Key to the City

By Liza Wilson
This landmark building at the corner of Little and Main in Driggs underwent a major renovation in 2010. The results are something for the town to be proud of. Photo by Joe Tondro-Smith

The First National Bank building, now home to Key Bank, occupies the northeast corner of Main Street and Little Avenue in Driggs. The structure has seen—and been involved in—nearly a hundred years of our community’s history. The building witnessed the recovery years following World War I, when horses still pulled buggies down dirt streets. It witnessed the Great Depression, when the bank failed and many residents lost money and property. It observed the World War II years, the demise of the railroad, and the paving of the roads—when horses gave way to automobiles and airplanes.

Oh, the tales those walls could tell!

The Driggs State Bank was established in 1906. The stone building on the northwest corner of Main Street and Bates Road—the landmark “buffalo building”—was built to serve as the bank’s offices. Driggs State Bank later converted into the First National Bank, which in 1918 erected and moved into the present Key Bank building.

At the time the building was constructed, Driggs had been incorporated for only eight years, and the Oregon Short Line Railroad had been servicing the valley for just six. Built at a cost of $85,000, the structure’s lower level housed not only the bank offices but also the Orpheum Theatre, while the upper floor was used for sundry purposes at various times. Several apartments, the Rotary Club meeting place, a dance hall, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, a beauty shop, and the Department of Agriculture Offices have all been housed there. Prior to the 1924 dedication of the “new” courthouse—itself vacated in 2009—the bank building provided space for county business, as well.

Many interior elements, relics from a earlier era, remain in tact in the updated structure. Photo by Liza Wilson.

Grant Wilson remembers as a boy going upstairs to Dr. Redner’s office to have his dislocated elbow attended to. And during Grant’s high school years, he was friends with Bill Harper, whose father managed the theatre. The boys earned their movie tickets by cleaning the theatre after school.

The Orpheum Theatre seated 200 to 250 people on its sloped floor. In the early days, the movies were silent, and a musical score came with each movie that was performed live on the piano. DeEtta Driggs remembers her mother playing accompaniment to some of those films. The silent films gave way to “talkies,” or movies with synchronized sound tracks, which became a global phenomenon in the early 1930s.

The building during renovation, with teh 1970s facade removed. Photo by Liza Wilson.

In the 1940s and ’50s, the Orpheum generally had showings six nights a week, with the addition of a matinee on Saturday. First came a newsreel (one of the major means by which the nation received its news during World War II), then a cartoon, and, finally, the feature film. The feature film would be played a second time; or, if a double feature was showing, the first show would be repeated after the second feature film. The cost of a ticket was ten cents for children and twenty-five cents for adults—and, of course, popcorn was available to purchase.

The movies were well attended; after all, in the pre-television era, they were literally the only show in town for many years. The theatre stage, complete with orchestra pit, was used for high school productions and traveling Chautauqua plays, as well, before a school auditorium was built.

Gene Sewell, one of many projectionists during the early 1950s, recalls his wage being $3.50 per night. His wife, Sonja, remembers the projection room with its two projectors being “hotter than a bandit’s pistol” (on a cold winter’s night that might have felt good!) In addition to running the film, it was Gene’s job before locking up at the end of the night to walk the theatre’s aisles to make sure no one had fallen asleep in their seat.

Photo by Liza Wilson.

Over the years, the First National Bank became, in turn, the Bank of Teton Valley, Bank of Commerce, the Valley Bank, and, finally, Key Bank. Despite the name changes, many interior elements remained: The porcelain hexagon floor tile, for instance, and the white-and-black marble of the teller line. But in the late 1960s or early ’70s, after the movie theatre had closed, the bank at the time expanded its offices into the vacated space. A new façade was applied to the exterior, covering the old brick to bring the structure “up to date.”

Forty years later, that up-to-date look had become extremely dated. Darla Neeley, the bank manager, began campaigning to have the building returned to its original turn-of-the-century style, which by this time would be much more in keeping with other buildings on Main Street. And Teton Valley is pleased that Darla was successful in her efforts. The “new-old” structure is handsome and dignified, a real credit to our community.

Through it all, those brick walls have stood sentinel to nearly a century of downtown Driggs history.

The 1970s facade that was uncovered for the rennovation. Photo courtesy of Key Bank.

What Some Locals Have to Say about the Change

“I was really impressed as I watched the progress of the renovation. I didn’t know how they were going to cover the scar where the old cornice came off, but they did a marvelous job. They restored the old brick, [and] put in new glass and light fixtures. I was really pleased.”
– Gene Sewell

“I just love driving by, and seeing how nice it looks. It brings back memories. I remember the theatre-goers used to have to come across the street to the drugstore to use the restrooms.”
– Clarice Coburn

“Every time I walk by, I think about the Orpheum Theatre. Many memories.”
– Grant Wilson

“I was glad to see them [renovate] the old building instead of tearing it down. It has improved the looks of the bank and made Main Street look more vital and alive, more prosperous.”
– Lou Vrabec

“The building makes that corner look a lot better and adds to the feel of Main Street.”
– Tony Wade

“It is really nice to keep some of the valley as it once was. There are a lot of people who have fond memories of that building; it brings on nostalgia to see it restored.”
– Shona Kasper