AKA, Central Fidelity Bank
219 East Broad Street
Architect, John Eberson
From the heart of the Great Depression came this Palace of Art Deco.
The Central National Bank, designed in 1929-30 by the New York architect John Eberson, is an outstanding example of the Art-Deco skyscraper as it was interpreted in the South.
The building is, moreover, a tribute to the successful efforts of Richmond merchants to establish a financial institution sensitive to their special needs. It is to the credit of the bank’s current consulting architect and trustees that a recent major renovation preserved the bank’s original architectural character.
The history of CNB begins in 1911 when the merchants on Broad Street decided that they needed a strong bank in the retailing district of Richmond that would serve them directly. The founders included a prominent furrier, a leather goods dealer, and a rising department store owner. The merchants sold stock to fellow businessmen on Broad Street, purchased an existing branch bank, and applied to the Department of the Treasury for a national bank charter.
When the bank’s doors opened in September of that year, CNB became Richmond’s twentieth banking establishment and the first national bank in that area of the city.
The new bank proved to be a success, and within six months deposits totaled over a half-million dollars. On November 2, 1914, the bank became a charter member of the Reserve system, two weeks before the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank opened.
By 1921 the bank had grown to become the sixth largest bank in Richmond and a pioneer in many Virginia banking innovations. In 1928 the bank’s directors voted to erect a new bank building, purchased a site at 219 East Broad, and made plans for a ten-story structure. The plans were revised, and ultimately ground was broken in March 1929 for a twenty-four-story structure.
John Eberson, of New York, was the architect working with the Richmond firm of Carneal, Johnston, and Wright. Eberson had designed Richmond’s Loew’s Theatre in 1927-28, soon to be followed by the Broad-Grace Arcade in 1928-29. It was the intention of the bank’s trustees that the arcade would service and be served by the new CNB, which would occupy over one-third of the arcade’s original interior frontage. Doyle and Russell, who later worked on the Pentagon in Washington, were the contractors. They employed steel workers from some of the country’s largest bridge projects to rivet the 1,720 tons of steel.
Despite the Depression, the construction of the bank continued and was finally completed in June 1930. Before the building was finished, it became obvious that the CNB tower was to have a special function in the Richmond business world. An adman in the December 7, 1929, Richmond Leader overwhelmed his notice with praise to the CNB.
The ad read:
A site that overlooks everything in sight.
A building that overlooks nothing in efficiency.
A monumental structure at an active business center.
A background of business and a foreground of Beauty.
A location of horizons for tenants of vision.
While the ad was obviously attempting to lease rental space in the new building, it may also be understood as a statement of architectural intention. When the bank was built during the twenties, a climate of economic and social prosperity prevailed throughout America bringing with it a “the sky’s the limit” optimism, a sense that was literally understood in the architecture of the time.
It was during this period that the skyscraper had come into fruition, the product of American technology and economic growth. Complementing the new building form was a new architectural vocabulary, Art Deco. The new style employed motifs of a highly geometric and sometimes exotic nature that shared a common quality–easy adaptation by the machine.
It is significant that, when considered in terms of its rapid growth, CNB would adapt both the skyscraper form and Art-Deco embellishment as symbols of pre-Depression prosperity. It is commendable that the bank, continuing to expand, has restored its building tower and adapted the neighboring Art-Deco Broad-Grace Arcade for additional banking space, thus preserving a Richmond landmark of business prosperity. (VDHR)
And it’s still adapting. Today it’s an apartment building with 200 rooms and goes by the moniker Deco at CNB.
(Central National Bank is part of the Atlas RVA Project)
- [NMITS] Notable Men of Illinois & Their State. Chicago Daily Journal. 1912.
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