"I'll forgive him for killing Hamilton," cracked Jeremy Siegel.
The Wharton School professor, author of the popular investing book Stocks for the Long Run, gestured under the twilighted sycamores behind Independence Hall toward Leslie Odom Jr., the Philadelphia native, Masterman High and Carnegie Mellon grad who played Revolutionary War hero and first U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's fatal rival, Aaron Burr, in the Broadway musical Hamilton.
Odom was invited to add energy and glamour, and Siegel and his wife, Ellen Schwartz, to set a million-dollar donor example, at the yearly gala of Independence Historical Trust (formerly the Friends of Independence National Historical Park). The Trust's standing list of projects seeking donors, in a rich nation that relies on private gifts to preserve national history, is topped by the proposed, and as yet only partly funded, $26 million-plus restoration and endowment of the First Bank of the United States, on the compact national campus that survives from the city's rousing years as the nation's capital, more than two centuries past.
That's the central bank founded by Hamilton — not in New York, where the musical was set, but on Third Street in Philadelphia, where the stone-fronted brick bank sits below the Siegels' high-rise apartment.
"It's one thing to talk about history. But you guys are doing something about it, by writing checks and making it possible for my little girl and I to be here," right where nation was founded in argument and struggle, Odom told Siegel and the black-tie crowd.
Just as Hamilton producer Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a smash-hit hip-hop show showing that history is "more than statues," upgrading historic places as a backdrop to recall and interpret great events "gets the blood pumping in your veins," Odom said later. His next role is Philadelphia investor and abolitionist William Still, in Harriet, a film about Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman.
The biggest donor to the building's biggest upgrade since the National Park Service took it over from the old Girard Bank back in 1955, with an $8 million grant to be matched by other donors, is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Park Service is budgeting $5 million-plus more for repairs. The Siegels and the family of the late H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, the media lawyer turned cable TV baron and philanthropist (he owned the Inquirer), gave $1 million each. Donors including the Pennsylvania branch of the Society of the Cincinnati, which includes descendants of Washington's officers, and John Herzog, investment-banking heir behind New York's Museum of American Finance (currently closed, awaiting a new home) have contributed toward the last million of the state match.
"Now, we just need 10 more like them" to finish the First Bank upgrades and build an endowment, Tom Caramanico, the veteran Philadelphia builder who is the trust's executive director, said of the Lenfests and Siegels.
Gov. Wolf had visited the previous Thursday, Sept. 27, to "help reopen the central bank that was started by Alexander Hamilton," celebrating the grant to bring First Bank up to building-code standards and open it as a museum "of our financial system, the foundation of our democracy," and a stimulus to tourism, he said at the time.
Wolf spoke to the crowd from the bank's front door, below the carved head of Mercury, Roman god of trade, and the first official rendition of an American eagle, on the oldest building constructed by the U.S. government.
The governor, Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank President Patrick Harker, and other speakers that day sketched First Bank's history. Promoted by Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris of Philadelphia, planned in detail by Hamilton to stabilize government funding and extend reliable credit to American factories and traders, opposed by Thomas Jefferson and other indebted populists suspicious of financiers, approved by George Washington and a Congress desperate to collect taxes and strengthen private business, the First Bank was the original U.S. central bank, forerunner of today's Federal Reserve.
When Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans refused to renew the First Bank charter, its largest stockholder, immigrant trader turned financier Stephen Girard, bought the building and many First Bank loans, and set up his own private bank there. After Girard's death, a new bank whose founders named it for the city's pioneer capitalist used the building for the next 120 years, including a 1902 indoor face-lift that will be the model for the restoration.
Like today, the First Bank's 20-year period was "a tumultuous time" in national politics, said Lee Woolley, head of BNY Mellon Bank's mid-Atlantic region and a supporter of the trust, at Saturday's gala. He noted that Hamilton founded the Bank of New York, BNY's predecessor, which later acquired the assets of Girard Bank. Woolley said he had been surprised to find the building closed to the public on arriving in Philadelphia four years ago. A Park ranger steered him to historian Robert Eric Wright's The First Wall Street, a history of Philadelphia financial institutions.
Financial history poses a challenge for curators."We have plenty of documents," but will have to identify objects to help casual visitors better understand financial history, said Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park. She expects the banking floor, with better lighting, will be kept open as a space to host events.
Caramanico noted that Wolf had warned the state has many requests, and limited funds, for private projects under the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.
In the dim light under the dome ceiling during a brief tour after his speech, Wolf said he approved the grant — the state program's largest so far this year — not only because he's an American history scholar and fan, but also because "in Pennsylvania, all roads lead to history," with thousands of jobs and many millions in hotel and restaurant spending by tourists curious about the nation's roots.