(Photo credit: Second Bank of the United States, courtesy OZinOH, Flickr Creative Commons)
One of the most beautiful old buildings in Philadelphia’s historic district is a former bank with a lot of history behind it that’s now used as an art gallery. This is the Second Bank of the United States. It’s still called that, even though it hasn’t been used as a working bank for more than 180 years.
The Second Bank is part of Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park. Despite its arresting Greco-Roman architecture—think big columns and pediments in white marble—and its cultural contents, it remains a bit of a hidden treasure. Visitors passing by Chestnut St. often don’t quite know what to make of it, or even whether it’s OK to go in. It contains one of Philadelphia’s most important art galleries, but there’s very little signage outside to advertise that. In keeping with National Park Service policy to show their sites in as close to their original state as possible, the building is unadorned with the sort of huge marketing signs and scrims you usually see outside such structures. So, as with most of the sites that make up this park, the place requires some explanation and interpretation to help visitors make sense of it.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. First of all, the bank thing: Yes, it really was a bank, and a very important one at that. It was for two decades the central bank of the United States and retained Philadelphia’s place as the cornerstone of the country’s financial system in the early 1800s (before Wall Street grabbed it away). Its existence was part of the legacy of Alexander Hamilton, who in the late 18th century reorganized the country’s banking and financial systems at the national level, to make them more like Britain’s Bank of England. So why was it called the Second Bank? Well, because there was also a First Bank of the United States that preceded it by a quarter of a century. That bank was the direct creation of Hamilton (Hamilton was long gone by the time the Second Bank arrived), but its own 20-year charter expired in 1811. Fortunately, the First Bank building is also still in one piece, and stands just round the corner. Anyway, this new national bank, the Second Bank, was chartered—again for 20 years—on the same lines as its predecessor, after Congress determined that a federal bank might spare the country a repeat of the financial crisis the country experienced during the War of 1812.
What about the architecture? Why does it look like a Greek or Roman temple? Architect William Strickland deliberately modeled the bank after the Parthenon in Athens. He wanted to evoke comparisons between the American Republic and the Greco-Roman world of antiquity, and specifically the Roman Republic of nearly 2,000 years earlier; it was an architectural way of breaking with America’s British (Georgian) past. The result just might be the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. Construction was started in 1819 and it took five years to complete. While work was underway, the Second Bank established itself temporarily in nearby Carpenters Hall, which is also still around and worth a visit.
The building set a design standard for most American bank buildings built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you ever see an old-fashioned bank building in your own town or city, that bank is consciously or unconsciously copying the look set by the Second Bank. That sort of architectural philosophy doesn’t come cheap. The Second Bank cost nearly half a million dollars. What did half a million buy you in the 1820s? Size, for one thing. It was a huge building for the time, measuring about 140 feet by 86 feet, containing 11,954 square feet of interior space. When it was finished in 1824, the bank was one of the largest structures in North America.
When you get up close you get a sense of this building being not only quite big but also very, very heavy. Remember, this was once a bank, so it was supposed to be solid! The interior walls are two feet thick, made of brick, with a further layer of stone or marble. In fact, the bank’s construction sucked up a heck of a lot of building materials: three million bricks went into the structure; 41,500 cubic feet of marble and 75,000 cubic feet of stone are in there somewhere. There’s more than 17 tons of copper in the roof.
Moving into the heart of the building, you encounter the main banking room. This space is impressively large, with huge Palladian windows at either end. It measures 48 feet wide by 81 feet long, with a height of 35 feet at the crown of its barrel-vaulted ceiling. It’s reckoned to be perhaps the largest brick barrel vault in the world. Everything about this bank was designed to impress. For many people coming into the bank in the early 19th century—especially those who hadn’t say, been to a European cathedral—this would have been the biggest man-made building they’d ever visited.
The main banking room is also the site of the main part of the art gallery that’s there today. This gets us to the site’s current use. Since 1974 the park service has used the Second Bank as a portrait gallery devoted to figures from the Revolutionary and early Republic eras. Most of the portraits here are the work of Charles Willson Peale. It’s thanks to Peale that we know what a lot of the major figures in the Revolutionary War look like. Peale was an accomplished artist, an officer in the Continental Army, and a naturalist. This combination of pursuits gave him some prominence. Plus of course, he was located at the heart of the United States: Philadelphia was the site where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both debated and signed, and the city was America’s capital from 1790 to 1800. Everybody who was anybody in the young nation passed through this city at one time or another, and many of these notable citizens sat to have their portraits painted by Peale. His extensive portrait collection eventually formed the nucleus of today’s gallery. While Peale’s work predominates, there are also works by Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, Henry Inman, James Peale, the Sharples family of artists, and others.
So why didn’t the Second Bank of the United States stick around as a bank? Good question. You’d think that if a national bank should stand for anything, it would be permanence. But the Second Bank as an institution was, like its predecessor, only to last barely a generation. One man is primarily responsible for its untimely end: President Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory (as he was widely known) saw the bank as a threat to the Republic because of its economic power, concentrated in the hands of a Philadelphia elite whose members weren’t elected by anybody. Jackson clashed with Whig leader Henry Clay, who hoped to use the Second Bank as a wedge issue to help defeat Jackson in the 1832 election. But Jackson won that election, and went on to veto the bank’s re-charter. After that, American banking took place at the state level and the U.S. lacked a proper central bank until the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.
After the Second Bank went under in the 1830s, a private bank, the Girard Bank, continued on this site till about 1841, when it too closed. Then the Port of Philadelphia took over the building as the Custom House, in which use it continued until 1934, when a new Custom House was completed a couple of blocks to the east. Subsequently a movement to preserve the Second Bank building resulted in its designation in June 1939 as a National Historic Site. That kept the building from the wrecking ball until 1948, when Congress enacted legislation creating Independence National Historical Park and included the Second Bank within the new park’s boundaries.
A history of central banking in the United States. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Available at http://www.minneapolisfed.org/community_education/student/centralbankhistory/bank.cfm
Historic Structures Report: Second Bank of the United States. National Park Service.
Michael Kirsch (2012). The credit system vs. speculation: Nicholas Biddle and the 2nd Bank of the United States. EIR History, July 20.
Sean Wilentz (2008). The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. W.W. Horton and Company. New York.