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Construction on the Bank of the United States began in 1795. Two years later, on July 24, 1797, the Bank opened for business. New England entrepreneur and gentleman architect Samuel Blodgett, Jr. designed the building, modeling the Bank’s appearance on the Royal Exchange, a treasury building in Dublin, Ireland. Although the Bank’s directors adjusted Blodgett’s plan to save money, the finished Bank building received acclaim for its correct use of ancient Roman architectural style elements and elegant materials. Built of brick and marble, this building was the first designed specifically for the new federal government. While there are a number of prints showing the original building exterior, no images survive of the Bank’s original interior appearance except for a floor plan.
There appears to be no documentation to prove the contributions of enslaved laborers to the building’s construction, although the park is still actively researching this. It’s very likely that enslaved people performed heavy labor tasks at some point in the supply/construction chain, like making bricks or carting materials. Enslaved labor touched every facet of life.
It was known as the Bank of the United States originally. It was the first of two banks chartered by the Congress of the United States. The designations of "First" and "Second" for the banks came about long after they both ceased operation. The First Bank of the United States was NOT the first bank in the nation. That designation goes to the Bank of North America, founded in 1781.
The Bank’s records do not survive. However, through letters and other primary sources, historians can piece together some information on the customers. Like most banks, the Bank of the United States typically served individuals based on reputation. Free blacks and women had little access to credit from banks. Instead, merchants in their communities supplied credit. In addition to some individuals, the Bank served the federal government, acting as its fiscal agent.
The Bank collected tax revenues; made loans to the government, private citizens, and businesses; paid the government’s bills; accepted deposits from the public; and issued banknotes that held their value and could be used to pay federal taxes.
Money came in from:
Branches opened in Boston, New York, Charleston, and Baltimore in 1792, followed by branches in Norfolk (1800), Savannah (1802), Washington, D.C. (1802), and New Orleans (1805).
Philadelphia merchant Stephen Girard purchased this building in 1812. He operated a private bank here until his death in December 1831, using his personal wealth to fund the venture. Girard derived much wealth from the products of slavery. In addition to being a slaveholder, he made a fortune in the West Indian trade, exporting commodities like flour, rice, and lard in demand on plantations in Haiti, Cuba, and other West Indian ports. In return he imported the products of enslaved labor – sugar, molasses, coffee. Just one of his many vessels – the Polly – made 18 voyages between 1789 and 1794. A 1790 voyage shows a typical exchange with the Polly carrying flour and lard to St. Domingue. On the return trip, the Polly’s cargo included 27 hogsheads of syrup and raw sugar.
No. Unlike the Federal Reserve, the Bank of the United States did not set monetary policy nor did it regulate other banks. However, its interactions with state banks ultimately impacted money and credit. The Bank accumulated banknotes issued by state banks. It could then present them to the state banks, collecting gold or silver from the state banks' reserves. With less in reserve, the state banks could not circulate new banknotes and this slowed the growth of money and credit. Conversely, the Bank could hold on to state banks’ notes, allowing the banks to make more loans/banknotes.
Growing fear of foreign shareholders and a sense of nationalism persuaded Congress to allow the Bank’s 20-year charter to expire in 1811. Although the Bank had remained a faithful steward of the nation’s finances and assisted in greasing the wheels of commerce, a number of people pointed out that 60% of the Bank’s shares were foreign owned. Some contended that it was an elitist institution granting too much power to northern moneymen.
For more than 200 years, the Bank of the United States building has housed various financial and governmental institutions. After the Bank of the United States’ charter expired, Philadelphia merchant Stephen Girard purchased the building in 1812. His private bank, Girard Bank, occupied the building, sharing space with the First Bank of the United States Trust, which managed the assets of the former Bank of the U.S. until 1852. After Girard’s death, a separate bank purchased the building in 1832. Although this new bank had nothing to do with Girard, it called itself Girard Bank, capitalizing on his financial fame. In 1864, Girard Bank became Girard National Bank and remained in the building until 1926 when it merged with Philadelphia National Bank and moved to the city’s new financial district ten blocks away. The building sat empty from 1926 until 1929. In 1930, the American Legion opened an office in the Bank and stayed until mid-1944. In 1945, the City of Philadelphia’s Board of Directors of City Trusts took up residence in the building, remaining for about a decade. In 1948, Congress established Independence National Historical Park, including sites such as Independence Hall and the First Bank of the United States. Restoration of the building began in the 1960s, and the building served as the park’s visitor center until 1976. It housed National Park Service offices until recently. The building is currently undergoing preservation work.
Much of the original building fabric remains, including the mahogany eagle carved by Claudius LeGrand that sits on the building’s triangular pediment. Girard made few modifications to the Bank’s exterior, but he did add iron gates outside the building at the northeast and southeast corners (these gates were removed some time before the Civil War and replicas stand in their places now). In the 1800s, the corporate banks altered the interior, enlarging the windows. In 1902, Philadelphia architect James Windrim removed the original first floor barrel vaulted ceiling and opened up a three-floor rotunda topped by a skylit dome (now powered with electric lights).
This allegory represents a vision for the future. It speaks to America’s promise and power.
Last updated: July 8, 2023