By John Steele Gordon
Before there could be bank buildings, there had to be banks, and the United States didn’t have any when it declared its independence. Great Britain had forbidden the American colonies from operating banks, not the least of the restrictions imposed by the mother country on the burgeoning American economy.
But then in 1781, the Continental Congress chartered a bank with the unwieldy name of The President, Directors, and Company of the Bank of North America. (In 1825 the bank changed its name to what everyone called it anyway, the Bank of North America, or BNA for short.)
It opened in Philadelphia on January 7, 1782. It was located in a store owned by its chief cashier, Tench Francis, on Chestnut Street, which had been redesigned to serve as a bank. The converted store would be the bank’s headquarters for the next 64 years.
Regardless of its unprepossessing architecture, the bank was soon operating very successfully, paying dividends of 14 percent of the stock’s par value. Its largest client was the Continental Congress, which soon had borrowed $400,000, no small sum by the standards of the day. It is a sign of just how primitive the American financial system was in the early 1780s that those dollars were Mexican ones, often called pieces of eight, as they were sometimes cut into eight pieces to make small change.
The Continental Congress had issued paper money called “continentals” to fund the Revolutionary War, but they had soon depreciated into worthlessness and it was only in 1785 that the United States adopted the dollar, based on the Spanish one, as its currency. U.S. coins were only minted beginning in 1792.
The Bank of North America, thanks to a series of the mergers that have been so much a part of American banking over the last hundred years, is today part of Wells Fargo.
The second bank to open in the fledgling United States was the Massachusetts Bank in Boston, in 1784. Like the Bank of North America, it was chartered by the Continental Congress. Its first headquarters were in the Manufactory House near the Boston Common.
The Manufactory House had been built in 1753 by the Society for Encouraging Industry and Commerce and the Employing of the Poor. It hoped to use young women to spin linen yarn, but the enterprise soon failed and the building was rented out. In 1768, the governor ordered the tenants out of the building, a substantial one, so it could house a regiment of British soldiers. The tenants refused and a brief confrontation ensued before the soldiers went elsewhere. This is often regarded as the first conflict between American civilians and British soldiers in the American Revolution. The building was torn down in 1806 and a nearby plaque commemorates it. Today the Massachusetts Bank is part of Bank of America.
The third bank, the Bank of New York, was founded in 1784, by Alexander Hamilton. Its first headquarters actually resembled later purpose-built banks, being in the Walton House on Pearl Street. The mansion, built by William Walton, one of the richest of New York City’s “Knickerbocker aristocracy,” had a wide frontage of fifty feet. It was made of imported Dutch brick with handsome architectural details made of brownstone.
James Roosevelt, one of the founders and early officers of the Bank (and the great grandfather of Franklin Roosevelt), was married to a niece of William Walton. A decade later, the Bank of New York built a new headquarters at the corner of Wall and William Streets one of the very first purpose-built banks in the country. It would remain there for two centuries (in three successive buildings).
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