Northern Savings Bank — Marked as an Art Gallery
The muscular granite and stone bank at 600 Spring Garden Street, at the edge of the Callowhill industrial district, has been heavily altered over the years, but still holds much of its original design aesthetic on the north and east façades. This landmark, the Northern Savings Fund bank, was designed by the renowned Philadelphia architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt and erected between 1872 and 1873 for the Northern Savings Fund & Safe Deposit Company. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, making historic preservation tax credits available to the owner of the building. Northern Savings Fund was also placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1978 and again in 2010. However, it appears that demolition of the buildings additions and significant alterations have occurred both inside and out between these dates, which implies that the building remains vulnerable in a long economically strained industrial neighborhood currently experiencing a revival. We propose to adapt the building for an art gallery to aid in preserving the remaining portions of this architectural work by Furness & Hewitt.
The old bank’s interior layout is clearly conveyed in a series of older floor plans which show large vaults built into the space. Recent drawings were utilized in conjunction with a survey from the late 1970s in order to figure out what the space may actually look like today. Since 1873 there have been several additions. In 1888 and 1903 a vault and banking room were added and in 1915 the southern addition was built. Two large bookkeeping areas and another vault were the main components of this addition. The two-story southern addition in the rear third of the structure has since been demolished–a small driveway and PNC bank now reside in its place.
Further, a section of the western end of the building was demolished as some point as well. When looking at the current front façade, to the far right and far left, there are two windows and two vertical rows of coining. Another quarter of the structure features three more windows at each floor. This was demolished at some point and then an addition was put on later to accommodate a fire stair tower. The original designs and additions of 1888, 1903 and 1915 depicted a building with sizable windows on all four sides of the building. Unfortunately, the south and west sides of the building are now windowless.
One element that has remained is the two story space toward the center of the interior which boosts ceiling of over thirty feet surrounded by two levels of original pilasters. Also, the original photos show the beautifully detailed cove ceilings in a number of spaces. According to more recent floor plans these ceiling designs seem to still be intact.
For nearly three decades this Furness & Hewitt building has been a revolving door for some of the city’s most well known nightclubs. Restaurant extraordinaire Stephen Starr first used the space for The Bank, a widely popular dance club, between 1988 and 1998. Next it became The District, then hipster DJ haven Transit, which closed in 2009. It was then renovated and reopened as 90 Degrees and, beginning in 2013, it became Statuz Nightclub, which has since closed.
When considering a potential use for NSF we immediately connected its location with 915 Arts, at 9th and Spring Garden Streets, a longtime artists live-work complex right down the street. This old railroad building had been converted into low-cost artists studios in 1981. More than 100 artists occupied the building when a fire broke out last year. The blaze itself was not what forced the tenants out, but rather the almost 30 code violations that were discovered. Some of the artists had occupied the building for over 30 years.
Initially, we thought that NSF could be converted into a series of studios. Yet, looking at the floor plan it would be very likely that many of the artists would not have access to natural light during the day given that only two sides of the building’s façade currently have windows.
But as a gallery the building would join a cluster of spaces used for art exhibition nearby: on 11th Street, between Callowhill and Vine Streets, and several in adjacent Northern Liberties. A gallery at 600 Spring Garden could help bridge this gap and also help rebuild a close knit, thirty-year-old art community that was unceremoniously displaced just a few blocks up the street.
The remaining interior architectural elements in this building would be carefully restored, while celebrating local and national artists. In addition to general gallery wall space the central two-story space would serve as dramatic display space for large-scale two-dimensional work and digital projection. An open, modular grid could accommodate hanging sculpture meant to be experienced from below. Interpretive displays would be used to highlight the history of the building, drawing inspiration from Bernard Tschumi’s Acropolis Museum in Athens, where he preserved an excavation site while also displaying artwork. The pilasters throughout the interior of the bank would essentially frame much of the two-dimensional work hung on the walls.
Although the space could offer a level of flexibility, the schematic design here depicts a more conventional art gallery that will have the capacity to host solo, collaborative, and three separate exhibitions simultaneously. A patron will enter and immediately climb a short flight of original stairs. Most of the thicker walls appear to be structural so they will remain as necessary to maintain the physical integrity of the building. To the left of the staircase is an office which we placed on this end of the building so that the gallery director and staff have access to natural daylight. Through the office is a room dedicated to storage as well as space for caterers to set up for private events and exhibition openings.
The western addition would house the fire exit as well as a large elevator to transport guests and artwork. The original, ornate Furness & Hewitt staircase was located roughly where the office is now, however it was removed during previous renovations. The remainder of the space would be utilized to display artwork on partitions and perimeter walls. Pedestals will also be brought into the space as needed to display three dimensional pieces.
This gallery features a view of the two-story space immediately after disembarking the elevator. During review of the more recent floor plans we saw a mass in the center north gallery on this level that was labeled “fireplace.” We did not see this in the 1978 survey drawings, but, hoping that this may provide at least an interesting mantle piece, we kept the piece in this schematic design in an effort to visually convey the history of the building. Continuing toward the east side of the second floor is a conference room where an artist or group of artists can meet with the gallery director to review work or exhibition plans. More permanent artwork would be displayed in this room, perhaps copies of HABS photographs and reproductions of the original architectural drawings by Furness and Hewitt.
We purposely put the conference room on this level for two reasons. First, so as much art as possible can be viewed on the main level where all patrons must pass through. Also, for those that may exhibit in the space, we saw the placement of this meeting area at the second level as an opportunity for artists to walk through and experience the most impressive elements of the building’s interior where their work will be shown. Essentially, the walk from the entryway to the conference room will, in a way, provide a short, visual journey.
The lower level of the gallery has display space at the north end of the building, but also provides most of the utility space for the back of house. The restrooms are located close to where they are currently near the fire stair tower. Through a sliding door are three galleries. To the left is a storage room for office and display supplies. The largest room, mostly underneath the two-story space above, is a climate controlled area for private storage of artwork. This service may be utilized by art collectors that need temporary storage for a multitude of reasons. For example, the renovation of their home or the transition of a move to another residence. Past this space on the east side of the building is the existing mechanical room that will remain.
What a beautiful story and building. I live in Ardmore and we have several furness structures minutes away. How is it with all that’s at today’s archetecs hands they can’t build anything even close to what we see with furness ? Thanks for this little gem.
if another Frank Furness building is destroyed they should lay off the so called historical commission and use their fake salaries for the schools
From my book, Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012):
The Northern Saving Fund, Safe Deposit and Trust Company building was constructed in 1872 at a time when Spring Garden Street ended (from the west) at Sixth Street. Faced with Richmond granite, the edifice was said to have been “one of the most commodious and attractive trust company homes” in Philadelphia. It was renamed Northern Trust Company in 1902.
In 1907, the firm’s officers exercised the bank’s status and wealth to petition the city to open Spring Garden Street between Sixth and Fifth Streets. Northern Trust owned most of the properties on the block and sold them to the city for $53,000. It also donated $25,000 for the project. (The rest of Spring Garden was extended to Delaware Avenue in the 1920s.)
Still perserved, this building reopened in 2020 as a catering hall. A murual covers one side of the extrior but the front facing Spring Garden street still reveals the original design of the bank.