Volume II - No. 6
THE OLD PHILADELPHIA CUSTOMHOUSE
An Architectural Monument
By Stuart M. Barnette,
The recent designation of Philadelphia's 115-year-old Customhouse as a National Historic Site, to be administered by the Service, assures the preservation of a magnificent public monument which will bear to future America a dual message of political and architectural history.
Rising in stately though somewhat gloomy desolation among the modern office buildings which gradually have encroached upon the most historic section of the city of William Penn, the edifice serves simultaneously as a tombstone marking the passing of the "Wall Street" of Andrew Jackson's day and as a significant milepost in the development of the Greek Doric style of classical architecture in this country. Begun in 1819 and completed in 1824, the structure first housed the Second Bank of the United States. As the headquarters of that institution it was the center of the historic controversy between President Jackson and his followers on one hand, and Nicholas Biddle, Henry Clay and Whigs on the other. When Jackson won his victory and thereby changed the entire fiscal system of the federal government, Biddle turned the bank into the Second Bank of the United States of Pennsylvania. Forced to close in 1841 because of the panic of 1837, the building soon was sold to the government. It was occupied in 1845 by the Customs Service and served it until 1934 when that branch moved to new quarters.
As the result of an appraisal of the historic associations and architectural merits of the building, the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments recommended its designation as of national importance. At the request of the Department of the Interior it was transferred to the custody of the Service. Early articles on the building provide interesting information concerning its history. Equally valuable are the contributions of Dr. Fiske Kimball, an Advisory Board member who is director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His efforts on behalf of the structure did much to effect its preservation.
From the viewpoint of historical associations the setting of the old Customhouse, on Chestnut Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets, is appropriate and sympathetic. In the immediate neighborhood are Independence Hall (1732-41), Carpenters Hall (1770), the First Bank of the United States, Christ Church (1727), St. Peter's Church (1761), the Morris House (1787), the Merchants Exchange Building, the Betsy Ross House and Elfreths Alley.
Adaptation of the Greek Doric style to the building problems of this country was first urged as early as 1814 by the Port Folio, a Philadelphia publication. Nicholas Biddle, first American in public life to travel widely in Greece, was at that time editor of the Port Folio and later active in developing the policies of the bank. Joseph Fox and John Blakely, charter directors of the institution, also were advocates of the classical style. It is therefore natural to expect that the program governing the design of this structure should restrict the competitors to some expression of Greek or Roman antiquity. Part of this program read as follows: "In this edifice the Directors are desirous of exhibiting a chaste imitation of Grecian Architecture, in its simplest and least expensive form."
It is not known how many architects, in addition to Latrobe, entered the competition, but it is believed that among the others who sought the commission were Godefroi, a French designer in Baltimore, and Hugh Bridport and William Strickland, of Philadelphia.
When finally Latrobe was awarded the $500 prize money and the responsibility of erecting the building, other professional activities in Baltimore and New Orleans occupied so much of his time that he was compelled to allow Strickland to take over supervision of the erection of the bank. Latrobe, in a letter to an English publisher, wrote that the Bank of the United States now building by one of his pupils, Mr. Strickland, is his design, but that the principal room is a deviation from it.
As finally executed, the design of the Bank is a free copy of the Parthenon. Both Chestnut Street and Library Street porticos incorporate the purest details of the Greek Doric order. In the index to Latrobe's Private Letters to members of Congress (1806), Latrobe is quoted as saying: "The Bank of the United States has been much admired, but it would have been much handsomer if Joseph Fox and the late John Blakely, Esqrs., directors, had not confined me to a copy of the Parthenon (sic) at Athens." Latrobe himself in a tribute to Samuel M. Fox said the "existence and taste" of the building were due to him.
The massive drums of Montgomery (Pa.) marble are beginning to spall, but are in no sense inefficient and this physical sign of antiquity merely adds to the weathered charm of the building. Many changes have been made in the interior, but none is in really bad taste. The entrance lobby and stair hall was remodeled about 1875, as were the offices opening off it. Fortunately, the atrium, which in matter of design is certainly the tour de force, has been little changed. When it was built it was accredited by a foreign visitor as being the finest banking room in the United States, if not the entire world. Some of the stockholders' rooms as well as the other offices have suffered chiefly from having their ceilings changed from what in some instances were vaulted to the present cast iron and brick arched type. A number of the original fireplaces are still intact and in their original position. Virtually all the stairways have been altered and others have been introduced, but few of these revisions are objectionable.
Whether the architectural features which are anachronistic with the date of erection of the building will be replaced by features of authentic restoration is now under consideration. The less classic details which at some time supplanted the original ones are probably representative enough to justify their retention solely as records. Until the ultimate use of the building is determined to be of sufficient importance to justify a complete restoration, it is likely few changes will have to be made to prepare the building for occupancy.
It is upon the construction of this building, along with the Virginia State Capitol, the non-extant Mason House on Analostan Island, the First Bank of the United States and several buildings of lesser importance, that we base our claim to have led Europe in the revival of classical architecture. As the Virginia Capitol preceded the building of Madeleine Church in Paris, as influenced by the Maison Carrée at Nîmes, France, so did the erection of the Second Bank of the United States ante-date by ten years or more the completion of foreign prototypes of the Parthenon such as the National Monument at Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Walhalla at Regensburg, Germany. Aside therefore from the universal esthetic appeal this fine building naturally makes on its beholders, it also is recognised as one of the most distinctive American contributions to style.
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