Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The former Second Bank of the United States, on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2019:

The establishment of a national bank was one of the most controversial economic matters in the early years of the United States government, pitting Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton against Democratic-Republicans such as Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists, who generally represented urban and northern interests, favored a strong central government in order to promote trade and industry, while the Democratic-Republicans, who were primarily southern and rural, saw such a government as a threat, instead preferring a decentralized, agrarian-based economy.

Over the objections of prominent figures such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the First Bank of the United States was established in 1791. At the time, the national capital was here in Philadelphia, with Congress meeting in Congress Hall, adjacent to Independence Hall. As a result, the bank was also headquartered in Philadelphia, where it operated out of Carpenters’ Hall until 1797, when a new bank building was completed nearby on South Third Street. The national government subsequently relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1800, but the bank remained in Philadelphia, and it continued to operate until 1811, when its twenty-year charter expired and Congress declined to renew it.

The country was without a national bank for the next five years, but in 1816 Congress authorized a new bank, the Second Bank of the United States. Ironically, this legislation was signed into law by President James Madison, who had come to recognize the need for a national bank after his earlier misgivings about the First Bank. Like its predecessor, the Second Bank was privately owned yet subject to government oversight, and its important roles included regulating public credit and stabilizing the national currency. This was particularly important in the years during and after the Madison administration, as the country recovered from the War of 1812 and began a series of ambitious internal improvements.

As with the First Bank, the Second Bank was located in Philadelphia, and it began operations in 1817. It also used Carpenters’ Hall as its temporary home, but in 1824 the bank moved into this newly-completed building on Chestnut Street. Designed by noted architect William Strickland, it features a Greek Revival exterior that is modeled on the Parthenon, with a pediment and eight Doric columns on both the north and south facades. This was an early example of Greek Revival architecture in the United States, and this style subsequently became very popular across the country in the next few decades, particularly for government and other institutional buildings.

By the time the building was completed in 1824, the bank had already faced significant criticism for its role in the Panic of 1819, the first major financial crisis in American history. Although part of a larger worldwide recession, it was also a consequence of the lending practices here at the Second Bank of the United States. Along with its role as the national bank, it also made loans to corporations and private individuals, and during its first few years it extended too much credit to borrowers. Then, in an effort to correct this, the bank began restricting credit, causing a nationwide rise in interest rates and unemployment, and a drop in property values and prices of farm produce. This ultimately triggered a financial panic in 1819, which was followed by an economic recession that lasted for several years.

The bank’s first two presidents were largely ineffective, but in 1823 Philadelphia native Nicholas Biddle became the bank president. He oversaw a slow but steady expansion of credit, along with an increase in banknotes, and during his tenure he managed to rehabilitate the bank’s image in the general public. This building on Chestnut Street opened about a year into his presidency, and he would continue to run the bank here for the next 12 years, until it closed in 1836 after its charter expired.

During these years, the bank — including its 25 branches across the country — played an important role in the nation’s economic growth. However, despite the bank’s success, it continued to generate controversy, becoming a central political issue during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. First elected in 1828, Jackson had a distrust of banks in general and the Second Bank of the United States in particular. He was skeptical of both paper money and lending, and he also opposed the bank on constitutional grounds. Echoing the earlier opposition to the First Bank, he argued that, as the Constitution does not explicitly authorize Congress to establish a national bank, it was an infringement upon the rights of the states.

In 1832, Congress approved a renewal of the bank’s charter, which was due to expire in four years. However, Jackson vetoed the bill, and Congress was unable to gather enough votes to override it. A year later, Jackson removed federal deposits from the bank and placed them into various state banks. Biddle subsequently made another effort to renew the charter, but despite his financial abilities he lacked strong political skills, and the bank’s charter ultimately expired in February 1836.

The bank itself did not close at this time, instead becoming the United States Bank of Philadelphia, with Nicholas Biddle still at the helm. However, the lack of a national bank soon became a factor in the Panic of 1837, which led to a seven-year recession. It was the worst economic crisis until the Great Depression, and it triggered a number of bank failures, including the United States Bank of Philadelphia. At the start of the recession, it had been the largest bank in the country, yet it ultimately went bankrupt in 1841.

