Teen Canteen, former Merchants Bank, demolition leaves only memories
by Terry Rang
When the Merchants Bank at 18-20 E. Centre St. opened in October 1923, its stately granite, concrete, steel and marble structure stood as a monument of pride and prosperity for Mahanoy City.
Few alive today would remember it as a bank with its silk mohair curtains, terrazzo floors and sunlit interior. The bank closed in 1942, merging with the borough’s American Bank.
Many current and former Mahanoy area residents will remember it as the Teen Canteen, where they gathered to race slot cars, perform plays, shoot pool, hang out and enjoy other activities, starting in 1949. The building also served community groups for events and meetings after the borough purchased it in 1943. Guinan’s Department Store temporarily set up shop there after a fire destroyed its building in 1945.
Almost 100 years after its heralded debut, the decaying building started tumbling down in pieces the week of March 20, 2023, with each crack of the wrecking ball leaving only memories.
MERCHANTS BANK CHARTERED IN 1903
According to The Pottsville Republican, the Merchants Banking Trust Co. received its charter in April 1903 and started doing business on May 1. Capitalized at $125,000, the bank planned to sell 1,250 shares at $100 each. D.M. Graham was president. He held 250 shares, as did the Rev. Simon Pautienius, pastor of St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, a Lithuanian parish in the borough, and Charles Drumm and the honorable D.J. Thomas, all of Mahanoy City, and G.W. Davis of Centralia. The bank offered many shares to the public.
Merchants Bank first operated in the former Knapp building at southeast corner of Main and Centre streets. When its new building opened in 1923, it was one of the borough’s four banks, including Union National, American Bank, and First National, which Union took over in 1937.
Today, one bank operates in the borough: M&T Bank at Main and Centre streets in the former Union National Bank building. That building was initially constructed for the First National Bank, opening in February 1931 at the same site as First National’s old building. Union National moved into the structure after First National went bankrupt, and it purchased that bank’s liabilities during the Depression in June 1937. First National had served the community since September 1864.
The earlier Union National Bank building on the northwest corner of Main and Centre became a Woolworths store. It now houses the Sen. James J. Rhoades Downtown Center, including the Mahanoy Area Historical Society, state legislator offices and Schuylkill Community Education Council classes. The former American Bank building is vacant.
BEFORE BANK, THE SITE SERVED AS SALOON
Before Merchants Bank, 18 E. Centre Street housed George Goodman Dry Goods from 1871 to 1884, and later the James McElhenny saloon from about 1897-1903, according to Mahanoy City business directories. It then became the Mary Leonard saloon, also known as the Leonard Hotel, which operated until about 1922, when it moved to 32 N. Main St. after owner Joseph Hirsch sold the property to Merchants Bank. Hirsch purchased the property in 1921 from the estate of Charles D. Kaier, the owner of the Kaier Brewery.
The property also included a home behind the hotel bordering Market Street occupied by the Rube Burley family, who had to move, according to The Record-American.
The adjoining property at 20 E. Centre St. housed tobacconist Lewis Grim from at least 1871-1888 and Lizzie Bosch notions and barber John Petritsch from 1890-92, according to the directories.
The wooden structure came down to make way for the modern bank building that extended from Centre Street to Market.
According to U.S. Census numbers, Mahanoy City’s population at the time was 15,599. It was starting a slow decline to today’s 3,301, mirroring the gradual decrease in anthracite production. However, the borough still boasted a vibrant downtown with familiar names such as Miles & Timm and Guinan’s clothing stores, Tregellas shoe store and H & J Heiser hardware. The business directory listed almost 80 saloons in town and an almost equal amount of grocers.
BANK BUILT TO AVERT FIRE, BURGLARS
The Merchants Bank was a sign of prosperity, with workers calling it “the most cheerful and pleasant banking place seen in large or small cities,” according to The Record-American. An article describing the bank noted its 8 feet of polished granite from the pavement up and Mount Airy granite finishing the remainder of the building’s front. The wainscoting inside the bank was polished marble. The glass-filled arched opening and a skylight filled the bank with filtered daylight. The bank also featured ornamental plaster molding, a balcony above the vault, an open fireplace, a ladies’ waiting room, an investors’ reading room and three bathrooms.
The Record-American described the vault as having a solid steel door and a chrome steel lining that was drill-proof to ward off burglars. The door, made of manganese steel, reportedly weighed 22 tons. Electrified wires throughout the vault would set off an 18-inch bell on top of the building at the slightest attempt to penetrate the vault.
The building was fire-proof with floors and a roof of solid concrete. The skylight, made of reinforced concrete, had one-inch glass panels with embedded wire to resist fire. Steel that formed concrete girders 20 inches thick and 8 feet high reinforced the foundation walls. The article also said the building could withstand any ground settlement due to mining.
The Tilghman Moyer Co. of Allentown, which specialized in bank buildings, did the construction. In October 1922, an iron beam being hoisted fell to the ground, making a thunderous noise, but luckily not injuring anyone, according to The Record-American.
