Historic Banks and Financial Institutions of DC

Financial institutions played an important role in the history of Washington, DC. Banks, building and loan associations, trust companies, and securities all worked in tandem to establish a sound economy in DC. While DC is known as the home of the federal government, its historical financial institutions are also important to the city’s history.

Prior to introducing the history of the financial institutions that called DC home, there are several different definitions that will be fleshed out here for later reference. Banks, which were the earliest form of financial institution and were established in the United States just after the Revolutionary War, came in many different configurations. The earliest banks were owned by investors and only had three responsibilities, ranging from issuing bills, to taking in deposits, and loaning money for interest. By the beginning of the 1800s, other institutions would be established, such as savings banks, which only took deposits and offered interest, and building and loan associations, which helped facilitate home ownership. Over the course of the development of DC, these simple institutions would become more complex in their operations. By the mid-19th century, trust companies, which dealt with long-term investments, were established.

From the beginning, these financial institutions – ranging from the historically-designated National Bank of Washington on 7th Street NW, to the Riggs National Bank across from the White House, and the Northeast Savings Bank on H Street NE – have shaped DC through their impact on local communities as well as their architectural significance, as these buildings were often designed and constructed with the highest standards of the time. These buildings symbolized stability and security to the general public.

In the 1840s, Riggs & Co., established in DC in 1840 by William W. Corcoran and George Washington Riggs, accomplished one of the first transnational transactions, selling stock internationally. One such instance was the negotiation of a government loan to finance the war with Mexico in 1846-48. Riggs & Co. went on to have other domestic ventures, such as financing the first telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, as well as the Washington and Georgetown Railroad. Corcoran, a prominent figure in DC’s economic history, originally worked for the Washington Branch of the Second United States Bank. A high-profile banker, philanthropist, and patron of the arts, Corcoran’s friendships with those in the government, such as President James Buchanan extended the relationship between the financial world and the federal government. Early on, 15th Street NW near the Treasury Building became a center of finance.

Washington, DC’s historic Financial District, located around 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, encapsulates the evolution of financial institutions through the 19th and 20th centuries. Located near the U.S. Treasury Building, and including such notable buildings as the National Savings and Trust Company (1888), Riggs National Bank (1902), and American Security and Trust Company (1904), the historic district holds examples of Beaux Arts and 20th century Neo-Classical Revival style buildings, which were built to impress as well as embody the strength and power of the financial institutions within them.

The onset of the Civil War (1861-65) brought about the National Bank Act (1863), which was passed, not only to help in financing the war, but also to promote a more stable use of currency. The second-half of the 19th century saw the creation of building and loan associations and trust companies, as well as the advancement of bank security through timed vault entries, and vault doors being made out of case-hardened steel. Three financial institutions still standing from this era are the National Bank of Washington (1889), the Washington Loan & Trust Company (1891), and the National Metropolitan Bank (1907). Economic booms and busts, particularly during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century and early 20th century, led to important changes in the financial industry, such as heightened regulation of banking following the Federal Reserve Act in 1914. Like other federal entities, the Federal Reserve Board Building is located in Washington.

The First World War (1914-19) saw the power of banks continue to grow as the American economy became globally important, The style of financial institution architecture would change in the 1920s and 1930s, shifting from the ornate Beaux-Arts and Romanesque Revival styles towards the streamlining of Art Deco and simplicity of Modernism. The 1920s also saw the growth of branch banking to reach communities and neighborhoods outside of downtown Washington, with Chevy Chase Savings Bank (1921) as an example of this.

Despite the expansion of banking throughout the District in the early 20th century, there were no laws protecting bank customers from discrimination. Financial institutions practiced and promoted discriminatory policies and tactics that blocked African Americans’ access to banking and financial services, such as mortgages. These practices also extended to the use of redlining – promoted by the federal government – and racially restrictive covenants in housing. There had only been one bank in Washington that served the African American community, the Capital Savings Bank, founded by and for the African-American population of DC in 1888, but it closed and left many in need of financial assistance until Industrial Savings Bank was established in 1913.

The Great Depression would see the closing of many banks, relegating large assets to a small number of banks. The Glass-Steagall Act, or the Banking Act of 1933, was designed to reform the banking system, and provide safer and more effective use of bank assets, and was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in June 1933. Following the Depression, more care would be taken when it came to bank employees, and this era would see a complete pause in new bank construction.

This tour illustrates the financial growth and development of Washington, DC, through the landmarked banks and financial institutions of the city, some of which have been repurposed for new uses.