A year later, Charles Dickens came to Philadelphia as part of his 1842 trip to the United States. He had few positive things to say about the country in his subsequent book, American Notes for General Circulation, and he painted a particularly bleak picture of the scene here at the old bank building with the following description:

We reached the city, late that night. Looking out of my chamber-window, before going to bed, I saw, on the opposite side of the way, a handsome building of white marble, which had a mournful ghost-like aspect, dreary to behold. I attributed this to the sombre influence of the night, and on rising in the morning looked out again, expecting to see its steps and portico thronged with groups of people passing in and out. The door was still tight shut, however; the same cold cheerless air prevailed: and the building looked as if the marble statue of Don Guzman could alone have any business to transact within its gloomy walls. I hastened to inquire its name and purpose, and then my surprise vanished. It was the Tomb of many fortunes; the Great Catacomb of investment; the memorable United States Bank.

The stoppage of this bank, with all its ruinous consequences, had cast (as I was told on every side) a gloom on Philadelphia, under the depressing effect of which it yet laboured. It certainly did seem rather dull and out of spirits.

As it turned out, the building did not remain vacant for very long. In 1845, it became the U. S. Custom House for the port of Philadelphia, and it was used in this capacity for far longer than it was ever used as a bank. It was still the Custom House when the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, and this continued until 1934, when the present Custom House opened two blocks away. Then, in 1939, the old building was transferred to the National Park Service, which has owned it ever since.

The building has seen several different uses over the past 80 years, but it currently houses the Second Bank Portrait Gallery. It features a number of portraits by prominent late 18th and early 19th century artist Charles Willson Peale, including those of many important colonial-era leaders, such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Most of the interior has been heavily altered since its time as a bank, although the exterior has remained well-preserved, with few changes from its appearance in the first photo. It is now part of the Independence National Historical Park, and in 1987 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Agawam National Bank, Springfield, Mass

The Agawam National Bank building, at the corner of Main and Lyman Streets in Springfield, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2018:

This building was completed in 1870 to house the Agawam National Bank, which had been established in 1846 and had previously occupied an older building here on this spot. The new building was designed by Henry H. Richardson, a young architect who would go on to become one of the leading American architects of the late 19th century. Although best-known today for Romanesque-style churches, railroad stations, and government buildings, Richardson’s early works included a mix of relatively modest houses and commercial building, many of which bore little resemblance to his later masterpieces.

Richardson’s first commission had been the Church of the Unity here in Springfield, which he had earned in part because of a college classmate, James A. Rumrill, whose father-in-law, Chester W. Chapin, was one of the leading figures within the church. Chapin was also the president of the Western Railroad, and when the railroad needed a new office building, Richardson received the commission without even having to enter a design competition. This building, which stood just a hundred yards to the north of here, was completed in 1867, and two years later he was hired to design a new building for the Agawam National Bank. In what was likely not a coincidence, Chapin had been the founder of this bank, and by the late 1860s, Richardson’s friend James A. Rumrill was sitting on its board of directors.

The design of the Agawam National Bank bears some resemblance to the railroad office buildings. Both were constructed of granite, and they both had raised basements, four stories, and mansard roofs. However, while the railroad building was purely Second Empire in its design, the bank featured a blend of Second Empire and Victorian Gothic elements. Perhaps most interesting were the rounded arches on the ground floor. Although this building could hardly be characterized as Romanesque in its design, these arches bear some resemblance to the ones that he would later incorporate into his more famous works of Romanesque Revival architecture.

Architectural historian and Richardson biographer Henry-Russell Hitchcock did not particularly care for the design of the bank building, criticizing its “square proportions, crude monotonous scale and hybrid detail,” and describing it as a “hodge-podge” that was “pretentious and assertive.” However, he did concede that the building’s virtues “are more conspicuous if one does not look at it so carefully and so hard. To a casual glance, it must have had certain granite qualities of solid mass and strong regular proportions which tend to disappear when it is studied in detail.”

These “qualities of solid mass” likely served the bank well, since 19th century financial institutions often constructed imposing-looking buildings in order to convey a sense of strength and stability. As shown in the first photo, the Agawam National Bank was located on the right side of the first floor, but the building also housed other tenants, including the Hampden Savings Bank, which occupied the basement. These two banks had shared the same building since Hampden Savings was established in 1852, and they would remain here together until 1899, when Hampden Savings moved to the nearby Fort Block.

Agawam National Bank remained here in this building until the bank closed around 1905. By this point, its architecture was outdated, with trends shifting away from thick, heavy exterior masonry walls. The advent of steel frames in the late 19th century had enabled commercial buildings to be taller while simultaneously having thinner walls, and this allowed for large windows with plenty of natural light. The bank building was ultimately demolished around 1923, and it was replaced by a new five-story building that exemplified this next generation of commercial architecture.

