In the late 19th century, when thousands of Italian immigrants were pouring into South Philadelphia to make their fortunes, Seventh Street was transformed into a bustling bankers row. By 1897, there were 25 rowhouse-size banks between Bainbridge and Washington Avenues, all competing to provide newcomers with loans, money transfers, even railroad and steamship tickets.
The immigrant bankers soon began erecting more substantial buildings, typically on corners where they would have maximum visibility. Despite their desire to stand out from the competition, the bankers seem to have copied from the same design playbook. All the major corner banks have bull-nose fronts, reminiscent of New York's celebrated Flatiron building.
Banca D'Italia, now a residence, is probably the best preserved of the survivors. Designed by Watson & Huckel, it opened at the corner of Pemberton Street in 1903, a year after the Flatiron's debut. Although Pemberton is practically an alley, the architects nevertheless treated the little bank as if it were presiding over a major intersection.
The elaborately carved door frame resembles something you might see on a Roman chapel. A large stone balcony, chiseled with the bank's name (no doubt by Italian stone masons), sits over the double doors like a crown. The balcony rests on a pair of spiraling stone corbels, which in turn rest on flowery, Corinthian column capitals.
Lest Banca D'Italia's customers somehow walk by without noticing the entrance, the architects gave the building a soaring clock tower. The bank's founder, Gennara Di Genova, was so proud that he took out a special supplement in South Philadelphia's L'Opinione newspaper in 1906 to tout the result. (Retired Villanova historian Richard Juliani graciously translated the article.)
Banca D'Italia didn't stand out from the crowd very long. Three years after it opened, Lorenzo Bozzelli erected an equally lavish, bull-nose bank a few doors away, at the corner of Fitzwater. (Now it's a dry cleaner.) Banca Calabrese did the same at Christian. Knowing that the banking business might not last, their canny immigrant owners included apartments upstairs in all three buildings. It's a good thing, too. The 1929 stock market crash was not kind to small banks. By the time it was over, Seventh Street was no longer a crowded bankers row.
Banca D'Italia can be found just a few steps below Bainbridge Street. Continue walking south to Fitzwater to admire Bozzelli's bank. You'll recognize Banca Calabrese at Christian even though it's lost its clock tower by its carved pediment and the crest of Reggio Calabria.