We live in a right-angled world where most buildings have four corners, so anything with curves tends to get our attention. That helps explain why Philadelphia loves the "Spaceship," the cylindrical visitor center in LOVE Park. But the city is dotted with other little round buildings, nearly all designed during the optimistic days of the early 1960s.
One intriguing survivor is the Conestoga Bank building at 21st and Passyunk in South Philadelphia, the gateway to the historic Girard Estates neighborhood. Why put a modernist turret at the entry to Girard Estates' traditionally styled twins? No doubt the architect, Pittsburgh's George Commandaros, recognized that the diagonal of Passyunk Avenue created a monumental space with the bank's site as its focal point. The round form ensured the one-story bank could be seen from every direction.
The glass structure was built in 1968 for the Burton C. Simon Savings & Loan, but like so many banks, it has changed hands many times. Given the turnover, Commandaros' original design has survived relatively intact.
Now faced in dark glass, the bank is topped with a flat roof, brimmed to shade the sun. The frieze around the perimeter was engraved with what could have easily been mistaken for a traditional Greek key design, but that was actually a series of stylized letter As. Although the frieze has recently been covered with aluminum siding, you can still see the same 'A' on the door handles. Its meaning remains a mystery.
The somberness of the facade contrasts with the golden light in the spacious, yurtlike interior. The roof is supported by curving, oak-colored beams that fan out from creamy brick walls. The tellers' windows follow the bank's curves, and cylindrical light fixtures dangle from the planked ceiling.
Round bank buildings began popping up in the '50s and '60s, especially as financial institutions followed their customers down suburban highways. That was the heyday of the drive-up teller, and the form made it easy for motorists to loop around the building. But architects also were drawn to the shape for its sculptural possibilities. As Eero Saarinen demonstrated with his chapel at MIT, the cylinder speaks to our desire for the new while resonating with memories of classical architecture.
There are at least three other round banks in the Philadelphia area, including one on Adams Avenue in Lawncrest. Diagonal streets were a magnet for the cylinders. The Parkway boasts three: the visitor center, Windsor Suites, and Embassy Suites. Despite the disadvantage of having to carve the interiors into pie-
shaped rooms, there's something about a curved building that makes us want to open our arms in embrace.
Conestoga Bank can be easily reached via 21st Street, Oregon Avenue, or Broad Street. A visit is a great excuse to travel the length of Passyunk Avenue, which runs north.