Provident Life & Trust Company Bank (top and left)
National Bank of Commerce (right)
Kansas City, MO
Asa Beebe Cross
One of the most inspired and important of Frank Furness’s commissions, the Provident Life & Trust Company Bank, inspired an unlikely copy in Kansas City, Misouri’s Bank of Commerce.
The Bank of Commerce would ironically be called by S. Ferdinand Howe, in ‘The commerce of Kansas City in 1886’, "a structure which is probably the most perfectly unique in design, decoration, and suitableness for banking purposes that is to be found in the country." This being written just before another passage which gives the hint of the lengths to which the bank officers and architect went to search out the building they would copy, "Indeed, before commencing on the plans, the officers of the bank, accompanied by their architect, visited every city of importance in the country and minutely inspected the various bank buildings with a view to attaining the most perfect design of a banking establishment."
It is telling of Frank Furness’s work that the details chosen as "the most perfectly unique in design, decoration, and suitableness for banking" were almost solely lifted from a few of his banks
Excerpts from “The Bank of Commerce by Asa Beebe Cross: “A Building of the Latest Architecture”" by George Ehrlich, University of Missouri-Kansas City:
"A commission in 1883 of a bank "of the latest style" led Asa Beebe Cross to travel extensively as a prelude to designing the Bank of Commerce in Kansas City, Missouri. Cross chose to adapt the style of Frank Furness, especially that of the Provident Bank in Philadelphia."
On 25 June 1883, Asa Beebe Cross, an architect of Kansas City, Missouri, left on a trip to Chicago and Boston to look at bank buildings. This was because the Bank of Commerce of Kansas City had commissioned Cross to design a building it wanted to be “of the latest architecture.” The cost was anticipated to be in the neighborhood of $40,000. When the bank that Cross designed was finished, not quite two years later, a Kansas City newspaper noted that “the interior of the building is pronounced the most striking and artistic on this continent, and European travelers say there is nothing in the foreign capitals to surpass it.” It went on to say that Cross “has been overwhelmed with praise and congratulations on this grand conception and success. He certainly erected a monument that would be a credit to any architect.”’
A local newspaper’s enthusiasm for the latest achievement of Kansas City’s pioneer architect is understandable, but its accolades were misdirected. An equivalent, if not indeed a superior, bank building could be seen in Philadelphia. The “monument” that Cross had designed is today readily seen as benefiting from the creativity of another architect, for the “striking and artistic” building in Kansas City was, in fact, a synthesis based on the bank designs that Frank Furness had recently completed in Philadelphia. Cross’s debt to Furness was never acknowledged, but then the usurpation of the designs of other architects was standard procedure, aided and abetted by the architectural publications subscribed to by serious architects.
Cross had done a clever and possibly even a masterful job of adaptation - or copying, if you will - and therefore in Kansas City the credit was all his. However, despite the local acclaim, this seems to have been Cross’s only design that emulated Furness, and indeed the only example of the style built in Kansas City. By the time Cross was selected for the commission, in 1883, he was recognized as a highly competent architect, in and out of Kansas City. He was known to be capable of delivering solidly designed and carefully superintended buildings of all sorts and for a variety of clients. He was not, however, a particularly innovative designer, as the Bank of Commerce illustrates. But that building attracts our attention since its design history provides insight into architectural practice in the United States in the early 1880s.
"A.B. Cross (his usual appellation) had arrived in Kansas City in 1858…and by the early 1880s, as the city began to expand rapidly, Cross was recognized as Kansas City’s leading architect."
The Bank of Commerce had been organized in 1882, and early on its agenda was the absorption of the Kansas City Savings Association, which dated to 1865. This merger seems to have generated the idea of a new building that would stand as a symbol of the new corporation. Clearly, an ordinary design would not do, and this was an unusual opportunity for the local architects. It also provided quite a challenge to practitioners who were rather conventional in their taste.
"The selection of the site was also practical. The lot on Delaware Street was in the heart of the city’s financial and commercial district. Furthermore, it was situated on the east side of the street, so that it faced the length of Sixth Street, which offset after it crossed Delaware Street. This provided an unencumbered view of the facade, a factor which no doubt helped persuade both the architect and the bank officers to opt for a dramatic design, one different from the more conventional work on the block.The new bank would be easily recognizable, even from a distance. The design did exactly that, and the building quickly became and remained for many years a city landmark."
"The decision to travel to study relevant buildings elsewhere before settling on a design must have been triggered by the potential of the site and by a desire to create an interior appropriate to the desired effect of the building. We know that Cross kept up with various architectural periodicals, but their illustrations had little to say about the way buildings functioned in their streetscapes, and they were even less useful in the matter of interior decor and furnishings suited to an elegant banking establishment. Both aspects were relevant to the image desired for the projected Kansas City bank, so Cross and a bank officer headed east to learn what they could.
"We are fortunate that a notebook which Cross carried during this period survives. A number of notations and drawings in this notebook relate directly to this trip. The itinerary he followed seems to have taken him from Kansas City to Chicago, then to Detroit, New York City (and Coney Island), and Boston. He returned to New York City and then went to Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia he took some sort of side trip, which we can reasonably assume was to see members of his family who still lived in his native south New Jersey. He returned to Kansas City via Saint Louis. All told, he was gone about a month, and he evidently used the time to look at all sorts of buildings, from banks to commercial structures, and even the grandstand at Coney Island. The notebook’s brief entries suggest that Cross had a rather open attitude toward the experience, and he clearly had the intention of looking at anything and everything that might help him as an architect. The choice of Furness’s structure as the model for the Kansas City bank might have been made by the bank’s vice-president, Luke F. Wilson, who was traveling with Cross, though no doubt the work of the Philadelphia architect impressed Cross as well.
