Look Up! Thomas Ustick Walter’s classical columns

“Look Up” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. The photo essays focus on a different Philadelphia area neighborhood and its distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.

The fire in early April that gutted a Villanova mansion designed by Horace Trumbauer recalled another blaze that razed a home built by one of Philadelphia’s great architects. The Garrett-Dunn House, which burned following a lightning strike in 2008, was designed in the 1850s by Thomas Ustick Walter.

Fortunately, as in the case of Trumbauer’s legacy, many of Walter’s other buildings have survived intact.

Walter became nationally renowned for his design of Girard College, including the Greek Revival masterpiece, Founders Hall. His next big commission: the wings of the U.S. Capitol Building and its iconic dome.

Walter’s preference for classical forms can be found in smaller but still striking buildings in the commercial blocks of the Society Hill area.

At 306 Walnut Street is Walter’s white marble temple to banking. The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society hired Walter to build its first headquarters in 1839. He responded with two-story Ionic columns that give the little building a humble majesty between its later, square-shouldered neighbors.

The building’s pediment was added in 1881, after PSFS sold the building. (PSFS would build even more memorable headquarters in 1930 at 12th and Market Streets.)

Around the corner from the first PSFS building, at 212 South 4th Street, is another Walter design, the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insuring of Houses from Loss by Fire.

Founded by Ben Franklin himself in 1752, the nation’s oldest mutual fire insurance company asked Walter in 1835 to create a Greek Revival headquarters and residence for their treasurer. To support the beautiful portico, Walter chose fluted marble Corinthian columns – though much smaller than those on Founders Hall. The elegant, three-story brick building fit in nicely with the Colonial row houses of Society Hill.

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Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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