Ritter & Shay are best known for designing the extraordinary trio of art deco skyscrapers that hover over Center City like giant frosted wedding cakes: the Drake, One East Penn Square, and the U.S. Custom House. But before the architects made it big downtown, they designed a modest commercial building for North Broad Street.
Their contribution to the boulevard's collection of architectural riches is the Broad Street Trust Co., just above Stiles Street. Built in 1927, the four-story limestone building predates Ritter & Shay's first art deco skyscraper, the Drake, by two years. In the modest design, you can see the architects making the transition from the restraint of beaux-arts classicism to the anything-goes, Jazz Age exuberance that became a hallmark of their art deco skyscrapers.
Unlike those towers, which are topped with elaborate crowns and dripping with sculpture, the Trust Co. is a stripped-down, flat-topped classical temple whose boxy proportions are perfectly symmetrical. Flattened columns, called pilasters, flank the central portion of the building, which probably served as the bank entrance. The only evidence of the architects' interest in sculpture are the spandrel panels between the windows, etched with a repeating fan pattern - a popular art deco motif.
So little has been written about Ritter & Shay it is hard to know why the bank is so understated. Were the architects holding back their art deco impulses to please a conservative client? Or were they just discovering the possibilities of sculpture and ornament?
What seems to be true is that the bank's North Broad location gave the architects an opportunity to experiment. As the shopping street for Philadelphia's expanding middle class, the need to make a good impression was strong.
Though many of North Broad's great buildings were lost after the middle class moved on, a surprising amount of the street's architectural glory remains. Even though the Trust Co.'s classical temple has been turned into a self-storage facility, and its bank portal is now a covered driveway, the rest of the building appears to be in excellent condition. As North Broad revives, it is not hard to imagine a new bank taking over the ground floor, with apartments above. They could call it the Trust Building.
The Broad Street Trust Co. is at 1221-25 N. Broad St. and is just a few steps north of the Girard Avenue stop on the Broad Street subway. For an interactive map of all "Good Eyes," go to philly.com/goodeye.