Most television bank commercials are the same. Worried parents at the kitchen table become smiling parents as they talk to a bank manager. Kids run through some grass. A dog wags its tail and tilts its head. Cue, “We’re more than just a bank,” and the commercial fades out. But are they though? In Mt. Airy, just maybe.
The recent sale of the more than century-old Pelham Trust Company building on the neighborhood’s main Germantown Avenue thoroughfare has inspired generations of residents to reminisce about what the impressive Colonial Revival bank meant to them. Purpose-built in 1907 under the Pelham name to serve a new, eponymous residential development, it would change hands many times: From Pelham Trust to Germantown Trust Company in 1927, then later to First Pennsylvania Bank, then CoreStates, then Sovereign, then Santander, then empty.
“What the heck happened to the Santander Bank at Germantown and Pelham?” one resident decried on Facebook when Santander abruptly shuttered its operations in October 2021, boarding up the building and bringing in a dumpster to haul out contents. “Our family home was across the street from that bank. In over five decades of changing banks occupying that building, I’ve never seen what I just saw there.”
But now, two years later, the building’s future suddenly looks bright again. In 2022, the historic preservation nonprofit The Keeping Society of Philadelphia successfully added the building to the local register of historic places, legally protecting it from demolition. And now, real estate developer Ken Weinstein, with a proven track record of preserving and reusing historic buildings in the area, confirmed he has purchased the building and intends to repurpose it for a new commercial use. “It’s a key property along the Germantown Avenue commercial corridor, and ever since it went dark after Santander closed, I was hoping it could be something wonderful again,” Weinstein said.
New Bank for a New Era
Who knows just how much history the grounds of the Pelham Trust building, located at 6740 Germantown Avenue, might hold. During a 2022 meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission in which it debated accepting the nomination to the City’s historic register, members noted that it appears the 0.14-acre parcel was previously undeveloped before the bank was built in 1907. Given its location immediately along the Germantown Avenue corridor, which British troops traversed during the Battle of Germantown in 1777, it is possible that artifacts from the conflict remain. After all, the Historical Commission noted, in 1985 the remains of a British soldier were discovered after earth was disturbed just a block away.
Even without potential vestiges from the nation’s founding era, the property is important to Philadelphia’s more recent history. According to Pelham Trust’s historic nomination, authored by Keeping Society founder Oscar Beisert, for much of the 1800s the parcel was a small part of Phil-Ellena, the vast country estate of George W. Carpenter, a pharmaceutical magnate and one of the wealthiest Philadelphians of the mid-19th century.
Carpenter built a mansion once described by historians as “the largest of America’s Greek Revival palaces” of that age, set within a property that spanned several hundred acres. But the Phil-Ellena mansion, named for Carpenter’s second wife, stood just 47 years. After the death of the Carpenters, a new set of Gilded Age tycoons, Anthony J. Drexel and Edward T. Stotesbury, bought up the vast land holdings at Phil-Ellena from the Carpenter estate. They demolished the home to make way for the development of Pelham, a residential suburb of approximately 300 homes, according to the Keeping Society’s nomination.
Drexel and Stotesbury commissioned the firm of Wendell & Smith to develop the neighborhood, breaking from the straight lines and density of the urban core to create a community of curving roads, heterogenous homes, and greenery throughout.
“The scene strikes you as different. It breathes of freedom and the country, yet one walks on cement sidewalks and the road-beds are of macadam,” read an 1898 advertisement for the Pelham neighborhood cited in the nomination. “It is the country, yet here is the electric light and off in the distance the sound of the gong of the trolley car is heard.”
In addition to residences, the neighborhood was also designed with commercial considerations, especially along the Germantown Avenue corridor. While some of these buildings still stand, the bank building “was one of the few purely commercial buildings to be constructed on Germantown Avenue in connection with the larger development,” according to Beisert, and also “designed in a more formal, far grander manner” than its neighbors.
The Pelham Trust Company was formed in December 1905 and led by prominent local financiers. A year later, design plans were announced by Center City architectural firm Churchman & Thomas. Construction began shortly after, concluding in 1907.
The one-story, brick and limestone building itself incorporates many elements of its Colonial Revival style, including two pairs of Ionic columns on either side of the front door, a frieze containing a seal or coat of arms, and a cornice adorning its symmetrical facade. Decorative pendants and keystones help complete the look.
According to the building’s nomination, its design fit with the trends of the time, after the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, held in Philadelphia, led to a “rise in national spirit” and a return to architecture of the Colonial era. “A highly creative period of Colonial Revivalism followed the Centennial in the 1880s and 1890s as a reaction to the eclecticism of the Victorian era,” Beisert wrote. “In Philadelphia, a strain of the Colonial Revival emerged wherein the characteristics of the Georgian Revival were presented with Classical Revival/Neoclassical characteristics. Churchman & Thomas’ design for [Pelham Trust] represents that period of the style.”
More Than a Building
To local residents, the Pelham Trust building’s importance stretches beyond its architecture and historic context through the various owners who provided the community with banking services across the 20th and early 21st centuries.
When the building went up for sale this summer, many residents took to social media to reminisce about the role the bank played in their lives. Some remembered how standing under a certain air vent, one could bask in the smell of money emanating from it. Many said it loomed large in their childhoods, where they’d play on the grassy green lawn or wait impatiently for lollipops as their parents completed their transactions.
“That was our front yard when we lived on Pelham Rd,” one Facebook user reminisced. “As children, our first passbook savings accounts were there at First Pennsylvania Bank.”
Another resident, C.I. Gardner, recalled an even more significant history as the bank played a role in the racial integration of Mt. Airy, where many residents and community institutions famously pushed back on racist real estate practices of the mid-20th century. “As a child it was the first place I remember seeing the notoriously denied Red Line map in the manager’s office. It was there because this particular branch was letting new Black and Brown families relocating from other sections of Philadelphia know that unlike other banks, they chose to welcome their hard-earned labor revenue despite the exodus of others,” Gardner wrote. “Whether this bank cared about my family or the changing community is unknown. What it did focus on was the inevitability of the ruling principles of business and commerce. By doing so they and other businesses helped usher in the very diversity and culture now attractive to new Mount Airy residents.”
Given the bank’s importance to the community, many also worried about its fate. In spring 2022, Santander sold the building to 6740 Germantown LLC for $850,000. But Ken Weinstein, who newly purchased the property and its adjacent parking lot this October for $950,000, said the previous developer “wasn’t able to do anything with it,” especially with the protections of its historic designation a factor.
Weinstein thinks he can make it work. He envisions an entirely commercial use, which he believes is appropriate for its key location along the Germantown Avenue commercial corridor. Weinstein will be seeking an agreement with a tenant before performing interior renovations of the building, which he says is roughly 5,000-square-feet inside and also has a “very usable space” in the basement. “Like most bank buildings it has a pretty fantastic open floor plan, bright windows, and an expansive ceiling,” said Weinstein.
While he is open to what the use will be, Weinstein said he hopes for a “destination tenant” that will add to foot traffic along the avenue and create synergy with other nearby businesses. In the best case scenario, he will be able to quickly identify a tenant and start construction by the middle of 2024. Weinstein said keeping the building’s historical features intact will remain a priority as well. “I’ve always loved the architecture in that part of Mt. Airy,” he said. “I’m really excited to get going with the project.”