The Architecture of Aspiration

By Catesby Leigh

On Bethesda, Maryland’s Wisconsin Avenue, a major artery extending from the nation’s capital, there is an elegant bank building that stands apart from its lackluster neighbors. It is classical, and very inventively designed. Four monumental Roman Doric columns frame the spacious banking room’s two-story windows. This main-floor elevation is visually animated by its asymmetry, with the entrance bay at one end wider than the minor window bay at the other. Above is a narrower single-story office block whose windows, horizontally rather than vertically oriented, align with the tall windows below. The steel-framed bank is faced with self-supporting limestone blocks four to five inches thick. It conveys a sense of solidity, permanence—and still, with its large windows, airiness.

This is the kind of vitally creative civic architecture that cropped up all over the United States in the first decades of the 20th century. This bank, however, happens to have been built in 1990, decades after modernism had largely eliminated traditional bank design.

Commissioned by Riggs Bank’s architecturally impassioned chairman, the late Joe Albritton, the Bethesda edifice became a PNC Bank branch in 2005. Now closed, the fate of the branch, designed by Philadelphia architect John Blatteau, is uncertain. Zoning permits a considerably taller building, so a developer might wind up incorporating its distinguished façade into a new structure.

Albritton tasked Blatteau with designing a bank on the old personal-service model for routine transactions— as opposed to just opening an account or taking out a mortgage—with a long row of teller windows in the spacious, finely detailed banking room. This model was already being displaced by modern electronics, with banks pivoting to ATMs and reducing teller service. Not that Blatteau didn’t have to adapt to changing technological demands, including provision of an outdoor ATM station on a side elevation. In designing new teller windows for a dozen Riggs branches, including Bethesda’s, he also had to deal with a new criminal fad. Robbers were jumping right over teller windows in those days, so he provided tall bullet-resistant glass panels that engaged with handsome columnar supports at the top and bottom, leaving slits on the panels’ flanks so teller and customer could hear one another. Movable trays below the glass would not permit a gun barrel to be pointed at the teller.

Blatteau’s Bethesda banking hall. Photo courtesy of the architect.

But the extraordinary thing about Blatteau’s banking room is the sense of luxury its spaciousness and generous ornamentation convey. The latter includes bronze chandeliers, columns and pilasters with leafy capitals, and a superbly articulated ceiling whose beams are adorned with brackets and a rich panoply of moldings. This sure beats the all-too-familiar blankness of dropped ceilings pockmarked with downlights and marks a visual contrast with the glassy, glitzy bank quarters in vogue today, which are not so obviously designed with the threat of armed robbery in mind.

The refined traditionalism Blatteau’s work displays may be counter-cultural these days, but it is by no means obsolete. It figures in the design of new churches, college and university buildings, high-end residential work, and even the occasional luxury commercial project. And despite President Biden’s February revocation of his predecessor’s short-lived executive order for a classically oriented reform of federal architectural patronage, it will likely continue to shape at least some government buildings, especially courthouses.

But banks are a more doubtful prospect. The classical bank is at odds with the bottom-line ethos that shapes mainstream commercial design these days. And now brick-and-mortar branches, whose ranks have thinned by about a 10th since peaking in 2009, have to compete with an even newer paradigm as Americans move into the realm of online and mobile banking and cashless payment systems, making much less use of traditional bank features such as safe deposit boxes. The cavernous bank vaults of yore, with their spectacularly engineered circular steel doors, are a thing of the past. And yet classicism has been adjusting to new social and technological circumstances for many centuries; the main challenge it faces today has to do with the way we build.

Samuel Blodgett Jr.’s First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, later the Girard Bank.

Mainstream commercial buildings—whether sleekly utilitarian, flashily high-style, watered-down traditional, or just plain drab—are often erected for a relatively short life cycle, perhaps 30 to 60 years. They are structural commodities. Many bank branches, like the replacement for the Bethesda branch, are installed in pre-existing structures of this ilk. They might be housed “in-store”—in a supermarket—or within the confines of a shopping-mall galleria. A classic, purpose-built American bank building like Blatteau’s is an artifact, not a commodity, and likely requires more upfront investment, while offering superior long-term structural performance. It can age gracefully over a period of a hundred years, and very often much longer. It speaks of permanence, while contemporary architecture typically suggests transience, ephemerality.

Now a Truist Bank location, Richmond’s Church Hill Bank was designed by Bascom Rowlett. Photo by Calder Loth.

