In a former neoclassical bank at Third and Arch in Old City, tech workers now hunch over glowing screens next to a marble fireplace, scanning code. Fifteen years ago, a rambunctious group of millennials in MTV’s Real World series gathered around the same fireplace, kicking back on red modernist sofas. And a century before that, bank managers pored over bound ledgers while sitting at desks in the exact same spot.
Many Philadelphia buildings have had multiple lives, but few have gone through the wild extremes (and the wild nights) that the Corn Exchange National Bank & Trust Co. has since it was completed in 1907. Over the years, it has been home to several banks, a community center for visiting sailors, a banquet hall, and, of course, a drama-packed season of the Real World. Reincarnated once again, the white-columned building is now headquarters of Linode, which provides cloud hosting services to companies around the world.
The bank had been sitting empty when Linode’s founder, Chris Aker, spotted the property in 2015 and decided it would make a good home for his growing company. At the time, Linode’s workers were scattered in three buildings in South Jersey. Aker was having trouble attracting workers to the suburbs, and he felt a Philadelphia location would help draw talent. Located on “N3RD Street,” as Old City and Northern Liberties’ tech corridor is called, the bank provided the perfect beachhead into the city.
All those previous uses had taken their toll on the handsome, temple-like bank, designed by Newman & Harris. The Real World’s heavily decorated — and garishly painted — sets were still scattered throughout the three-story building. A mirrored ball, left over from the banquet hall, hung from the ceiling. Even worse, many of the bank’s original marble, mahogany, and brass details had taken a beating.
Aker hired Ballinger’s Fon Wang and Keith Mock, who specialize in historic buildings, to oversee the renovation. Tech companies need a variety of spaces, from large open work areas to small huddle rooms. But the architects were obligated to restore the interior to its early 20th-century appearance because Linode had received federal tax credits for historic preservation. The new meeting rooms, lounges, and kitchens all had to be inserted without disrupting the original layout.
On top of that, the building had been modified several times while it was still a bank. The Corn Exchange (not to be confused with the more ornate Corn Exchange at Second and Chestnut) had occupied the building for only a decade before selling out to Union National Bank of Philadelphia. Union immediately undertook a renovation, hiring architect John Brugger to put an addition on the back. (In the late ’70s, the building became the Seamen’s Church Institute.)
Ballinger started by taking the bank back to its simplest form. They cleared out the clutter from the handsome, two-story-high banking floor and turned it into a sun-drenched lobby, bordered by glass-fronted meeting rooms. They also restored the marble balustrade that rims the atrium, providing workers on the second floor with expansive views. The grand staircase leading to the basement vault got similar treatment.
The basement is now the most interesting space in the building. It is threaded with heavy brick arches that support the structure, but Ballinger managed to turn those nooks into cozy huddle rooms. The original Union Bank vault has also been repurposed. And, in an extreme example of the new burrowing into the old, the architects set up a server closet in one of the arched caverns. Its green light casts an otherworldly glow across the brick walls.
Technology may change, but Linode’s exterior has not, thanks to this sensitive renovation. The ornate neoclassical bank has always stood out in Old City, which is dominated by hardworking, cast-iron warehouses and factories. Maybe the Corn Exchange oddball appearance is what helped it survive. Over more than a century, it has continued to attract innovative users — first the Real World crew, now Linode.