Research project on architecture of banks in early 20th century Lancaster: Week 3

For this week of my research I planned to continue with my background reading. On the agenda was another profound work on bank architecture called Money Matters: A Critical Look at Bank architecture. This 1989 publication of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is a solid collection of essays of various authors who have explored the history of banking structures in United States and Canada. As you will notice, this was a step closer to my research topic from the last week when I explored the broad international history of banking and the architecture associated with it. The book starts off with a couple of interesting essays that give general overview of banks and their architectural value but also of their importance to our lives and social constructions they develop in our communities. Out of pragmatic reasons, I will not analyze these writings here, but I do bring my overall summary of some of the later chapters in this book that found the most relative to my research:

CHAPTER 1: Federal Period Through the Greek Revival

The very first modern bank in the United States was established in Philadelphia (in 1781) by the Congress of the Confederation for the purposes of financing the ongoing Revolutionary War. The main reason initial American banks like this one enjoyed a status above that of any other contemporary businesses is that unlike in Europe, where for centuries banking had been in private hands, the first American banks were corporations, charted by federal or state governments. Although managed by groups of individuals, they were enhanced and bound by governmental authority and rapidly became the most important and successful of the country’s 18th century corporations. Banking, however, being such a new activity on the American soil, was kind of a mystery to the general public as well as to some of the first bankers and architects who were to design the appropriate buildings for these new and powerful enterprises. They had, nevertheless, relatively rich European tradition in building banks, exchanges and other financial institutions to guide them. The Bank of England and its monumentally rebuild version by Sir John Soane (1788-1920s) in particular had profound influence on early American banking architecture. Prior to the revolution, buildings in North America were mostly designs of local craftsmen, carpenters or amateur architects, who were influenced by architectural books published in England, which propagated the Renaissance classicism of Italy. “By the time the first banks were built, at the very end of the 19th century, classicism was the common architectural language in the land.”

After the war, the bank directors were eager to project an impressive architectural image and began to patronize the most talented professional architects at a time when such individuals were rare in the United States. The country’s two leading early architects, Charles Bunfinch and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, both received bank commissions. One of the early masterpieces of the US bank architecture, the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (1798-1800) was the design of an English born Henry Latrobe, who was (as Edwin Heathcote teaches us in his Bank Builders) significantly influenced by Soane’s work at The Bank of England. Latrobe was “highly sensitive to the New World aspirations and needs” but also “free of the persistent colonialism which marked the work of native Americans.” Several other banks that preceded Latrobe’s masterpiece, including The First Bank of United States (also in Philadelphia) merely resembled rich residential units. For the Bank of Pennsylvania, however, Latrobe used classical forms creatively “to produce a highly specialized banking structure, something as new as the enterprise it housed.” Latrobe’s neoclassical bank marked the break with the prevailing federal style and it also introduced the Greek order in American architecture, a style that will in later years have “profound consequences for the future of bank architecture”

CHAPTER 3: Mid and late Victorian

“From the 1790s onward, banks in the United States tended to specialize, catering to different groups of customers even within the same city.” Banking soon became much more diversified as banks were established to “look after the needs of smaller businessmen” such as farmers, shopkeepers, and mechanics (manufacturers and craftsmen). The name of the bank itself, like the Farmers’ Trust Company or Merchants Bank clearly signaled “the type of customer the bank wanted to do business with.” Many new banks were also founded at the time for the purpose of financing public improvements like roads, canals, and schools.

This was an era of unrestrained banking, set off by the demise of the regulating federal bank in 1836. A great proliferation of state banks followed, each of which was issuing its own bank notes. “Multiplication rather than consolidation was the order of the day.” The author of this historical overview, Susan Wagg, gives an example of the state of Indiana, whose 1853 lax banking legislation in just three-year period led to opening of as much as 94 new local banks, a vast majority of which failed to stay in business for even that long. This “free banking” system, however, stimulated great expansions towards the west and major economic developments of the United States, particularly through financing the development of the “fabulous resources of the vast continent.” In words of Bray Hammond, “bank credit was to Americans a new source of energy, like steam.”

