Monday, August 1, 2011

Old-ass Building of the Week-- August 1st

Smith Chapel Baptist Church (a.k.a. Northwestern National Bank I)

1828 Ridge Avenue

Still kicking ass and taking names after 125 years.
                    Here's a building that most Philaphiles don't even know about. It's a triangular old bank building that stands as a memorial to the greatness of Philadelphia's northwestward expansion of the late 1800's. It was even called the Northwestern National Bank, since this was the most Northwestern edge of residential development in the city at the time. The neighborhood it's in is pretty grimy nowadays but was one of the nicest places in America when this monster was built. Though very Furnessian-looking, this beast's architect is truly a mystery.
                      In the last few decades of the 19th Century, Philadelphia was going through a rapid expansion. New-money super-tycoons who were rejected by the trustafarian hipster establishment at Rittenhouse Square had established their own community on North Broad Street. Over the next few decades, those rich motherfuckers expanded their nice-ass neighborhood to the north and west, taking advantage of extended streetcar lines. Gigantic residences and commercial buildings blew through the area. The diagonal-streeted Francisville section got completely overpowered.
                     By the 1880's, all of that development started to reach the Northwestern edge of anywhere a human would want to be. Back then, the large industrial area in what we now call Brewerytown smelled like shit. A person could smell and sense the nasty factories all the way to Girard College, which was then in the middle of nowhere. The Girard/Ridge ave. corner became part of the northern edge of the good-ass neighborhood.
                    In 1882, some nice-ass supermansions were built surrounding one of the old buildings in the 'hood, a crappy halfway-house/hotel building at the Girard/Ridge corner. The rich motherfuckers were not too happy with the undesirables sleeping next door and found a simple way to get rid of them out, knock the motherfucker down, and build a badass bank. They found the mystery architect and had this motherfucker built by 1886.
                    That's right... this buildings' architect is a fucking unknown. It is credited to early Philaphile Otto C. Wolf, but no one knows for sure if he was the one who did it. If this is a Wolf, it is completely different than his other buildings, which are mostly factories and brewery buildings.
                    You see, Otto Wolf was a badass. He was a mechanical engineer, architect, and banker. He not only invented 19th century cold storage techniques but also designed cold storage warehouses. Many of the breweries in Brewerytown were his designs. He also invented coin-stamping technology that he sold to the Japanese government. This guy did everything! On top of all that, Otto was the goddamn Vice President of the Northwestern National Bank, which probably explains why people think he designed it.
                    Otto Wolf or not, this little building kicks ass. It can't be easy to pull off a good design on a triangular-shaped lot. You got to love the massive entranceway, like you're going to enter Valhalla every time you go to the bank. Impressive that this Generator of Jeet Kun Do Jawbreakers has managed to keep most of its original details, despite being all fucked up.
                    Once the 20th Century rolled around, things changed. Those rich motherfuckers were more easily able to transport back and forth from much greener pastures, so they moved out to the country and left the neighborhood behind to rot. Northwestern Bank stayed in business and moved over to a new building at Broad and Fairmount. The Ridge/Girard building sat boarded up and in disrepair... what else could you do with a triangular stone fortress? Make it a church!
                    In 1969, Smith Chapel Baptist Church moved in and still conducts church services in that location to this day. The super-awesome mansions from the same era as the Northwestern Bank still stand surrounding it. Did I mention that those mansions were designed by none other than Commandant of Badass Motherfuckers Willis G. Hale? Massive improvements in the Francisville section as of late may bring new hope to this forlorn corner. Future development will hopefully bring this spot back to glory.

Northwestern Bank in 1968, right before being altered into the church.
After alteration.

1 comment:

  1. Otto C. Wolf, Philadelphia's premier brewery architect, designed the Northwestern bank. It is featured in a self-published book showing his "works executed" around 1906. The bank was known as the "Brewers' Bank" and is not far from the concentration of breweries that gave the Brewerytown neighborhood its name.

    Rich Wagner
    PA Brewery Historian