As with so many of Old City’s wonderful 19th Century holdovers, this old banking hall, designed by James H. Windrim, has worn many different hats. Interestingly, however, this building has only been considered part of Old City in recent times. Technically, it sits on the southern edge of Old Northern Liberties. The building’s original name reveals this perhaps surprising fact: the National Bank of the Northern Liberties.
In 1810, only seven years after the District of the Northern Liberties was incorporated, a need to establish a bank to serve its residents and businesses arose. Twenty-thousand people lived in the Northern Liberties, but none of the five banks that existed in Philadelphia at the time were located north of Chestnut Street. In those days of unpaved streets, hoofing it all the way down there from Northern Liberties was an even bigger pain in the butt than it is today. On March 6th, 1810, subscribers to the stock of the new bank paid five dollars per share on 2,125 shares and met to elect a board at the Northern Liberties Town House, at what is now Second and Fairmount. After some years of back-and-forth with the anti-bank state government, the National Bank of the Northern Liberties was chartered on May 9th, 1814.
Though the original 1810 charter of the bank insisted that the actual banking house be located north of Pegg’s Run (now Willow Street) in the heart of Northern Liberties, the stockholders voted 713-2 in July 1814 to allow the bank to move to the southern end, nearer to the City of Philadelphia. Originally operating out of 323 North 2nd Street, they moved after the vote to 73 Vine Street (later re-addressed 227 Vine) at the southernmost border of the district. The bank continued at this location for the next six decades, weathering past issues dealing with counterfeit currency, ocky foreign coins, and massively overdrawn business accounts.
In 1870, the Manufacturers and Mechanics Bank of the Northern Liberties (aka Manufacturers National Bank) was ready to shed their Northern Liberties heritage and move further into the newly-consolidated city. They sold their 1836-built banking house at the northwest corner of Third and Vine, described as a “very handsome though small building well adapted to the purposes for which it was erected“, to the National Bank of the Northern Liberties for $45,000. Included in the sale was a house at 301 Vine, just west of the property, which the Manufacturers’ National Bank had previously purchased for an unbuilt expansion.
Once the Manufacturers’ National Bank moved to their new building at 27 North 3rd designed by John Fraser (with some help from a young Frank Furness!), the National Bank of the Northern Liberties was ready to take over their old space, only half a block away from their 227 Vine location. They commissioned the great James H. Windrim to design them the banking mega-fortress at last announcing their presence. Up until this point, the Northern Liberties Bank had been running out of old houses.
Windrim created a castle worthy of the noblest king and contractor George Watson brought it to life. The two story structure is clad in an embellished granite façade with massive arched windows. Inside lie vaults of granite, brick, and steel. The sign emblazoned over the door didn’t say “National Bank of the Northern Liberties”—it just said “BANK” as if this was the last bank one would ever need visit. After a price tag of $93,836.67, the National Bank of the Northern Liberties moved into its new home in May 1871.
On October 19th, 1882, 304 North 3rd Street, the house just north of the bank, burned down. Less than a year later, the Northern Liberties Bank purchased the site of the burnt house for $16,000 and erected an addition to the banking house, known as “The Annex”, for 11,302.05.
In 1916, the president of the National Bank of the Northern Liberties, Joseph Moore, Jr., was ready to retire. Rather than passing the bank on to a new director, he chose instead to merge it with another, the Bank of North America. Known at the time as the country’s oldest bank, the Bank of North America was, conveniently, also headed by Moore and held many other of its principal leaders in common with the Northern Liberties Bank. At the time, the name “Northern Liberties” had been mostly forgotten by the general public and it was understood that the merger was the logical progression of the bank. By the end of February 1916, the Bank of North America had completely acquired the National Bank of the Northern Liberties for $295 a share.
By 1918, the Windrim-designed showpiece at 3rd and Vine was combined with the old houses still standing at 306 and 308 Vine. The consolidated Bank of North America having relocated, the larger combined 3rd & Vine structure became home to the Monarch Machinery Company. They distributed drills, lathes, and automotive parts from the old NoLibs banking house until the owner of the company died in 1933. Following that, the Royal Fixture Company made the building their headquarters, from which they produced and distributed food display cases for grocery stores. They moved to 847 North Broad Street (now a Dunkin Donuts parking lot) in 1947 and still exist today as part of Parisi Inc. of Newtown, PA.
From 1947 to the early 1960s, the Max Black Manufacturing Company occupied the old bank. They produced and distributed automotive repair equipment, giving names like Mirroflex and Retracto-Reel to mundane items that any car owner would use today. The company ended up moving to an extremely large warehouse at 300 West Bristol Avenue in the Hunting Park section.
By the time Max Black had vacated the space, the wholesale goods industry, an anchor in Old City for decades, had spread all the way up to Third and Vine. The old bank and associated buildings became the M.L.C. Sales Company. They sold wholesale shoes at this location until the 1980s, when they moved to the old Acme warehouse at 444 North 4th Street, now 444 Lofts.
In the mid 1980s, signs of Old City recovering its original vibrancy were already showing, and the old Northern Liberties National Bank would be no exception. Urban Engineers, Inc., a homegrown design consultation firm, made this one of their three offices in the city. At the time, they’d received national attention for their role in managing the construction of the Center City Commuter Connection tunnel and the Blue Route. From the old bank, they worked on Tioga Marine Terminal, West River Drive, Vine Street Expressway, Philadelphia International Airport, and a number of other major projects. Now with eleven locations across the Northeast and Texas, the company is still headquartered in Philadelphia with offices at 530 Walnut.
In 1999, the old Northern Liberties bank was repurposed again: into a bank! The United Bank of Philadelphia, chartered in 1992, is an African-American controlled and managed commercial bank, one of the only one of its kind in the country. Its founder and director, Emma Chappell, purchased the building and leased it to the bank’s parent company, United Bancshares, Inc., making the building the United Bank of Philadelphia’s headquarters. In a lawsuit filed in August 2000, the parent company alleged, among other things, that Chappell was making a $10,000 per month profit on the lease. As part of the settlement between the bank’s parent company and Chappell, United Bancshares, Inc. took ownership of the property in October 2000. Chappell had been ousted from the company earlier that year over unrelated issues.
In 2006, local development firm Red Rocks Group acquired the old bank property and converted the space into condominiums. Like the Western Union Building, they attached new construction to the old, extending the property all the way from 300 to 314 North 3rd, at Wood Street. Now 143 years old, the National Bank of the Northern Liberties lives life anew as a residential structure called The Essex. Good for you, building.