Known as the Terminal Building, it was the work of the Springfield-based architectural firm of E. C. and G. C. Gardner, and it was completed around 1924. It was built with four storefronts on the ground floor and offices on the upper floors, and it was designed to support up to seven stories, although these two additional stories were never constructed. Today, the building still stands here, with few exterior changes. It is a good example of early 20th century commercial architecture here in Springfield, and in 1983 it became a contributing property in the Downtown Springfield Railroad District on the National Register of Historic Places.

National Savings and Trust Company Building, Washington, DC

The northeast corner of New York Avenue and 15th Street NW in Washington, DC, around 1910-1911. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Photo Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The origins of the National Savings and Trust Company date back to 1867, when Congress chartered the National Safe Deposit Company. It was located in an earlier building here at this corner, and it housed safe deposit boxes for Washington residents to store their valuables, at a time when this type of service was still a relatively new concept. Three years later, this company was joined by the National Savings Bank, which was located in the same building.

The two companies enjoyed a prominent location, diagonally across from the Treasury Building and only a block away from the White House, and in 1888, they moved into a new building here on this site, as shown in the first photo. It was built in brick, was five stories in height, and it originally extended 130 feet along 15th Street to the left, and 65 feet along New York Avenue to the right. It featured a Queen Anne-style design, with a distinctive clock and cupola atop the corner, and it was the work of noted Philadelphia architect James H. Windrim.

In 1890, the two companies merged to form the National Safe Deposit, Savings and Trust Company, which was later simplified to the National Savings and Trust Company in 1907. As the name was getting shorter, though, the bank was continuing to grow. In 1911, probably soon after the first photo was taken, the bank purchased the adjacent Lenman Building, seen on the right side of the scene. It was subsequently demolished, and in 1916 the bank built a 50-foot addition on the site, followed by another 50-foot addition in 1925. However, these 20th century additions featured the same architectural style and building materials as the original building, so the three sections are nearly indistinguishable from each other.

The expanded building would continue to serve as the headquarters of the National Savings and Trust Company throughout the 20th century, although in 1987 it changed its name to Crestar Bank. The company has since been acquired by SunTrust Bank, but this building remains in use as a branch of SunTrust, more than 130 years after it first opened its doors to banking customers. Overall, aside from the early 20th century additions, the appearance of the building has not changed much during this time, and in 1972 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Third Congregational Church, New Haven, Connecticut (2)

The former Third Congregational Church, on Church Street in New Haven, in 1903. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library, Herbert Randall Survey of New Haven and Environs.

The Second National Bank of New Haven on the same site, around 1918. Image from A Modern History of New Haven and Eastern New Haven County (1918).

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in the previous post, the Third Congregational Church was established in 1826, and was located in several different buildings over the next three decades. In 1856, the church moved into this new building on Church Street, opposite the New Haven Green. It was designed by architect Sidney Mason Stone, and the exterior featured a Romanesque-style design that would become popular for churches during the second half of the 19th century. The congregation worshiped here until 1884, when the church merged with the nearby United Church, which still stands on the Green.

In 1890, the vacant church was purchased by the city, and the interior was converted into the first long-term home of the New Haven Free Public Library. At some point before the first photo was taken, a new, much shorter steeple was also added to the building, although it does not seem clear whether this happened before of after it became a library. Because it was designed as a church, though, it proved inadequate as a library. At the time, most libraries had closed stacks, which required patrons to specifically request materials at the circulation desk. However, the limitations of this building resulted in open stacks. This allowed the general public to browse all of the collections, but it also meant that a number of books went missing during the two decades that this building was in use.

The city finally completed a new library building in 1911, which is still standing today at the corner of Elm and Temple Streets. Around the same time, the old building here on Church Street was purchased by the Second National Bank of New Haven, and was subsequently demolished. The bank then constructed an eight-story office building on the site, which was designed by the architectural firm of Starrett & van Vleck and completed in 1913. The first photo was taken a few years later, and was published in A Modern History of New Haven and Eastern New Haven County. According to this book, it was the second-largest of New Haven’s ten banks, with a headquarters here on Church Street that was described as “the finest banking and office building in the city.”

