If you were a wealthy Philadelphia banker in the early decades of the 20th century, you probably thought of yourself as a modern-day Medici. Having made a fortune from investments in railroads, coal, and steel, you could spend your free time amassing a fabulous art collection or constructing Renaissance-style mansions in places like the Main Line and Palm Beach. Edward T. Stotesbury did all that. But he went a step further and built himself an actual Florentine palazzo in Center City. It just happened to be based on one that belonged to the Medici family’s archrival, Filippo Strozzi the Elder.
Stotesbury got his start working for Anthony Drexel, the founder of Drexel & Co. (as well as Drexel University), and later partnered with J.P. Morgan, the ruthless and successful banker. While Morgan ruled from New York, Stotesbury remained in Philadelphia to oversee his empire. In 1925, he commissioned Day & Klauder to design Drexel’s Philadelphia headquarters on the northeast corner of 15th and Walnut. With their deep knowledge of European architecture, the architects could have easily made the Palazzo Medici their model. Instead, they took their cues from a less famous precedent to fashion a magnificent replica.
Built in the late 15th century, the two Florentine palaces are quite similar. Both are crafted from enormous blocks of stone that were rolled, chiseled, and rusticated at the base to give them a natural appearance. Both are monumental in scale and convey strength and an air of impenetrability. Their double-arched windows are set high above the street, on the second-floor piano nobile, beyond the reach of prying eyes. Though the Palazzo Medici is more famous, the Strozzi family’s home is the more graceful design, with taller and less blocky proportions.
The Medici name was more famous, but Day & Klauder recognized that the Strozzi palace was more suited to an American commercial district. In the 1920s, Walnut Street was evolving into a miniature version of Wall Street and was lined with handsome, limestone brokerage houses and banks. In Florence, the Medici palace stood in splendid isolation, surrounded by a web of city streets. But the Drexel building, like the Strozzi palace, would occupy a crowded urban corner where only two facades would be visible.
Built of light gray granite, the Philadelphia design is updated for 20th-century commerce. Its ground-floor windows are significantly larger than those of the Strozzi palace, although they are unfortunately placed too high to function as true shop windows. Drexel & Co. also has six floors, twice as many as its Florentine forebear. To keep the taller Drexel headquarters from appearing gawky, the architects used a common neoclassical strategy and broke it into sections, inserting stone balustrades at the top of the first and third floors, and setting back the top two levels.
After years of feuding with the Medicis, Filippo Strozzi died in 1491, while his palace was still under construction. Cosimo de’ Medici immediately confiscated the property and left it unfinished. It is now home to an academic institute.
Although Stotesbury did get to move his office into his Florentine palazzo, Drexel & Co. was hit hard by the Great Depression and was formally dissolved in 1930. Like the Strozzi palace, the building was passed on to new owners. For many years, its regal banking floor was home to a gym whose clunky exercise machines were visible through the large windows. But even though Philadelphia’s great Florentine palace never got to play the central role in the city’s cultural life that its original client had envisioned, it stands as a testament to the grand ambitions of its original owner.