The bank opened on Oct. 1, 1923, and was dedicated 10 days later with a celebration headlined by John Skelton Williams, former comptroller of currency under the Wilson administration. Daniel F. Guinan, the treasurer, also spoke. “Our region is prosperous. Earnings are more than sufficient to ensure a steady growth of bank deposits. … We have abundant evidence on every side that the wealth of our anthracite region is steadily and rapidly increasing, that more money is being earned, more money being saved, more money monthly added to the rapid growth of bank deposits, and it is this increasing wealth in our vicinity that justifies our hopes of increased deposits.” He noted that Mahanoy City’s banks combined had $7.5 million in deposits as of September of that year, which he said was an increase of $1.4 million in the past 17 months.
After Merchants Bank moved out of the Knapp building, the Pennsylvania Power & Light Co. moved in.
In June 1928, the bank celebrated its 25th anniversary at Lakewood Park, Barnesville. A Record-American article announcing the event noted the bank had “helped a number of our people to own their own homes and has added to the growth of our town. It has earned the confidence and goodwill of its patrons.” At the time, Guinan was the bank president.
Having weathered the Great Depression, a newspaper article in March 1941 called the bank “one of the strongest in the state” as it hired William Harlan Kline of Lower Merion Township as its new vice president.
However, by August 1942, the bank’s board of directors voluntarily decided to go out of business and merge with the American Bank. The bank’s last day of business was Sept. 12, and the merger became effective on Sept. 14 of that year.
TEEN CANTEEN BECOMES POPULAR HANGOUT
Just more than a year after Merchants Bank closed, Mahanoy City Borough Council purchased the building for $15,000, planning to use it as a borough hall. It was referred to as the borough building, but never functioned fully as a borough hall. It did, however, serve many purposes.
It became the war loan drive office during World War II in June 1945. That same year, the borough temporarily leased the building to Guinan’s Department Store until the family could build a new store. The devastating Memorial Day arson had wiped out more than two business blocks, destroying Guinan’s building. Also, the borough Republican Committee used the buildings as its headquarters in 1948.
The building would become popular as the Mahanoy City Teen Canteen, a youth center the borough established in June 1949. On June 28, Schuylkill County Judge Palmer granted a charter to the Teen Canteen, a nonprofit corporation formed to provide recreational activities.
The Mahanoy City Community Fund financed the Teen Canteen, with the Mahanoy City Board of Education supervising the recreational activities. The interior underwent extensive renovations. The directors’ balcony room became a dance floor with a jukebox. The cashier’s booth near the entrance was converted into a milk bar. A schedule was set up to accommodate youth of all ages.
The basement became a meeting space for the Girl Scouts, a photography hobby group and a little theater. In November 1949, a community fund drive began to support the center. High school students went door-to-door seeking donations. The youth published a mimeographed news digest called “Canteen Clippings” about the center’s activities.
Hundreds of youths came for puppet shows, holiday events, choral concerts, plays, ping-pong, darts, dancing, billiards, and slot-car racing. Nick Mauriello, an expert billiards player specializing in trick shots, gave an exhibition at the center in May 1950.
Photographers captured student activities for the Mahanoy City and Mahanoy Area school yearbooks.
THE BUILDING’S FINAL YEARS
The Teen Canteen was not without its troubles. Through the decades, interest waned as the center was aging. Stereo equipment was stolen, and other property was destroyed. Attempts to revive it to its glory days never succeeded.
In 2009, Mahanoy Downtown Inc. worked with borough council to save the building. State funding helped replace the roof and repair interior drywall, the ceiling and the floor. New restrooms, a furnace and an outside ramp and railings were installed. The building was to eventually house Mahanoy Downtown Inc, a YMCA program and community programs for children and senior citizens, according to The Republican and Herald in May 2010. The building was used into the late 2010s.
In 2016-2017, the Mahanoy Area Historical Society held its programs there. In May 2018, the borough, under financially distressed status with the state, decided to sell the building, citing the cost of maintaining it. No buyer came forward, and the building’s deterioration advanced, with the first floor caving into the basement.
The borough sought bids to demolish the building in October 2022. As a result, the Mahanoy City Fire Department had to remove sirens on the building’s roof that sounded the alarm when the red Gamewell fire alarm pull boxes were activated to report a fire. The fire department is seeking another location for the sirens.
According to Borough Manager John Fatula, the borough received a state grant to demolish the building, as well as 22-24 E. Centre St..
Northeast Industrial Services, Shamokin, started taking it down in mid-March. Demolition company owner Bill Williams can attest to it being a solid, well-built structure.
After reading the building’s description in the Record-American article, Williams said he is interested in learning how much the vault door weighs. While The Record-American article says 22 tons, he is expecting and hoping it will be less, which is more typical.
A history buff, Williams says he would prefer to save buildings. But he said preserving the Merchants Bank would have been difficult because of the expense for upkeep.
For now, Fatula says, the site will become a green space.