chicago. An army of artisans worked for months to stencil and hand paint the designs on the walls and ceiling.
The floors of both the ground floor and banking room are paved with blocks of Roman Travertine marble. The 1200 pound light fixture suspended from the dome was raised and lowered for maintenance by an innovative pulley system.
The soaring Heritage Tower defines the city's skyline. The monumental domed interior of the banking floor almost overwhelms our senses with shining marble, gleaming gold leaf, glowing murals and sparkling mosaics.