The Second National Bank had its offices here in this building throughout much of the 20th century, but in 1978 it was renamed Colonial Bank and moved to Waterbury. The company would subsequently go through a series of mergers, eventually becoming part of BankBoston, Fleet Bank, and finally Bank of America. In the meantime, though, the former Second National building is still standing here on Church Street, with few changes since the second photo was taken. It remains in use as an office building, and its current tenants include the New Haven newsroom of NBC Connecticut.

Main Street near Court Street, Springfield, Mass

The east side of Main Street, looking toward the corner of Court Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo shows a group of four buildings along the east side of Main Street, representing a wide range of late 19th and early 20th century architectural styles. On the left side is the ornate Beaux Arts-style Union Trust Company building, which was completed in 1907. It was designed by the noted architectural firm of prominent Boston-based architectural firm of Peabody & Stearns, and housed the Union Trust Company. This company was formed by the 1906 merger of three city banks, and it still occupied the building when the first photo was taken in the late 1930s.

Just to the right of the Union Trust Company, in the center of the first photo, is a five-story Second Empire-style building that once housed the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. The company was originally located in the Foot Block, at the corner of Main and State Streets, from 1851 to 1868, before moving into this building. However, its offices were only here for about five years before the building was gutted by a fire on February 5, 1873, although it was soon reconstructed based on plans by architect George Hathorne. The company would remain here until 1908, when a new, larger office building was completed a block south of here, where the Foot Block had previously stood.

The third building to the right was probably built sometime in the early 20th century, based on its architectural style. By the time the first photo was taken, the ground floor of this five-story building housed the Woman’s Shop, which offered “Distinctive Outer Apparel,” according to the sign above the entrance. To the right of it, at the corner of East Court Street (now Bruce Landon Way), is the Springfield Five Cents Savings Bank. It was built in 1876, and featured an ornate Main Street facade, including cast iron columns. A better view of the exterior can be seen in an earlier post, which shows the view of this scene from the opposite direction.

Today, almost 80 years after the first photo was taken, most of the buildings are still standing. The former Woman’s Shop building has remained relatively unaltered except for the exterior of the second floor, and the Union Trust Company building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its architectural significance. Even the Five Cents Savings Bank building is still there in the distance, although it is hard to tell from this angle. The Main Street facade was rebuilt in the mid-20th century, but the building itself remains standing, with the original southern facade visible along Bruce Landon Way. Overall, the only building from the first photo that is completely gone is the former MassMutual headquarters, which was demolished sometime around the 1950s and replaced with the current Modernist building.

Robert B. Johnson Buildings, Holyoke, Mass

The buildings at 195-201 High Street in Holyoke, around 1891. Image from Holyoke Illustrated (1891).

The buildings in 2017:

According to the National Register of Historic Places inventory for the North High Street Historic District, these adjoining three-story brick buildings were built around 1880. However, they may actually date back to about a decade earlier, since they are mentioned in directories from the early 1870s. They were originally owned by Robert B. Johnson, an insurance agent whose offices were located here in the building. He also rented space to other tenants, including the Holyoke Savings Bank on the left side and the Holyoke National Bank on the right, as seen in the first photo. Above the arched entryway in this photo is a sign for “R. B. Johnson &  Son,” and hanging from the second floor is a sign for  “M. O. Hastings Dentist.”

Aside from his insurance business, Johnson was also involved in both of these banks. He served as treasurer of the Holyoke Savings Bank from 1866 until his death in 1899, and he was also the first vice president of the Holyoke National Bank, upon its establishment in 1872. He later became the president of the bank in 1896, and served in that role for the last three years of his life. Following his death, his son Charles W. Johnson succeeded him as treasurer of the savings bank, and he also carried on the insurance business here in the building on the left side.

The Holyoke National Bank was located here until the early 1910s, when it moved to a new location at the end of the block, at the corner of Dwight Street. Then, in 1915 the savings bank purchased both buildings, allowing it to double its available space by expanding into the side that had been vacated by the national bank. However, the savings bank was only here for another decade or so, before moving into a new building that still stands a few blocks away at 143 Chestnut Street, at the corner of Suffolk Street. Later renamed Vanguard Savings Bank, it would remain at the Chestnut Street location until 1992, when it was absorbed by Fleet Bank.

In the meantime, the bank’s former location on High Street is still standing, although both of these buildings have seen some changes over the years. The ground floor has been significantly altered, with three different doors instead of the central arch, and the building on the left side has lost much of the ornamentation above the third floor. However, both buildings are still easily recognizable from the first photo, and they are among the many historic late 19th century commercial blocks that still stand here on this part High Street.