Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park received $22.2 million in federal funding to help rehabilitate the landmark 1797 First Bank building and turn it into an immersive museum on the role of banks in the early American economy.
By Evan SparksOne of the most controversial buildings in American history sits on Third Street in Philadelphia, between Walnut and Chestnut. Amid the august architectural company of Carpenters’ Hall, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, the stately neoclassical building is the First Bank of the United States.
Despite the success of the bank in stabilizing the country’s economy during its critical early years, the bitter fights saw the bank’s charter lapse in 1811 during the administration of James Madison. (Madison had come around to supporting the bank but Jeffersonians in Congress stopped the renewal.) A year later, war broke out with Britain, and without a central bank the U.S. government found it difficult to borrow enough to prosecute the war. The Treasury resorted to importuning men like Stephen Girard — the wealthy Philadelphia merchant who had bought the First Bank’s stock and assets and made it a private bank — to personally lend the government money. It was a risky gamble, both for the government and for Girard, who lent more than his net worth to support the bond issue.
After the War of 1812, Madison supported the creation of the Second Bank of the United States, a block away in Philadelphia, which lasted until its charter renewal was vetoed by Andrew Jackson (which action in turn kicked off a panic). The Girard Bank continued to operate out of the First Bank headquarters until 1930, when it consolidated real estate after a merger.
As the U.S. prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2026, this storied building will again return to the spotlight. In July, Independence National Historical Park received $22.2 million in federal funding to help rehabilitate the landmark 1797 First Bank building and turn it into an immersive museum on the role of banks in the early American economy. The funds will be complemented by $6.6 million in private contributions to be raised by the Independence Historical Trust.
The unchanged marble façade — described by critic Catesby Leigh in our pages as an “essay in Palladian grandeur (that) set a high bar for the nation’s civic architecture” — will be repointed and repaired, and the interior banking rotunda will be restored to its original grandeur.
“Rehabilitating the First Bank will meet a long-held goal for Independence National Historical Park as it was acquired in 1956 with establishment of the park but has been closed to the public for many years — most of the park’s history,” remarks INHP Superintendent Cynthia MacLeod. “The landmark building gives the park the opportunity to showcase aspects of the economy of the early republic and the role of the controversial national bank.”
Coming on the heels of the American Bankers Association’s own 150th anniversary in 2025, the revived First Bank building and new museum will be a fitting reminder of the role America’s banks have always played in our country’s critical moments.