An Expressive Gateway at Broad and Fairmount

Broad Street, Ridge Avenue and Fairmount Avenue, 1892. (PhillyHistory.org)

Broad and Fairmount is no ordinary intersection. Look at the five vistas it offers: toward Center City or North Philadelphia, up Ridge Avenue or down or out toward Fairmount, and it’s clear: this is a gateway with a grand, if gritty, sense of self.

This is s an equal-opportunity provider, Broad and Fairmount is, offering a sense of place with a complex choice of message. It lets you know where you’ve been and where you’re headed. It’s a place that favors the public even more than it accommodates the private, something we’re inclined to forget with all of our recent focus on the proposed Divine Lorraine Hotel development project.

Consider the sheer longevity of Broad and Fairmount as a public place. Generations before Ridge Road was upgraded to Ridge Avenue and Plumstead Lane shed its country airs and became Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphians knew this intersection. Broad Street was still a half-mile the south, contained in its original grid. What a revelation, it must have been, when the rutted road that would become Broad Street ventured a mile north from Center Square and connected so neatly here, making a six-point intersection.

By the 1860s and 1870s, as the city continued on its decades-long tear building 100,000 rowhouses, Broad and Fairmount served as a hub for the construction trades. (See our earlier post on the rowhouse as the “quintessential object of industrial Philadelphia.”) Broad and Fairmount supplied building crews throughout North Philadelphia with whatever they might need: lumber, brick, marble, iron and coal. Here, precisely a mile north of the rising white-marble City Hall, Broad Street became a boulevard straighter, prouder and more urban than the old country roads ever could. And as North Philadelphia grew, the marble yards were replaced with homes, schools, churches, synagogues, clubs and hotels —buildings of the new bourgeoisie. Of course, to finance it all the new Broad Street Bourgeoisie also needed banks. These became as essential, even more so, than any other institution.

American Trust Loan and Guaranteed Investment Company, 648 North Broad Street, ca. 1895. Frank H. Taylor, photographer. (Free Library of Philadelphia)

The American Trust Loan and Guaranteed Investment Company, built at Broad and Ridge in 1890, wasn’t supposed to look like an ordinary bank. Architects Louis C. Baker and Elijah James Dallett had worked with Frank Furness, the most individualistic and eccentric of 19th-century bank architects. And when they went out on their own at the peak of the Broad Street boom, they brought with them an appetite for expression and innovation. No surprise then, as this building was finished, the American Architect and Building News gave it a full-page illustration.

The American Trust and Saving Fund greeted arrivals from all directions with engaging overstatement. Above was a bell tower and a roof line of stone columns. Below, rusticated brownstone arches set apart by masonry checkerboards held half-lunette windows proclaiming the golden words: “Bank,” “Bank,” “Bank.”  The architects wrapped the institution’s expansive name around its entire angled façade in giant, sans-serif letters. Plate glass windows proclaimed in gold: “Money for Homes on the Installment Plan.” Baker and Dallett designed more than a bank; they created a billboard for banking.

Today, the American Trust Loan and Guaranteed Investment Company is still living out its mission as both medium and message. The bell tower is gone, but the building is covered with billboards and advertising. And before the billboards, which date back to at least the 1940s, this building always prominently communicated whatever it offered the community: hardware, auto supplies, ice cream. This commitment to messaging confirms the psychology of this strategic intersection and validates the bank in its civic role as narrator of public space.

This communicative role is catching. It played out across Broad Street, where the owners of the Lorraine Hotel recognized the opportunity to proclaim its presence with prominent rooftop signage. And more recently, graffiti artists embraced and compounded the same idea. One day, the graffiti will be gone and the Divine Lorraine’s giant red-neon letters will be re-lit. But for that signage to make sense— for this place to make sense—we need to understand it as part of the venerable, gritty and glorious gateway that is Broad and Fairmount.

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One Comment

  1. Posted March 18, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Great piece– I love the Gilded Age Town Square myself.

    Here’s pieces I’ve written about buildings at this corner:

    700 North Broad: http://hiddencityphila.org/2012/04/last-vault-of-the-nouveau-riche/

    Park Theatre, which stood at 701 North Broad: http://philaphilia.blogspot.com/2012/05/lost-building-of-week-may-2nd.html

    American Trust: http://philaphilia.blogspot.com/2011/07/old-ass-building-of-week-july-18th.html