It is impossible to overstate the placemaking value of classical banks, or banks in styles derived from the classical (such as the Romanesque), in our country, even when those banks have ceased to function as such. This magnificent tradition dates to the erection of Samuel Blodgett Jr.’s marble-fronted First Bank of the United States (1797) in Philadelphia, with its august Corinthian portico and impressively sculpted pediment decoration—not to mention the elegant old banking-room rotunda within. Blodgett’s essay in Palladian grandeur set a high bar for the nation’s civic architecture. The more I travel around the United States, the more I am impressed by the rich variety of our classic banks. In Richmond, Virginia, there is the former Church Hill Bank (1914; now a Truist branch) in the charming old neighborhood of that name. Its triple-arched entrance façade, punctuated by eagle-crowned Ionic columns, is magisterial. In New London, Connecticut’s beleaguered waterfront district, the stupendously detailed, speckled pink-granite front of the old Savings Bank of New London (1905) gracefully curves along Eugene O’Neill Drive, while a dismal glass-and-concrete postwar addition proclaims urban decline.

The former Second Ward Savings Bank, designed by Kirchoff and Rose, is currently home to the Milwaukee County Historical Society. Photo by Catesby Leigh.

In the agreeably horizontal city of Milwaukee, two excellent low-rise banks, both designed by local architects, display French influence in very distinct ways. One, the robustly monumental Northern Trust Bank (1906), still serves its original purpose; the second, the former Second Ward Savings Bank (1913, pictured), is now home to the Milwaukee County Historical Society. The latter’s design is lighter, more delicate, and its curving footprint gracefully accommodates a park that abuts the Milwaukee River.

In San Francisco, two low-rise banks—one a domed structure inspired by Rome’s Pantheon, the other distinctly French, both dating to 1910—mark a grand entrance to Grant Street from Market Street. The Roman structure now serves as a retail emporium. In Manhattan, the visitor’s recollection of Union Square might well include the sublime Union Square Savings Bank (1907, pictured), designed by Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial. It is now a theater.

One of the nation’s greatest banking halls was situated within the 18-story edifice (1923) facing Grand Central Terminal, erected for the long-gone Bowery Savings Bank. Approached through a titanic arched entryway playfully decorated with motifs symbolizing thrift and industry, this majestic chamber—65 feet tall, 80 feet wide and nearly 200 feet deep—was conceived as an Italian Romanesque basilica whose coffered ceiling, from which triple-tier chandeliers hang, features major and minor beams imitating wood construction. The walls boast blind arches and engaged Corinthian columns designed with great sensitivity to modulations of material and color, and the floor features enchantingly geometric neo-Cosmatesque patterns. All this on some of the world’s most expensive land. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the banking hall is now a restaurant for the rich and famous.

New York’s Union Square Savings Bank. Photo by Red de Leon.

Classical bank buildings also helped shape the nation’s great urban canyons, most notably in Lower Manhattan and Chicago. The Windy City’s LaSalle Street is punctuated by gigantic porticos and colonnades articulating high-rise structures erected by the likes of the Continental Illinois Bank (1931, pictured) and the State Bank of Chicago (1928)—not to mention the Federal Reserve (1922). They create a tremendous urban vista terminated by the soaring Art Deco Board of Trade Building (1930). A minimalist steel-and-glass aesthetic such as that espoused by Mies van der Rohe, architect of Chicago’s Federal Center complex and Illinois Institute of Technology, if deployed at the scale of the LaSalle Street canyon, would produce a monotonous urban wasteland. If the sculpturesque pyrotechnics of a Frank Gehry were so deployed, the result would be a gigantic freak show. At a time when our culture seems bent on not making sense, it’s vitally important to realize the critical role classicism has played, and should continue to play, in endowing our cities with beauty and grandeur.

The former Continental Illinois Bank building in Chicago, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White.

In ancient Greece, as in Egypt and Mesopotamia, banking started with the temple, where the god’s treasure was loaned out at a high rate of interest. Classical architecture likewise had its beginnings in the temple. In transforming mud-brick and wood structures into more emphatically monumental buildings of stone, the Greeks developed a sacramental architectural language closely related to the human body. It’s as if human anatomy were transfigured, or recast, as an architectural vocabulary embracing the column and the superstructure it supports. At the same time the temple was designed to stand apart from ordinary construction and symbolize community ideals and aspirations.

Over time, this sacramental conception of architecture was extended to secular buildings—city council chambers, commercial structures, houses of justice, palaces, and so on. Hence the classical bank, whose monumental form should remind us that prosperity is not an end unto itself, but a means whereby a civilization’s ideals and aspirations are pursued. The grandeur of many an American banking hall, however paradoxically, has exposed many an ordinary American citizen to the idea that there is more to life, and to architecture, than the bottom line.

Catesby Leigh is an art and architecture critic in Washington, D.C. His commentary has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, City Journal, First Things, National Review and other major outlets. He is a co-founder and former chairman of the National Civic Art Society.