William Strickland, the architect of the Mechanics’ Bank Building, was one of the leading architects in Philadelphia from 1816 until 1837 and designed so many of its major landmarks that he came to be known as simply the “City Architect.” A toast at the banquet celebrating the completion of one of his buildings praised “the architect of the Merchants’ Exchange [who] will realize the boast of the ancient emperor. He found us living in a city of brick and he will leave us in a city of marble.”
Strickland was born in New Jersey in 1788. Two years later, his father, moved to Philadelphia to become the master carpenter for the Bank of Pennsylvania. Then when William was 15, his father arranged an apprenticeship for him with its designer, Benjamin Latrobe, who is generally considered America’s first professional architect. The older architect respected Strickland’s talent and liked him personally but thought him somewhat irresponsible (he accused his mother of having spoiled him) and after two years, Strickland either quit or was fired. He spent the next two years working variously as a surveyor, engraver, and theater scenery painter. In 1808, he won a competition to design a new Masonic Hall for Philadelphia, his first independent project. Over the next ten years, he continued to make his living primarily from engravings and surveying, completing only a few, mostly minor, buildings. In 1812, he married Rachel McCollough Trenchard, whose cousin, William Wood Thackra, would later become a director of the Mechanics’ Bank and, when war broke out, put his engineering skills to work building many fortifications around the city building up both the city’s defenses and his name.
The Second Bank of the United States marked a turning point in Strickland’s career. Its president, Nicholas Biddle, interested in ancient history, had traveled to Greece and wanted a Greek style building. Strickland had never built in this style before but in 1818 his proposal was chosen over those of more experienced architects including his former mentor Latrobe. In part this was due to the design itself, which combined an exterior based on the Parthenon with an elaborate interior centered around a vaulted banking hall, but the good impression he had made on many leading citizens during the war of 1812 was also a convincing factor to boost the inexperienced architect’s prospects of securing the project. During the six years Strickland worked on the bank, he made connections that would last for decades - including the marble mason John Struthers (who built the Mechanics’ Bank) and the bricklayer Daniel Groves (who was one of its directors).
During the next nineteen years, Strickland built most of his important Philadelphia buildings, nearly all in the Greek Revival style. Only a few – the Mechanics’ Bank, the Second Bank of the United States, the Philadelphia Naval Home, the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany, and the Merchants Exchange – still exist, but he also designed the first purpose-built buildings for the US Mint and Unversity of Pennsylvania; the Blockley Almshouse, Christ Church Hospital, and additions to the Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf and Dumb; two theaters and the Musical Fund Hall, several churches, and the Philadelphia Bank. The Gothic St. Stephen’s Church and colonial-style steeples for Independence Hall and St. Peter’s Church are still standing, but an unusual Egyptian-style synagogue has long since disappeared.
While best known as an architect, Strickland never gave up his earlier career as an engineer and was always listed in city directories under both professions. While still an apprentice, he worked with Latrobe on surveying a route for the Chesapeake and Delaware canal and returned to the project several times in the future. He was one of the founders of the Franklin Institute, where he became friendly with members of the Pennsylvania Society for Internal Improvements and on whose behalf he travelled to England to study new developments in civil engineering and industry. On his return, he was appointed the supervising engineer for the Eastern Division of the Pennsylvania Main Line of Public Works (a mixed-system transportation route that combined canals and railroads) and built the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, the first long-distance steam railroad in the United States. A breakwater he built at the entrance to the Delaware Bay still remains in use.
Strickland’s preeminence in Philadelphia ended, as it began, with bank buildings. Just as he was finishing the Philadelphia and Mechanics’ Banks, the American economy collapsed in what is now known as the Panic of 1837. These would be his last private buildings for years and (except for two houses on the grounds of the Naval Home) his last in Philadelphia. In 1844, after a series of unsuccessful publishing and business ventures, he accepted an offer from the Tennessee Legislature to build a new state capitol, and spent the remaining decade of his life in Nashville. William Strickland died in 1854 and was interred in a tomb underneath the Capitol building.