May 13: ‘There are but two truths in this world’
2016/05/13 § 2 Comments
In the early nineteenth century the banking system in the US was an arm of the federal government and centered in Philadelphia along with virtually everything else important: cultural institutions, art museums, scientific laboratories, public libraries, whoopie pie vendors. So when a new bank was proposed it wasn’t just the scheme of some investors out to turn a buck; it was a symbol of the government that required significant architectural expression. The ad in the Gazette was unusual for being directed toward “architects of science and experience” (suggesting that the vast majority of building designers, master masons and carpenters, need not apply). The specifics of the design required a plan of 10-11,000 square feet and (also unusually for competition briefs at the time which usually made no reference to aesthetic qualities) a certain image:
The building will be faced with marble, and have a portico on each front, resting upon a basement or platform of such altitude as will combine convenience of ascent with due proportion and effect. In this edifice, the Directors are desirous of exhibiting a chaste imitation of Grecian architecture, in its simplest and least expensive form.
In this brief, the directors expressed their interest in the style of architecture that was quickly becoming popular not only for its inherent beauty (and relative economy) but for specific associations that were drawn between the new American democracy and the ancient land that ostensibly invented representative government. Contemporary Greeks’ battle against their Ottoman occupants only emphasized the connotative value of Grecian architecture as the style of an independent people.
The early history of the bank is tightly wound to the biography of Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), who became its director in 1819. Biddle was from a fancy Philadelphia family that paid for his high-falutin’ education and wide-ranging travels all the way to Greece, from which he returned pronouncing that “there are but two truths in the world: the Bible and Greek architecture.” And looking at the version of the Parthenon that was designed by William Strickland for this site on Chestnut Street, even as its marble has weathered poorly in Philadelphia, it’s hard to argue against Biddle’s words.
Image: the former Second Bank of the US, now the Portrait Gallery (Clio’s)