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Philadelphia Historic First Bank Building Gets $22.2M From Feds for Rehab Project

Wed July 19, 2023 - Northeast Edition
Independence National Historical Park

The First Bank of the United States dates to 1797. (National Park Service photo)
The First Bank of the United States dates to 1797. (National Park Service photo)

Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park (INHP) has received $22.2 million in federal funding to help rehabilitate the landmark First Bank of the United States building, one of the first federal buildings constructed by the U.S. government. The structure sits a mere 1,000 ft. from Independence Hall in the city's downtown area.

The award was presented to INHP from the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) Legacy Restoration Fund to transform the building, constructed in the 1790s, into a 21st century interactive museum.

The Independence Historical Trust, the nonprofit philanthropic partner of INHP, had earlier raised $4.5 million toward the building's upgrade for essential architectural and construction documents and for the design, fabrication and installation of interactive and immersive exhibits.

The First Bank of the United States was a central part of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's vision to create a national financial system that would knit together the economies of the 13 newly independent states. Now part of INHP, it is regarded as one of the most important artifacts of President George Washington's administration.

With funding secured for the rehabilitation project, the INHP and the Trust aim to open the refurbished First Bank by the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States in 2026.

An effort is currently under way by the Trust to raise $6.6 million to fabricate and install dynamic exhibits in the building about the history of the First Bank and America's early economy.

"Rehabilitating the First Bank will meet a long-held goal for INHP," explained Amnesty Kochanowski, acting superintendent of INHP. "It was acquired in 1956 with the establishment of the park but has been closed to the public for many years. The landmark building gives the park the opportunity to showcase aspects of the economy of the early republic and the role of the controversial bank."

Façade's Classic Greek Design Needs Repairs

The building's facade has survived the last 230 years intact while also establishing a template for bank architecture for the next 150 years. Borrowing from classical design, the Pennsylvania blue marble front facade features two-story Corinthian columns.

The pediment above the columns features a sculptural panel with the first known depiction of an American eagle with 13 arrows in its talons, evoking the Great Seal of the United States. Carved in mahogany, the sculpture's preservation won the Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia in 2021.

Weathered elements of the facade will be repaired or replaced as part of the rehabilitation, and the building's grand interior, a floor-to-roof rotunda supported by 40 columns and crowned by scalloped glass panes installed during a renovation in 1902, will be carefully retouched.

INHP noted that all mechanical systems within the First Bank will be modernized and housed in a modest addition on the back of the building that also will serve as the primary entry for all visitors. The original front doors, which open onto South Third Street, will be used for special events.

The National Park Service (NPS) selected The Bedwell Company, a construction management firm located in West Chester, Pa., to complete the building's rehabilitation.

"The Bedwell Company, previously Curtis T. Bedwell and Sons, has been working in and around Philadelphia since 1957," said Andrew Bedwell, the project manager on the First Bank refurbishment effort. "Being selected for a project with such historical significance for our city, state and nation is an honor. We look forward to working with the National Park Service to deliver a project that exceeds expectations."

Other partners to NPS on the project include John Milner Architects Inc., a respected historic preservation design and architectural firm in Chadds Ford, Pa., to rehabilitate and reimagine the First Bank building. The company has successfully worked on more than 100 National Historic Landmark properties.

Additionally, New York-based Local Projects LLC was chosen to design the interactive displays and visitor experience for the First Bank Museum. The firm has created iconic experiences for prominent national museums and memorials, including the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan.

Bank Started During George Washington's Presidency

The First Bank was proposed by Hamilton in 1790, the second year of Washington's administration, to serve as the fiscal agent for the new nation. Thomas Jefferson opposed the bank on the grounds that it was not among the "enumerated powers" in the Constitution. Hamilton, though, argued that the First Bank was permitted under the "necessary and proper" clause of Article 1, originating this important constitutional argument. President Washington later signed the bank bill into law in February 1791.

When it began operating, the First Bank started receiving the federal government's tax revenue and paying its bills. Soon, however, the institution played a critical role in Hamilton's sweeping vision that included backing a new national coinage that quickly displaced foreign coins in circulation, opening branches in other major cities, becoming a leading source of credit and helping to stabilize the economy during the financial panic of 1792.

"The world we live in is a product of a strong economy created by Hamilton," said David Cowen, president and CEO of the Museum of American Finance and a co-author of "Alexander Hamilton on Finance, Credit, and Debt" who has written extensively on U.S. financial history. "The First Bank was instrumental in unifying the national economy and was a springboard to an era of manufacturing."

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