CHAPTER 5: Beaux-Arts Classicism

“As the colorful, picturesque styles of the Victorian era were reaching an apogee in the eighties and nineties in both Canada and the United States, the leading new architectural firm in New York – McKim, Mead & White – was striving to reintroduce classical order and discipline into architectural design.” The firm was active between 1879 and 1910 and the fact that it received over 785 commissions during this time is telling about its productivity as well as its popularity at the time. Only a small portion of this number, however, accounts for the bank buildings that McKim, Mead and White designed. That said, each of their banks was an essay in Beaux-Arts (of outstanding quality and monumental grandeur) that exerted tremendous influence on many of the leading US bank builders who received major bank commissions prior to the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. The firm’s efforts were boosted after the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was held in Chicago. This single historic event marked the sudden and sharp switch from uniquely American realism to Europe-oriented Beaux-Arts Classical revival in the US architecture. French Academic Classicism was the new big source of inspiration and imitation, with McKim, Mead and White as the most successful representatives of this new current that aroused enthusiastic admiration among the general public.

CHAPTER 6: Prairie style

“Despite the impact made by classical grandeur on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Chicago remained a center for progressive architectural design.” The most prominent architect of this current was Louis Sullivan, the only architect who dared to deviate from the official classical style of the Exposition in his Transportation Building. He, in fact, devoted the rest of his career to his “self-imposed task of creating a fresh, original, and worthy American architecture.” “For this avant-garde architect, one of the founders of the Chicago School, the continued reworking of the past – in which McKim, Mead and White and their emulators excelled – was a betrayal of the needs and aspirations of the American people. It was not modern architecture.” Sullivan essentially did not have anything in particular against the Classical architecture, except that it (in his opinion) did not suit the dynamic spirit of his modern, technologically superior nation. “ […] to him, the Roman temple [a common form for many bank buildings at the time] was part of Roman, not American, life.” His radical vision, however, cost him large metropolitan commissions that he became famous for before the 1900s. Between 1906 and 1919 Sullivan was hired to build a handful of banks throughout the Midwest and it was in the design of these magnificent buildings “that stand out like jewels in tiny rural towns” that he managed to express his strong opinions and ideas about how American architecture should be.

CHAPTER 7: Twenties and Thirties

“Throughout much of the nineteenth century American commercial banking had developed in the absence of a central bank into a unique form comprising thousands of banking institutions, mainly without branches.” We can clearly see this phenomena in Lancaster City at the turn of the century when there used to be as much as 11 different banks operating in this small rural town, but none of which had any branches (as it is normal for today’s bank). Severe financial crises of the late 19th and early 20th century (1877, 1895, 1903, and 1907) had made it necessary for the government to come up with a regulatory solution that is going to bring some order into the banking industry but without sacrificing the high democratic ideals that American people aspired to. In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act. The Act created a central banking system composed of regional Federal Reserve Banks and member commercial banks. Twelve reserve banks were established to serve as central government’s fiscal agency that overlooked smaller commercial banks. These reserve banks were thus not instituted to serve the general public but to provide banking services to their member banks, which was supposed to bring some control and safer structure to the banking industry in the US. In an attempt to ensure a stable economy, the US Government continued to impose controls to the banks with the legislation from 1930s, which stopped the proliferation of smaller banks, causing them to loose much of their initial independence.

CHAPTER 10: Conclusion

The pioneer banks in the United States were established in the era of very turbulent financial conditions in this new and at the time still developing country. To succeed, they had to convince people that they were solvent, stable institutions when in fact they were very opposite. “To do this bankers did what people have always done when they wanted to display either real or pretended wealth, they built themselves a fine house, modified very slightly for banking purposes but inspired by the finest American houses they knew.” Latrobe’s Bank of Pennsylvania was the first example of fully developed bank architecture and was in its time unmatched in both architectural sophistication and beauty. Because these early banks, however, proved successful and profitable, they soon had rivals, creating the need for distinctive structures to compete for customers to attract a particular clientele. Despite the longevity of the Greek revival in the United States, the 19th century was characterized by rapidly changing fashions in architecture, providing the banks with the means to distinguish themselves radically from their competitors. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, with the advent of the elevator and advances in metal framing, height also became another means by which banks could advertise themselves or surpass competitors. The first major break with the tradition was evident in a number of small-town banks designed by Prairie School architects, constructed as early as the first decade of the new century.


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