|The bank building as it appeared in 1995 (Photo courtesy of the archives of the D.C. Preservation League).|
|John Poole (Source: Library of Congress).|
Within three months, the bank had bought the office building it was renting on the southeast corner of 14th and G Streets NW, where the White House stables had once been located. A Post article attributed the new bank's extraordinary success to its daring innovations, such as opening early in the day (at 8:30am) and mailing monthly statements to account holders rather than requiring them to turn in their passbooks to have their account information updated. As the bank prospered, its charismatic leader also gained increasing fame. During World War I, Poole served as chairman of the five Liberty Loan campaigns held in Washington, raising substantial funds for the war effort. In 1922, his bank merged with the American National Bank to become Federal-American, one of the largest banks in the city.
|John Poole driving in the first rivet on the Federal-American bank building in 1924 (Source: Library of Congress).|
|The bank under construction in 1925 (Source: Library of Congress).|
Most remarkable of all the bank's features were the new Clear Vision counters, patented by Poole and called "the greatest contribution to banking architecture in 100 years" by the press. The counters were designed to be very open, with only low grills in the middle, but it was still impossible for anyone to reach over them and try to take cash from the other side. They eliminated the iron-barred teller cages traditionally found in banks, allowing for better air circulation, better monitoring of both employees and customers, and friendlier customer interactions. As Poole predicted, his innovative counters became very popular and were soon imitated by other banks. Poole eventually took out patents on his design in 14 countries.
|Poole's Clear Vision banking counter (Source: Library of Congress).|
As late as January 1933, the Federal-American Bank appeared to be prospering just as it always had, despite the onset of the Great Depression. A Post article from that time claimed that record levels of deposits were on hand. Further, Poole had just completed three years of service as a member of the Advisory Council to the Federal Reserve Board, and one would have thought his intimate knowledge of the industry would ensure that his bank was on a sound footing. However the Federal-American, like many others, was hit hard as panicky customers across the country began making large withdrawals. Finally in March 1933, as soon as he assumed office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a "bank holiday," closing all banks temporarily so that their finances could be assessed. FDR's promise was that only those banks strong enough to stay in business would be allowed to reopen, and he urged Americans to put their money back in those banks. The strategy worked, and the crisis eased. However, the Federal-American—the hot new bank that was only 20 years old—was found to be insolvent and never allowed to reopen.
According to an analysis prepared for the National Register of Historic Places, the sumptuous banking palace at 14th and G played a significant role in the demise of the Federal-American. The bank had sunk so much into its building—almost 50 percent of its capital assets—that it didn't have the flexibility to respond to the strains of the massive bank run in early 1933. The bank's remaining assets, along with those of six other failed DC institutions, were combined to form a new Hamilton National Bank, which kept the old Federal-American building as its headquarters when it opened later that year.
|The banking room circa 1989 (Photo courtesy of the archives of the D.C. Preservation League).|
The Hamilton National Bank lasted until 1954, when it was absorbed by the National Bank of Washington. Recognizing the prestige of the beautiful Federal-American building, NBW moved its headquarters there from its previous landmark building at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The new headquarters gained the NBW name in great bronze letters, along with the motto, "Washington's Oldest Bank."
In the late 1980s, the D.C. Preservation League began a successful campaign to have the beautiful building named an historic landmark. At the hearing held before the Historic Preservation Review Board in June 1990, NBW vice president David George testified that his company had no objection to the historic designation of either the interior or the exterior, although he noted that the bank intended to get rid of the ground floor retail tenants and use that space for its own banking needs. Further, the bank might want at a future date to build additional floors on top of the structure, as the building was designed to accommodate such future expansion. —But none of this really mattered. Less than two months later, the federal government seized control of NBW, declaring it insolvent, and sold its assets to the Riggs National Bank. Riggs declined to use the old building for any of its own operations, beginning its long period of dormancy.
|The main entrance (Photo courtesy of the archives of the D.C. Preservation League).|
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Sources for this article included: Alfred C. Bossom, "The Requirements of a Modern Bank Building" in The Banker's Magazine (Nov. 1911); Fred A. Emery, "Banks and Bankers in the District of Columbia" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 46-47 (1947), John Clagett Proctor, ed., Washington Past and Present: A History (1930); the National Register of Historic Places registration form for the Federal-American National Bank (1994); William L. Silber, "Why Did FDR's Bank Holiday Succeed?" in FRBNY Economic Policy Review (Jul. 2009); Henry F. Withey and Elise Rathburn Withey, Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (1956); and numerous newspaper articles.