Look Up! A survivor of Francisville’s rich history

The Northwestern National Bank building was the outgrowth of North Philadelphia’s 19th-century development spurt.


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


The 21st-century transformation of Francisville, where three-story residential development is spreading across every long-vacant lot, recalls the frantic growth of rowhouses throughout the North Philadelphia neighborhood in the late 19th century.


For the still beautiful Northwestern National Bank building at Girard and Ridge Avenues, it must feel like déjà vu.


The bank was built in 1886 in a High Victorian design attributed to industrial architect Otto Wolf, according to the Historic American Buildings Survey done in 2000. But the architectural influence is clearly that of Frank Furness, particularly his magnificent Centennial National Bank at 32nd and Market.


The Northwestern National Bank has a corner entry with a protruded pediment highlighted by a sunrise motif, in addition to many other Furness characteristics: a mix of rusticated stone, dressed stone and brick, squat columns, elaborate corbelling, decorative ironwork, and floral terra cotta details. Wolf, who built local breweries for Bergdoll and Poth, used Moorish tile designs and a blend of gables, arches and pointed windows to distinguish his wedge-shaped financial palace.


The bank’s location on the once-vital transportation corridor of Girard Avenue, at the junction with Ridge Avenue, the rare diagonal that carried traffic into Center City, reflected the importance of the neighborhood in the late 1900s, the HABS report notes. New titans of industry built mansions on North Broad, while their workers moved into the new urban housing on the secondary streets throughout North Philadelphia.


The electric streetcar is running again on Girard, and a new wave of homes are rising, while Francisville tries to strike a balance between redevelopment and historic preservation. The Northwest National Bank is a great survivor, and lives on as the Smith Chapel Baptist Church. 


Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.


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