Drexel and Company Building, Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Date added: September 13, 2023 Categories:
View from southwest (1927)

The Drexel Company was founded in the middle of the 19th century. By 1893, when Anthony Drexel, the founder's son, died, the Drexel Company was allied with the house of Morgan, and had a reputation for integrity and creative visions that was unmatched. E. T. Stotesbury's stewardship, as head of the firm was equally rewarding, and the private banking house of Drexel Company continued to play a major national and international role until the Depression.

The company was dissolved in the 1930s when changes in tax law made it impossible to retain business capital through succeeding generations. At the same time changes in interstate banking law made it impossible for the Philadelphia-based Drexel Bank to continue its relationship with the New York Morgan Company. This resulted in the sale of the building to a local bank. Though empty for a generation, it has retained the major elements, and remains a heroic tribute to the vision of its designers and its owners.

The Drexel Company building is a significant architectural achievement, a major urban landmark that focuses and organizes perception in the city, a monument to Philadelphia's most important financial organization in the late 19th and early 20th century, and a memorial to financier E. T. Stotesbury, who directed the company in the early 20th century, and established standards for luxurious living and working. conditions worthy of the greatest captains' of finance. For all of these reasons, and more, the building holds an extraordinarily attractive power.

The architectural solutions of the Renaissance Palazzo recall Florentine bankers and by extension drapes the Drexel Company with their mantle. This was a standard design approach in the late 1920's. In this instance, it is given special force by Stotesbury's lifestyle which emulated the Medici, but it also has architectural merit as the work of one of Philadelphia's greatest eclectic firms, that of Day and Klauder. That office had already established a reputation for monumental and accurately detailed buildings that had retained much of the freedom and vigor of the turn-of-the-century designers. Private commissions for great city and country mansions were gained from a broad spectrum of the city's elite, Samuel Bodine (banking), William Warden (Standard Oil), E. T. Stotesbury (finance), John Frederick Lewis (law), Samuel Wetherill, and others used Day's talents.

Those same connections brought the firm prestigious commissions for public institutions; churches, clubs, academic buildings, notably dormitories at Princeton, Wellesley, and the main campus, of the University of Delaware which gave the office a national reputation.

For the Drexel Company, the architects achieved a building of great power that impresses itself on its region; not with the violent individualism of the high Victorian, or the great height of the New York 1920s, instead the forcefulness comes from the interplay of abstract architectural qualities, scale and mass, ruled by proportion. The scale is most apparent in the immense windows and doors, and the grand story height brought into focus by two carefully scaled elements; the blocks of stone whose volume is emphasized by the deeply cut coursing, and the curved watertable, too tall to sit on, that projects from the building's base.

The immensity is reinforced by the subordination of all detail to mass. Each stone block and each detail terminate in a curving transition to a new plane that emphasizes the volume. There are no doubts about weight and solidity.

This is a building with a capital B, architecture in the grand manner all too rare in Philadelphia. It is this quality that makes it the focus of its corner and gives it its urbanistic role.

Building Description

The Drexel Bank is the most assertive building in its quadrant of the city, a massive and solid Renaissance palazzo that recalls by association, the Florentine bankers of the 15th century. Its exterior is skillfully handled to belie its six stories and penthouse, appearing instead as a three-story building, in the manner of the Renaissance prototype.

The two principal facades, extend 96'4" on 15th Street, and 73'0 3/4" on Walnut Street with the principal entrance to the banking room opening on 15th Street, through an immense round-headed portal. Following the Renaissance model, the architects, Day and Klauder of Philadelphia organized the facade in three distinct layers; a massive basement story, sitting on a heavy watertable, and surmounted by a balustraded cornice; the second floor and third floors are set back slightly, and are divided by a dentilled band. The principal mass is then surmounted by a heavy modillioned cornice and parapet which screens the set back stories above.

The material of the exterior is principally a light gray, Cape Ann-type granite, which is laid up in immense ashlar blocks, slightly rusticated on the surface, and with strongly indented joints in the manner of the Strozzi Palace. The basement level is perceptibly darker, to set off the upper levels. Of note is the use of alternate blocks of lighter-toned stone around the windows and door, adding interest to the lower facade, and recalling in a much-diminished manner the exuberant polychromy of commercial architecture of the late 19th and early 20th century. Openings are square-headed on the first floor - with the exception of the gigantic portal, and round-headed on the second and third floors, though the lunettes of the upper windows are filled in by stone tympana. An enlarged corner bead at the corners of the facade further emphasizes the mass of this overwhelming masonry pile.

Decorative relief is limited to twelve low relief zodiac roundels in rectangular panels above the twelve windows of the first floor, and shields above the main doorway, and at the corners of the facade. Two further decorative elements remain to be noted - the splendid wrought iron lamps, by the noted ironworker Samuel Yellin and the teak doors with elaborate hammered metal hinges, escutcheons, and the like. It is their richness, in contrast to the stark mass of the building that emphasizes the entrance.

The interior continued the theme of the exterior, but with significant modifications, some occasioned by contemporary interests, others by the desire for a grandeur not provided in interior apartments of the 15th century. Of particular note is the first-floor banking room, a magnificent space, wainscotted in marble, and surmounted by a paneled and coffered Renaissance ceiling. Gilded work highlights this plastic and impressive ceiling. The effect is like the jewel-encrusted interior of a treasure chest.

Above, the private offices and investment rooms, continue the theme of unrestrained luxury. Most striking was the light court of the partner's office level on the top floor. There all the pleasures demanded by the lords of finance were available, accessible by private elevators. Each office had its own fireplace that worked, and was decorated with Yellin designed metalwork. Office windows were similarly framed with Yellin iron valances, hammered and encrusted. Of particular note is the paneling material of the upper walls - oak from the Argonne forest that was killed by the battle, and seasoned in place until it was cut and sold by the French. The traces of bullets can still be seen in the panels.

Drexel and Company Building, Philadelphia Pennsylvania View from southwest (1979)
View from southwest (1979)

Drexel and Company Building, Philadelphia Pennsylvania View from southwest (1927)
View from southwest (1927)

Drexel and Company Building, Philadelphia Pennsylvania View from west (1979)
View from west (1979)

Drexel and Company Building, Philadelphia Pennsylvania Board Room (1979)
Board Room (1979)

Drexel and Company Building, Philadelphia Pennsylvania Looking east - main banking space (1979)
Looking east - main banking space (1979)

Drexel and Company Building, Philadelphia Pennsylvania Main banking space - looking north (1979)
Main banking space - looking north (1979)