H. H. Richardson so dominated American architecture in the late 19th century that we often refer to Victorian buildings with layers of rough, chocolate-colored stone and thick, rounded arches as "Richardsonian," even when they were designed by imitators. Authentic Richardson buildings can be found in cities around the country, especially the Northeast. But not in Philadelphia.
So we'll just have to content ourselves with the knock-offs. The former American Trust Co. & Savings Fund at Broad and Fairmount is a good example, despite its mutilated condition. Though partially obscured by a scrim of billboards, you can still see the hallmarks of the Richardsonian Romanesque style in the heavy, almost medieval, massing, the picturesque roofline with its single, asymmetrical gable, the rusticated stone, and richly colored checkerboard detailing.
Built in 1880 - a date inscribed on the brownstone gable - the American Trust Co. is a survivor from North Broad Street's heyday, when the monumental avenue was lined with the mansions of industrial barons. The designers, Louis C. Baker and Elijah James Dallett, must have figured that a bank that looked like an impenetrable castle would be an attractive place for those barons to stow their wealth.
The building clearly went through some hard times as North Broad declined, but now stirrings of revival are everywhere. Across the street, the long-vacant Divine Lorraine tower is being turned into apartments, and for-sale signs are popping up. American Trust is one of the buildings with legs - literally. It was bought in 2004 by Cristina Elena Guzman, who installed a dance studio on the light-filled second floor.
Unfortunately, it came with a billboard whose lease runs until June. Once it expires, Guzman said, she will remove the sign and restore the large, second-story window facing Fairmount Avenue. American Trust won't be what it was in 1880, but at least we should have a better view of its glory.