American Security and Trust Company

The American Security Bank was founded in 1889 in Alexandria, Virginia, as a banking and trust firm, with an additional branch in DC. It was the second trust company established in DC and the first to offer a woman’s department. By 1903, business had…

Central National Bank (Apex Building)

The Central National Bank, also known as the Dorothy I. Height Building or Apex Building, is now the national headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women. The twin-turreted, former bank was one of a cluster of financial buildings that…

Chevy Chase Savings Bank

As more people moved to DC in the early 20th century, newly-established neighborhoods, like Chevy Chase, drew local businesses, including banks to deposit and withdraw money, to support the neighborhoods’ local residents. Many banks were located…

Equitable Co-Operative Building Association (and Interior)

The Equitable Co-Operative Building Association is a monumental, one-story bank building in the Classical Revival style located on F Street NW in the Downtown Historic District. Designed by both Arthur B. Heaton and Frederic B. Pyle and built in…

Federal-American National Bank (and Interiors)

Following the merger of two banks, this building operated as headquarters for the new Federal-American National Bank. The bank was designed by architect Alfred C. Bossom (1881-1965), in association with Washington’s leading Beaux-Arts practitioner,…

Federal Reserve Board Building

In 1935, the Federal Reserve Board held a national competition to select an architect who would design their new Washington, DC headquarters. The ultimate winner was the prominent Paul Philippe Cret, who was known for his design of the Pan American…

Financial Historic District

The Financial Historic District is a linear district of monumental Beaux-Arts Classicist commercial buildings along Fifteenth Street NW, from Pennsylvania Avenue to K Street and McPherson Square. Located on an axis with the U.S. Treasury Building,…

Civil Rights Tour: Housing - Industrial Bank of Washington

In 1913 laborer and entrepreneur John Whitelaw Lewis founded the Industrial Savings Bank at 11th and U streets NW, opening up financial opportunities for African Americans.  When it opened, Industrial Bank (designed by Black architect Isaah T.…

Lafayette Building (Export-Import Bank)

Designed in 1939 in the “Stripped” Classical style, this limestone-clad office building is twelve stories tall, and centrally located near the White House, between McPherson and Lafayette squares. The exterior of the structure is plain and lacks…

National Bank of Washington

The National Bank of Washington was organized under the name “Bank of Washington” in 1809. It was the first Washington bank of purely local origin and interest, being preceded only by a branch bank of the First Bank of the United States. Throughout…

National Metropolitan Bank

The distinctive Beaux Arts facade of the National Metropolitan Bank Building forms a strong architectural unit with the adjacent Riggs Building, balancing Robert Mills’ east side of the Treasury Department and complementing it in scale, style, and…

National Savings and Trust Company

The National Savings and Trust Company is a historic bank building, known also as the National Safe Deposit Company and the National Safe Deposit Savings and Trust Company. The National Safe Deposit Company was chartered in 1867 through an act of…

Northeast Savings Bank

The Northeast Savings Bank (NESB) building, located at 800 H Street NE, is indicative of both its financial use and banking history, but also retains architectural significance. It is a leading example of the Beaux-Arts style, as well as a…

Peyser Building (Security Savings and Commercial Bank)

The Peyser Building/Security Savings and Commercial Bank building is a five-story office/bank building constructed between 1928 and 1929. Designed by notable local architect George N. Ray, the Peyser Building reflects a reduced Classical Revival…

Real Estate Trust Company (Continental Trust Building)

The Real Estate Trust building stands out among DC’s early-twentieth century office buildings. The building is a steel and concrete frame structure, sheathed in ivory-colored terra cotta with poly chrome accents. Its ground floor is clad in white…

Riggs National Bank

Prominently situated opposite the U.S. Treasury, the Riggs National Bank's Classical Revival style had a great influence on the design of other city banks.Established in 1840 as Corcoran & Riggs by William W. Corcoran (a former official of the…

Riggs-Tompkins Building

Erected in 1922, this block-long, temple-inspired structure was designed as one of the first branches of the Riggs National Bank, which foreshadowed the nationwide expansion of the banking industry following deregulatory measures passed in 1927. The…

Second National Bank

The Second National Bank stands among a group of banks in the vicinity of the Treasury Department that contribute to DC's financial district. It is one of the last of the classically inspired structures, built during a sustained boom in Washington…

Union Trust Company

Organized in 1899, the Union Trust and Storage Company is one of DC’s earliest trust organizations. Operating both as a storage concern and a trust company, the organization served as a depository for both material and fiduciary resources held by…

Treasury Annex

Like many buildings constructed during and after World War I, the Treasury Annex added more space for the federal department to conduct its business. Built in 1918 on Lafayette Square and designed by well-known architect Cass Gilbert – who later…

Treasury Department

Built between 1836 and 1869, the Treasury Department building is the work of five major American architects—Robert Mills, Thomas U. Walter, Ammi B. Young, Isaiah Rogers, and Alfred B. Mullett. Conceived and built in the Greek Revival style that…

Washington Loan and Trust Company

The Washington Loan and Trust Company Building is prominently situated across from the Old Patent Office. It was home to the city's first trust company, originally organized in 1889 by Brainerd H. Warner, and acquired by Riggs Bank in 1954. The…
Sources:

National Register Documentation Forms: Banks and Financial Institutions, Financial Historic District and Chevy Chase Savings Bank

“Chevy Chase Savings Bank,” DC Historic Sites, accessed November 29, 2023, https://historicsites.dcpreservation.org/items/show/1198.

Federal Reserve History. "National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864." July 31, 2022. https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/national-banking-acts

Federal Reserve History. “Banking Act of 1933 (Glass-Steagall).” November 22, 2013. https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/glass-steagall-act

Mackay, Keith D. “The Corcoran Mansion.” The White House Historical Association, 2010. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-corcoran-mansion.