AKA, Old First and Merchants National Bank Building, BB&T Bank Building
825-827 East Main Street
Architects, Alfred Charles Bossom, Charles W. Clinton
Another masterpiece by the King of Neoclassicism.
The First National Bank Building is one of the finest examples of turn-of-the-century Neoclassical Revival Architecture in the city of Richmond. This outstanding commercial structure, completed in 1913, was also the city’s first high-rise tower. The building combines monumental scale and fine detailing with the technological daring inherent in early steel-frame, high-rise construction.
Established in April 1865, eight days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and three weeks after Richmond’s disastrous evacuation fire, First National Bank was founded by respected financial leaders who wanted to pull the fallen city through the difficult period of Reconstruction. When the Confederacy fell at the close of the Civil War, the Federal Government revoked the charters of all banks whose loyalty to the Union might be suspect. Richmond continued without a banking establishment until a group of Richmonders met with northern banker Hamilton G. Fant and associates, and agreed to establish a bank in Richmond under Federal charter.
First National Bank opened its office in the old Custom’s House on May 10, 1865, welcoming Robert E. Lee as one of its first customers. The bank soon merged with National Exchange Bank, moving in 1868 from its original one room office on Bank Street (now Governor Street) to a commercial structure at Tenth and Main Streets. Despite difficult and threatening circumstances the bank survived the panic of 1873 and prospered through the later financial crisis of the 1890s. By the turn of the century, First National had the highest total assets of all eighteen banks then in the city, providing needed capital for Richmond’s expanding industry and commerce.
In 1910 the Bank’s Board voted to build a new structure on Main Street to house its offices. Desirous of employing the latest in design and technology, the Board hired the firm of Clinton and Russell to fashion the Bank’s new headquarters. The architect for the project was Alfred Charles Bossom, a native of England who later designed the Vepco Building, and the Virginia Trust building, as well as other notable Richmond structures.
The exterior of the First National Bank Building is divided into four bays on the Main Street elevation, and five bays on the Ninth Street side. The base of the building, the lowest four floors, is punctuated by fifty-foot-high fluted Corinthian pilasters at the corners and engaged columns in between. These engaged columns support a seventeen-and-one-haIf-foot entablature rich with classical ornament.
Medallions and carvings in the frieze alternate with the fifth story windows. Rosettes decorate a cornice supported by dentils and modillions. The architrave on both north and east facades bears the carved inscription “FIRST NATIONAL BANK”.
A lower ornamental architrave demarks the third floor level. The area between the pilasters and columns is infilled with windows, making this building a clear predecessor to the curtain wall structures which have dominated commercial high-rise architecture since the 1950s. The relative simplicity of the brick “shaft” or tower block section of the building contrasts markedly with its heavily decorated base and cornice.
The top four floors of the building form a “capital”. Similar to the base, limestone pilasters on all sides mark the building’s structure and support an ornate entablature from which the cornice has been removed.
The interior of the First National Bank Building has its richest decoration in the banking room and in the elevator lobby. Marble clad columns support low-springing arches which frame groin vaults once stenciled with a mosaic pattern. The walls of the two-story, twenty-five-foot high space, originally lined with pink Knoxville marble, now feature rather saccharine murals illustrating historic Virginia houses. Light floods the space from the windows in filling the area between the engaged columns on the east wall.
In the center of the banking room, a marble stair leads down to the vault room through a lozenge-shaped opening surrounded by a handsome, heavy, brass rail. Marble counters on the west side of the room, which mark the teller stations, are the only remaining original fixtures in the banking room.
The elevator lobby was notable for its beautiful bronze and marble finishes. The ornately carved bronze elevator doors and handsome brass mail box are regrettably the only elements in this area which remain unaltered although much of the original fabric apparently remains under the later trim. The vault room below contains two hand-made circular vault doors made by the Diebold Company in Canton, Ohio. Reputedly hauled up Main Street Hill by mules, the vaults were installed early in the building’s construction. The vault doors, still in use, are unique examples; the only remaining two of their kind.
Mosaics which ornamented the walls and ceilings of the banking room were removed or covered with plaster. In 1966 extensive deterioration forced the removal of the eleven-foot-deep cornice which cantilevered twenty stories above the street. (VDHR)
Aside from all that, it has a beautiful clock at the corner of Ninth and Main.
In the Age of Analog, municipal and commercial buildings everywhere sported elaborate timepieces and everyone relied on them, both those with watches (to set them by) and those without. Then came the Age of Digital when displaying the time of day was an easy parlor trick for devices of all stripes. In one sense this was useful, but the constant awareness has made us more subservient to its passage, and indirectly, for less public ornamentation.
First National eventually became First & Merchants, which became Sovran, then C&S Sovran, NationsBank, and finally Bank of America. When it became F&M, it moved down the street to a spiffy new plaza complex at Twelfth and Main. The old First National Building became BB&T for a while, but today it is First National Apartments.
(First National Bank Building is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)
- [RVCJ03] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1903.
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