First Bank, Second Life

What was once the First National Bank now showcases the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s collections.

By Ryan Carty | April 27, 2012

Visitors come today to the Chemical Heritage Foundation to wander our museum or use the library collection, but 100 years ago people walked into this building for a very different purpose: taking out money. On this spot the First National Bank once lived.

Like Philadelphia itself, the land under the building is rooted in a religious past. Early records indicate that the site was home to Anthony Benezet, an 18th-century Quaker philanthropist and abolitionist. Later owners built Congress Hall Hotel, while the onset of the Civil War brought a new purpose. In an attempt to strengthen the Union’s finances, the Northern government passed the First National Bank Act in the 1860s. One result was the construction of the First National Bank, which opened its doors in 1865.

First Bank, Second Life

First National Bank, circa 1912

The interior of the First National Bank, circa 1912. The columns and windows remain, but the building now contains the Institute’s Othmer Library and the Museum at the Institute.

Science History Institute/William H. Rau

At that time Italianate-style banks lined Chestnut Street, creating what was known as Banker’s Row, a series of commercial businesses that also included print shops and manufacturers. John McArthur, Jr., designed First National using the neat classical principles of the other banks. His building also included arch windows similar to those in one of his later projects, Philadelphia’s grandiose City Hall.

Philadelphia’s post‒World War II boom and bust matched the bank’s trajectory. In 1953 the bank’s owners remodeled the interior and added an office building to the east. A street-level driveway cut through the building, allowing customers to bank and drive, an innovation at the time. During the 1970s Philadelphia’s economy stagnated, and the building began its downward slide. The Keystone Shipping Company moved in for a time, then left, abandoning the structure.

Inner-city revitalization efforts picked up as the millennium approached, and in 1995 CHF purchased the bank complex, first using it as office and gallery space before embarking on a series of renovations. In 2000 a design team created the Othmer Library and Reading Room on the building’s third floor, providing more extensive research space. The team maintained part of the bank’s original design—the columns and the interior cornice at the front—while adding a modern aesthetic via the library’s wooden floors and glass stairs.

The building’s re-creation was part of a more general preservation trend in CHF’s neighborhood. At the end of the 1990s the National Park Service worked to revitalize Independence Mall. And by the beginning of the 21st century, such projects as the National Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell Center, and the Visitor’s Center had contributed to historical beautification.

In 2006 CHF turned to the difficult task of creating a modern chemistry museum inside an almost 150-year-old building. Along with a clean, modern design, SaylorGregg Architects and Ralph Appelbaum Associates brought back a historical sense to the building and its exhibits, removing interior drywall and cinder blocks from the arch windows to expose the bank’s original structure.

CHF’s museum celebrates old and new aspects of chemistry, while the building housing it reinforces this dichotomy. “The building anchors the modern aesthetic of the museum to the past,” says Gigi Naglak, CHF’s outreach coordinator. More than just an anchor to the past, the bank building tells its own history in tandem with Philadelphia’s.