PSFS Building

Philadelphia City, Philadelphia County, PA

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The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) Building (12 South 19th Street) was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the National Register of Historic Places nomination document. Photos are from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS-PA-1533) collection, 1985, Jack Boucher, photographer.

The PSFS building is perhaps the most important skyscraper built in America between the Chicago School of the 1880's-1890's and the International Style of the 1950's. It is one of the most carefully executed buildings of modem times. PSFS evolved from theories of European modernism, but also spawned ideas that are finally being accepted today.

One of the most remarkable qualities of the building is its timelessness — it hasn't aged nor gone old-fashioned. PSFS was a great structure from the time of its first conception because the bank was willing to permit, the best and it hired a fine architect, who had the opportunity, rare in any architect's career, to do his very best. The fabric is of the most luxurious materials — stainless steel, many varieties of marble, rare woods and leather — the kind of building nobody can afford to build, even at the time it was built.

William Jordy has written: Although it [PSFS] does epitomize the coming [to America] of the European functionalist style of the twenties, this event occurred late as to make it seem more of a synthesis of previous developments than a herald of new departures. Yet, ... as a synthesis, then as an American synthesis, PSFS is worthy of study today ... it is rather more innovative than its appearance, date, and provincial position suggest ... PSFS is not even quite the unadulterated exemplar of the International Style that it seems to be. It depends as well on Beaux-Arts theory, which it ostensibly repudiates. [William Jordy, PSFS: Its Development and Its Significance in Modern Architecture, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. XXI, no. 2, May, 1962, p.47-48]

The PSFS achievement was the result of a unique client-architect relationship. This savings bank is America's oldest mutual savings bank, founded in 1816 to afford a profitable mode of investment to mechanics, tradesmen, laborers, servants and others ... PSFS has served generations of immigrants, once employing tellers who spoke five languages ... it is one of the largest savings banks in the United States with the largest number of customer accounts. That the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, an old and conservative Philadelphia institution, commissioned and built the most radical departure from traditional bank architecture in a century is due primarily to one man, James M. Willcox, president of PSFS from 1924-34. [The PSFS Building Pamphlet, May 1976, p. 4]

Willcox was to take an enthusiastic and active part in the design process and is now generally credited with the final appearance of the tower. The PSFS board was able to be quite comfortable with George Howe, who was a member of the firm Mellor, Meigs and Howe. This firm had designed elegant Main Line estates in "English" and "French Chateau" styles for Philadelphia's most fashionable families (Howe called this his "Wall Street Pastoral" period). Howe also did two branch banks for PSFS in 1924-26 in the Beaux Arts idiom. Willcox knew Howe personally, and although he did not favor modern, he was practical — he wanted a major banking office combined with rentable space. The final design incorporates the second floor banking facility with street level stores and an office tower that has had a consistently high rental since its completion. George Howe, in one great leap, became a modern architect. Jordy writes: "that a man of his years in a conservative milieu could have ventured so boldly and astutely into an enterprise new to his experience is extraordinary. When Philadelphians praised PSFS to Howe, he frequently waved aside the compliments with, 'It's Mr. Willcox's building.'"

Howe left Mellor and Meigs to form a partnership with the Swiss architect, William Lescaze in 1929. Lescaze had come to America in 1920 and had designed the Paris Modern interiors for the Macy exposition in 1928 — his familiarity with modern European forms was of great value to the new partnership. In the final design, Lescaze created the base of the building carrying the off center tower and the peripheral entrances to bank and offices with a sleek cave that is derived from Cubist composition. The curve was expanded to wrap around eight stories enclosing the base of the cantilevers and increased the amount of usable space creating an economic advantage over an earlier, more bulky scheme.

The PSFS building was the second skyscraper in the United States to be completely air conditioned. Elevators were designed by Otis, electronically controlled, they still function swiftly, silently and well. The building is design controlled down to the smallest detail, from the use of varied marble panels, bathroom fixtures, graphics wed for signs, to the clocks, manufactured by Cartier. The most luxurious rooms are on the roof where the Board of Directors meet; rich woods, brass fixtures and sliding walls of ebony and walnut make the area ceremonial yet warm and inviting. Tubular steel furniture was designed and custom made for the banking floor. All this is even more remarkable because the stock market crash had occurred and depression gripped the country, yet construction went ahead. The final total cost was $8,000,000.

Technically superb, innovative in the use of materials and equipment, PSFS is the undisputed masterpiece of George Howe and William Lescaze and a landmark in the history of architecture in America.

The PSFS Building, with its 36 stories, is 491 feet high, and is the tallest office building in the Philadelphia area. It is surpassed in height only by William Penn's statue atop the City Hall Building, which rises 547 feet above the city.

The Building contains 374,628 Square feet of office space, of which 112,723 are occupied by the Society and 228,867 are available for rental to tenants. In addition, it has 28,755 square feet of rentable store space at the street and basement levels and 4,283 square feet of roof space. More than 2,000 persons work within its walls.

The innovative design placing the banking facility on the second floor, required a heavy truss to carry the office tower. Structural columns for the tower rise four abreast from a 16-1/2 foot deep truss that spans the banking floor in a 63 foot span. The plan of the building rests on the contrast between open space at the slab and a high density of subdivisions in the tower. Howe said later "the functional architect delights in the huge torso swaying on tendoned ankles. He would no more attach false stone pedestals on them than he would put lead shoes on Pegasus." The supports of the major truss provide the monumental columns appropriate for a banking floor.

The designs underwent several transformations, with Wilcox, the president of the bank, working closely with Howe and Lescaze. It was Wilcox who insisted on the final vertical character of PSFS. For all of its seemingly clear, smooth, simple surfaces and lines, the building is enormously complex beneath its finish.

33rd Floor of PSFS Building

Along the hallway to the Board Room and Solarium are hat and coat hooks for the members of the Board of Trustees and the senior officers of the Society.

On the wall of the foyer is a chart listing the Presidents and Trustees of the Society through the years and their seat numbers at the Board table. It shows a sketch of the 7th and Walnut Streets office and lists locations of other offices and dates on which they were opened.

Displayed on the Macassar ebony and rotary walnut walls of the Board Room are portraits of the founders and Presidents of the Society. Of special interest are those of Condy Raguet (second on the right upon entering the Board Room), chief among the founders; and of R. Stewart Rauch, Jr., PSFS President from 1955 to 1971, now Chairman, whose portrait hangs on the (south) wall, immediately to the left of the entrance.

The unusual oval Board table has a veneer of Macassar ebony, a wood imported from the Isle of Celebes in the South Pacific.

On the back of each chair at the Board table is a plaque showing its number and the name of the Trustees in the past who held that chair dating back to 1816, the year of the Society's founding. The small plaque on the top of each chair bears the name of the incumbent Trustee and year he was first appointed.

On a clear day, the adjoining Solarium affords a view of approximately 20 miles. The west wall of the Solarium is of Italian travertine marble.

The PSFS sign on top of the Building, with letters 27 feet high, can be seen for more than 20 miles on a clear night. It is one of Philadelphia's best-known beacons, and was originally illuminated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from November through April; from May through October, dusk to dawn. In an effort to conserve energy during the current energy crunch, however, PSFS has curtailed its illumination to three hours a day — 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Atop the Building, the Bell Telephone Company maintains a 258-foot tower on which are mounted various "dishes and "whips" (antennae) for receiving and relaying TV and radio-telephone signals. Also mounted on this tower is the transmission antenna for station WMMR-FM.

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