“Look Up!” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. The photo essays focus on different Philadelphia areas and their distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.
Historic Philadelphia’s 400 block of Chestnut Street is dominated by William Strickland’s Greek Revival masterpiece, the Second Bank of the United States, on the south side of the street. But opposite that temple of finance is a collection of handsome buildings that comprised what was known in the mid 19th century as Bank Row.
Standing out from its neighbors is the white marble façade of the former Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank, 427 Chestnut. It was designed in 1854 by John M. Gries, who a few years later built its neighbor to the east for the Bank of Pennsylvania, which failed during construction of the building. It was finished by its new owner, the Philadelphia Bank.
Both bank buildings reflect Gries’ appreciation for Italianate style. Their symmetrical design, arched windows, belt courses, and elaborate cornices are borrowed from Renaissance palaces.
But the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank has the most personality. Gries affixed the bank symbol of anvil and plow on the roofline, carved ram and sheep heads above the second-level windows, and added a couple of lion heads near the entrance to assure depositors.
The bank also utilized the latest in architectural technology: iron doors and counters, a cast-iron truss holding up the roof of the banking room, and a ventilation system that changed the air in the building every hour.
Gries died just five years after he completed his Chestnut Street banks, from wounds he suffered while serving as a major in the Civil War. He was 35.
Farmers’ and Mechanics’ was renovated in 1984 and 1993 by the firm of Bower Lewis Thrower, and now is home to the American Philosophical Society and Franklin Hall.
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