Designing Your Friendly, Neighborhood (Almost Modern) Bank

Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, Broad and Ruscomb Streets. (PhillyHistory.org)

So your client the bank president has done his due diligence, his “sober deliberation,” and insists on opening two branch offices. This bank has always been a headquarters-only operation, but the depositors have spread out across the city. As architect, you’re not sure what new bank buildings should look like in the far-flung neighborhoods of North and South Philly, but one thing you do know are your marching orders: these banks must “invoke…a degree of awe mixed with reassurance,” similar to “the venerable main office at Seventh and Walnut.”

You’ve had banker-clients before and they like what you’ve done for them. But high-end country houses, faux-farms with fore courts, paneled libraries and goose ponds aren’t anything like this new project. What is called for here? Something stone and urban; something with gravitas. You search for inspiration and find it, along with the desirable dose of the “venerable,” in the palaces of the rich and powerful Medici. Yes, if this look spoke to the citizens of Renaissance Florence, it certainly could also be a convincing choice for burgeoning Philadelphia. So you design a pair of palazzo banks, one at 11th and Lehigh and another at Broad and McKean. Your boss is pleased and business is good.

Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, Broad and Ruscomb Streets, 1963. (PhillyHistory.org)

Then comes the commission for two more branches, and you begin to get a little queasy about your descision. The idea of putting up one, maybe two 15th-century palaces on city streets seemed OK, but littering the city with cookie-cutter Renaissance replicas is beginning to feel a bit silly. And now, your boss is demanding you wire them up with blazing lights—so uncharacteristic of the Medici. “How inappropriate,” you respond.

Then you consider: it’s the 1920s, and electricity isn’t anachronistic—but maybe you are. So you make your “first concession to the machine age,” turn your back on historical ornamentation, simplify your lines and mount rows of lights on your new facades. And much to your surprise, your two new neighborhood branches in West Philadelphia and Logan don’t look so bad. In each case, a “great block of stone, flooded in strong white light, dominates” the shopping strip (.pdf) and business is “phenomenal.” Later, an architectural historian suggests this second pair of branches might have been a breakthrough, one that predicts your “imminent conversion to modern architecture.”

But you are not a modernist—not quite yet. In one more year, (1928) you will remove your name, the last in the firm of Mellor, Meigs & Howe, and sigh with great relief: “I delivered my last Jumbo, Anti-economy Romantic Country House Package.” Then you will really begin to explore the possibilities of how design might be used to “acknowledge contemporary conditions of modern life.” And for that adventure your boss has in store for you the challenge of a lifetime: the commission for a new Philadelphia Saving Funds Society building in Center City, at 12th and Market Streets.

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