By John Steele GordonThe advent of a modern banking system in the United States came with the National Banking Acts of the 1860s. The thousands of different bank notes issued by state banks disappeared, replaced by a uniform currency issued by nationally chartered banks using a uniform design. What didn’t disappear were bank runs, where frightened depositors raced to withdraw their money when they felt the bank might fail.
And fail they did. In the prosperous 1920s banks, mostly small, single-branch, state banks, failed at the rate of about 500 a year. In the first four years of the Great Depression, more than 5,000 banks failed.
So it was very much in the self-interest of banks to look solid, substantial and secure. This affected bank architecture profoundly, especially the branch banks that ordinary depositors used. In the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, bank branches tended to look like Roman temples or Florentine palazzi.
But when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was created in 1933 and brought bank runs to an end by protecting the money of bank depositors, the need for conservative, solid architecture ended with them. Bank architecture could now join the 20th century. And in 1954 it did, with a revolutionary bank branch at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
The Manufacturers Trust Company began with the founding of the Citizens Trust Company of Brooklyn in 1905. Through a series of mergers (including the older Manufacturers National Bank of Brooklyn, whose name it took over) it quickly grew into one of New York’s larger banks and was the 29th largest in the country by 1925.
In 1953, the bank hired the architect Gordon Bunshaft to design a new branch office. Bunshaft was one of the leading architects of the “International School,” which emphasized glass instead of masonry walls. His Lever House on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, now a New York City landmark, had put him on the architectural map in 1952, and his 1963 Beinecke Library at Yale University would make him one of the world’s most famous architects.
The design he created simply did not look like a bank. Instead of thick masonry walls and Corinthian columns, the walls were of glass and aluminum. The whole banking floor could be seen from the street. Indeed, the panes of glass, which weighed 1,500 pounds each, were the largest that had ever been cast in this country up to that date.
More, the vault—all 30 tons of it—was just a few feet inside on the ground floor, looking out at Fifth Avenue, instead of being deep in the interior or even the basement as had always been the case in earlier bank buildings.
Manufacturers Trust proudly called their new branch “unlike another financial institution in this country or abroad. Next to doing business on the sidewalk, it’s about as overt as banking can get, for the bank has 13,000 square feet of glass walls.”
Manufacturers Trust continued the merging ways that have so characterized banking in recent decades. It soon merged with Hanover Trust, becoming Manufacturers Hanover Trust (instantly nicknamed Manny-Hanny). It, in turn, was bought by Chemical Bank in 1992, which then took over Chase Manhattan in 1996 (and took its name). Chase Manhattan then merged with J. P. Morgan to become JPMorgan Chase in 2000.
Now a New York City landmark, what is perhaps the world’s most famous branch bank is now a clothing store. The vault, however, is still there, its door always open—now a showroom for the latest fashions.