Banking On It: Tracing The Grand Architecture Of The Federal Reserve

We look at the 12 buildings that currently house the regional headquarters of the Federal Reserve and see how developing trends in American architectural history influenced the public faith in our banking systems.

James Bartolacci James Bartolacci

In the next few weeks, President Obama is expected to choose the next chairman (or woman!) of the Federal Reserve system. And as numerous news sources predict, Obama is likely to select current Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen, which would make her the first female to hold such a position.

The news prompted us to think about the structure of the Federal Reserve—and, specifically, its architecture. In the Federal Reserve system, 12 regional banks located throughout the US safeguard the nation’s assets and implement monetary policy. With nearly $3 trillion in assets distributed throughout the system, the exteriors of Federal Reserve banks are designed to look like secure fortresses, conveying sentiments of impenetrability while still maintaining a governmental stateliness that is crucial to public perception of the institution. Inside, Fed banks contain elaborate systems of vaults, which are often tucked deep underground to protect the vast amounts of cold hard cash held within.

The Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building by Paul Phillip Cret, 1937

When French-American architect Paul Phillip Cret designed Washington DC’s Eccles Building, the Federal Reserve national headquarters completed in 1937, he followed the District’s tradition of using Greek and Roman traditions to evoke grandeur and dignity. The Georgian marble building is adorned with stripped-back columns and pediments, evoking the stateliness of nearby capital buildings, yet feeling comparatively protected and austere.

The old Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, now Marquette Plaza, by Gunnar Birkerts, 1973

As new headquarters for the Federal Reserve’s 12 regional banks were commissioned, architects drafted designs evoking similar feelings of security and grandeur, which came in a variety of styles and materials. Over time, many regional banks left older classical revivalist structures for newer buildings that conveyed more modern sentiments of how a bank should appear. The result? The ways in which architects drafted a distinctly “bank-y” façade illustrate the larger evolving trends in American architecture during the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Below, we look at the 12 buildings that currently house the regional headquarters of the Federal Reserve and how architecture worked to influence public faith in our banking systems.

Classical Revivalism

In early 20th century America, the formula for designing a stately, yet guarded, bank was simple: build a massive structure of thick, heavy stone and adorn the façade with columns, porticos, pediments, or any number of other classical-inspired embellishments. With their grand banking halls decorated in lavish materials, Federal Reserve Banks in the 1920s looked more like Italian Renaissance Palazzos than a place to handle the nation’s wealth—which, at a time when banks were a cornerstone for civic life, made people put immense faith and trust in the institution (that is before the Depression hit, of course).

The Federal Reserve Bank Of Chicago by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, 1922

The Chicago Fed is the headquarters of the Seventh District, which covers the northern portions of Illinois and Indiana, southern Wisconsin, the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, and the state of Iowa.

The Federal Reserve Bank Of Cleveland by Walker and Weeks, 1923

Allegorical sculptures by Henry Hering are perched above the Cleveland Fed’s entrance, and represent Security and Integrity on the East Sixth Street entrance, while Energy watches the Superior Avenue entry. The 91-ton bank vault door is the largest in the world.

The Cleveland Federal reserve is responsible for the Fourth district, composed of Ohio, western Pennsylvania, eastern Kentucky, and the northern panhandle of West Virginia.

The Federal Reserve Bank Of New York City by York and Sawyer, 1924

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York City features a vault that lies 80 feet below sea level in Manhattan bedrock, and reportedly contains the largest repository of gold in the world.

The NYC Fed handles the Second District of the Federal Reserve System, which includes New York state, the 12 northern counties of New Jersey, Fairfield County in Connecticut, Puerto Rico, and the U. S. Virgin Islands.

The Federal Reserve Bank Of St. Louis by Mauran, Russell & Crowell, 1924

The St. Louis Fed is responsible for the Eighth Federal Reserve District, which is composed of Arkansas and parts of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, the eastern half of Missouri and West Tennessee.

Modernism and Brutalism

In a post-World War II culture, excessive embellishment was traded in for rationality, minimalism, and—in the case of Federal Reserve Banks—severity. By building commanding structures of raw concrete and thin stripped windows, these Brutalist-inspired regional banks look absolutely impenetrable, and appear rather isolating in context. However, it is this resolute austerity that lends feelings of dignity to these modernist structures.

The Federal Reserve Bank Of Richmond, Virginia by Minoru Yamasaki, 1975

The thin vertical strips of concrete on the Richmond Fed’s façade echo those of the former World Trade Center Towers, which were also design by Minoru Yamaski. While a tall tower is visible above ground, more than 49% of the building’s total floor area remains hidden underground.

Home to the Fifth District of the Federal Reserve, the Richmond Fed covers the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and most of West Virginia (except for the Northern Panhandle).

The Federal Reserve Bank Of Philadelphia, 1976 (architect unknown)

Responsible for the Third District of the Federal Reserve, the Philly Fed includes eastern and central Pennsylvania, the nine southern counties of New Jersey, and Delaware.

The Federal Reserve Bank, Boston by The Stubbin Associates, 1977

Often nicknamed the “Venetian Blind Building,” the Boston Fed building was noted for its contrast to the almost fortess-like appearance of earlier Federal Reserve buildings. Channelling sentiments of honesty and openness, the “office in the air” is defined by a gap at the bottom that allows the sea breeze to pass through.

The Boston Federal Reserve serves the First District, which covers most of Connecticut (except Southwestern Connecticut), Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Postmodern

Fed up with modernism’s alienating rigidity, architects in the 1980s turned back to history, decorating their structures with symbols and historical references. For the Federal Reserve, this meant combining contemporary glass and steel with traditional materials, placing emblems over the entrances of structures, punctuating façades with tiny square-shaped windows, and at times, taking revered pieces of older structures and placing them in new bank headquarters. For many people, this return to tradition incites a nostalgia that establishes an emotional connection to the building.

The Federal Reserve Bank Of San Francisco by SOM, 1983

San Fran’s Federal Reserve serves the Twelfth District in the United States, which covers the greatest land area including Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.

The Federal Reserve Bank Of Dallas by Kohn Pedersen Fox, 1992

The Dallas Fed is the headquarters of the Eleventh Federal Reserve District, which includes Texas, northern Louisiana and southern New Mexico.

The Federal Reserve Bank Of Minneapolis by HOK, 1997

The new headquarters of the Minneapolis Fed features a stripped-back clock tower, stirring up an architectural nostalgia that recalls old town squares and markets.

The Home of the Federal Reserve’s Ninth District, which covers Minnesota, Montana, North and South Dakota, northwestern Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The Federal Reserve Bank Of Atlanta by Robert A.M. Stern, 2001

The Atlanta Fed’s entrance is framed by a distinctly classical pediment, colonnade, and inscription. In front of the new building, five columns, including one crowned with a bald eagle sculpture, were relocated from the former Federal Rerve Building of Atlanta to the current site.

The Atlanta Fed is responsible for the Sixth District of the Federal Reserve, which includes the states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, 74 counties in the eastern two-thirds of Tennessee, 38 parishes of southern Louisiana, and 43 counties of southern Mississippi.

The Federal Reserve Bank Of Kansas City by Henry N. Cobb, 2008

10th District of the Federal Reserve is served by Kansas City, MO, which covers Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and portions of western Missouri and northern New Mexico.

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