"We have evidence in the notebook that Cross was particularly taken with the exterior of the Provident Bank (I876-I877), which was situated in a row much as the Kansas City bank would be. Cross made a drawing which has to be a sketch of a portion of the Provident’s facade.
We can assume that Cross also studied “Bankers Row” on Chestnut Street
and other relevant areas and buildings in Philadelphia with considerable care, though here the evidence is not so direct as in the case of the Provident. Something about the Provident made it the one most appropriate as a model for the Bank of Commerce, though features from the other Furness banks seem to have had some influence on Cross’s adaptation.”
"The interior too may have influenced Cross, though here we have no sure information…The interior of the Kensington Bank (1877), or more probably that of the Penn National Bank (completed 1884), both by Furness, might have served as a model for Cross. The American Architect described the interior of the Kensington as "domeshaped, entirely of iron, supporting a large skylight. The iron panels…will be picked out in gold and colors." [A] photograph…of the interior of the Penn National Bank
gives a view which clearly relates to the interior of the Kansas City bank. The similarities are such that one wonders if Cross had not seen drawings for the Penn National, which was still under construction when the architect visited Philadelphia in 1883.”
"Descriptions of the Kansas City interior exist, along with a minuscule "illustration." The latter is a cutaway view imprinted on some of the checks issued by the bank.
Despite the small size of the original (2 inches wide), sufficient detail is included to confirm its accuracy. A composite of the published descriptions of the interior provides us with the following information.’ On either side of the entrance foyer there were two small, richly furnished offices. The banking room itself was lofty and vaulted, with a large skylight. One report gives its height as “full sixty feet from floor to dome.” The floor was made of small tiles. The tellers’ section, a continuous desk, ranged in a semicircle along the right side. Woodwork was in polished mahogany and cherry, with some portions “exquisitely carved.” Brass gratings created the compartments for the tellers. The passageway that provided public access to these stations also led to a “good sized room at the rear.” Also at the rear was a staircase that led to what was called a “gallery” on the second floor, andto a balcony that went around the room. The second floor gallery contained a reception room. There was also a third floor “gallery” for bookkeepers. Accessories in the bank included a 16-sided table for writing and brass railings for foot and hand rests along the tellers’ desks; there were “combination speaking tubes of ingenious manufacture” for internal communication throughout all parts of the bank. Lavatories and coatrooms were provided at the rear of the bank, and there was a small elevator for parcels. The windows over the entrance were glazed with “cathedral glass” and the tinted light from these west-facing windows added to the impressive effect of the interior. An important feature of this interior was the fresco painting on the half-vaults above the balcony, done (no doubt using a glue-based paint) by the local firm of Fideli & Co. The iconography, which was carefully worked out for the bank, is worth reporting in full. We assume that it was the contribution of Fideli, an artist who had come to the United States from Italy, locating in Kansas City in 1881 and thus in time to work with Cross on the latter’s Gillis Opera House. On each wall of the bank there was:
"a large blazon, an imitation of raised work, with a figure at each side holding cornacopius[sic], the lower part of which changes into a graceful ornament, binding within a circular frame, in the middle of which an allegorical picture of commerce is represented by a figure of Mercury flying over the seas, bringing money and prosperity to the country. A ship and railroad are also seen in the distance. The side panels are also emblematic of commerce and industry. Commerce is represented with a ribbon in circular form, with a crown on top, and the Latin motto:
"Audex[sic] et Cautus," within the circle the monogram initials of the Bank of Commerce are written in large golden letters. Industry is represented by a beehive, which is emblematic likewise of the savings and accumulations characteristic of the institution and its patrons."
"The facade of the bank was completely in stone. Cross used three colors of sandstone (gray, brown, and red) and the stocky columns were of polished red granite. The descriptions of the bank, already mentioned, suggest that local critics weren’t quite sure what to make of the atypical (for Kansas City) appearance of the building. It was quickly labeled as "massive," and the design was variously called "handsome," "somewhat quaint," "Moorish," and "of English style." This last was repeated in different reports, suggesting that the appellation might have come from something that the architect, Cross, had said. One report went so far as to suggest that the style was "taken from models of work performed by English architects in this country." Needless to say, there was no mention of Frank Furness. One report did single out the bank as one that "for beauty and cost can not be equalled west of Philadelphia by any house devoted to the same business." Did that anonymous reporter know something? Perhaps.
"Asa Beebe Cross died in 1894, and his obituaries cited the Bank of Commerce as one of his major accomplishments. But by then other areas in the city farther south were more attractive to the financial and business community, and the status of the Bank of Commerce’s building was in jeopardy. In another decade, the Frank Furness-inspired building was on the skids to oblivion. Demolition of the once much admired bank building seems to have occurred in 1939, without public notice or any later expression of concern for the loss. And were it not for the preservation of some of the architect’s papers, A.B. Cross would also be but a vague memory in the city he helped to build."
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