Long before he designed the icon of American Democracy—the dome of the U. S. Capital—Thomas Ustick Walter was certain about the power of architecture. In the 1830s, after finishing Moyamensing Prison and while at work on Girard College, Walter bemoaned the public’s general ignorance. “If the mass of the people were generally well informed on the subject of architecture,” he wrote “nations would look to their Architects… for the means of handing down to ages yet unborn the story of their power and greatness.”
At the same time, the two-decade old Philadelphia Saving Fund Society launched a search for just that kind of certainty. What should their first permanent home look like? They wanted to get some of Walter’s certainty in stone.
Walter had already designed a couple of banks, though none in Philadelphia, and liked the language of the Greek Revival. He had proven his hand with this 1836 façade in West Chester and confirmed there once again what sophisticated urbanites knew: classicism meant stability and strength. Sure, churches adopting the style had to worry they were adopting the temples of pagans, but the only barrier for a bank, as they fell under the spell of classical design, was expense. Schools, too, hoped to echo ancient Greece in their buildings, but unless they had the fortunes of a Girard College, they had to do with less. With the wealth and trust of its depositors, the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society had no reason not to go classical.
The groundwork had already been laid by Benjamin Henry Latrobe in his Bank of Pennsylvania and William Strickland in his Second Bank. Both were based on temple designs in Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens. The final volume of that four-part classic on classicism had been published in 1816, the same year the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society was founded. By 1839, there was no remaining doubt: if you wanted a great institution, you had to make an entrance on marble steps, between authentic columns and capitals. Banks had to look like Greek Temples—even if they had to be wedged into a row on busy Walnut Street.
Times changed and so do styles. By 1869, when the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society needed a new and larger building, they commissioned Addison Hutton to design something fire-proof and burglar-proof, something “calculated to inspire the entire community with implicit faith in the solidity of the Institution.” (.pdf). A portico would have been dated then, but granite stolidity spoke loud and clear, and the new design worked.
Thanks to the availability of jobs and loans, Philadelphia’s bank of choice soon found itself facing a dilemma. As the 19th-century turned into the 20th, depositors lived and worked farther and farther away from the bank. By 1924, president James Willcox considered the wisdom of building branch banks, an as-yet unproven amenity. He turned to the architectural firm of Mellor, Meigs & Howe where George Howe had become the bank executives’ favorite designer of grand suburban homes (later jokingly called the “Wall Street Pastoral” style). Howe delivered a pair of identical “polite, quiet little buildings, unobtrusive and tasteful,” a “North Office” at 11th Street and Lehigh Avenue (illustrated) and a “South Office” at Broad and McKean. As architectural historian William Jordy later put it, the firm’s “characteristic suavity” helped the Italian Renaissance look as natural as it could in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. With rusticated walls and nail-studded oak doors, Howe succeeded in creating a “magnified strongbox,” but his generous windows also suggested a work space inside. Most of all, wrote Howe’s biographer Robert A. M. Stern, “the design conforms to ‘accepted tradition’ for banking architecture.”
But “accepted tradition” no longer meant as much as it once did. Two years after the new branch banks were up and running, Willcox asked Howe to add electric signs. At first the architect protested “the inappropriateness of such an anachronistic feature.” The boss responded: “If my business will benefit by it, shouldn’t I have it?” Howe reconsidered, and saw the light. In the next few years, both men would leave the past behind and go completely electric.