The story behind Philly’s iconic PSFS building, our OG skyscraper

The notable institution would be celebrating its 200th anniversary this year — if it hadn’t been forcibly (and, many believe, wrongfully) shut down by the feds.

The top of the PSFS Building

The top of the PSFS Building

Flickr / Aidan Wakely-Mulroney

Most people in Philadelphia know a bit about the PSFS building — it was the first modern skyscraper — but fewer are familiar with the cultural significance of the company that commissioned it.

The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society was founded in 1816 as the nation’s first operational savings bank, and by 1830, one in 10 Philadelphians had a PSFS account. Established to make financial services accessible to the working class, it followed through on the mission by employing translators so immigrants could easily join and opening early branches in neighborhoods — such as Southwark and Northern Liberties — that were primarily populated by factory workers.

As the bank grew, it continued operating with a progressive methodology, donating money to the city to help fight the Civil War and offering generous benefits to its entire staff. Before there was such a thing as credit cards or impulse spending, it introduced the idea of “saving for a rainy day” to kids with its innovative in-school programs. In the 20th century, it pioneered central air-conditioning (at first, employees were fearful it would make them sick), and introduced the concept of “telephone banking” to make it easier for small business owners to transfer money between multiple accounts.

An ad targeted to Italian immigrants

An ad targeted to Italian immigrants

Courtesy of Bruce Sauerwine

And of course, it hired architects William Lescaze and George Howe to build the ground-breaking structure at the corner of 12th and Market streets. The glinting, gleaming building made the Philadelphia skyline one of the most impressive in the world. When it was completed in 1932, its observation deck was one of the only places regular folks could get a glimpse of a city from above.

The notable institution would be celebrating its 200th anniversary this year — if it hadn’t been forcibly (and, many believe, wrongfully) shut down by the federal government.

On Dec. 11, 1992, agents of the FDIC stormed the offices of PSFS. Brandishing sidearms and issuing brusque commands like “shut up,” “sit down” and “don’t move,” they forced an organization that had been operating for nearly two centuries to cease all business within a single day.

Longtime PSFS officer Bruce Sauerwine, 68, wasn’t there when the agents burst in. The late ‘80s had been a particularly tumultuous time in the banking industry (think savings and loan crisis, junk bonds, etc.) and he’d left the company a few years prior. But it still holds a huge place in his heart — and when he realized a milestone anniversary was approaching, he decided the company’s legacy deserved to be commemorated in a book.

“I presented the idea at our annual reunion dinner,” he recalls, explaining that a group of several dozen former PSFS employees still gather each year to celebrate the firm’s camaraderie. “They said, ‘Ah, wonderful idea, Bruce. Why don’t you write it?’ So I did.”

His self-published result, PSFS: Two Centuries of History, is available on Amazon for $20, and it’s really a must-read for anyone interested in Philly history. Today, he’s having a book signing party at the Loews Hotel — which is located, of course, in the PSFS building.

Courtesy of Bruce Sauerwine

“Loews has been a really good steward,” he says, noting that the hotel showcases many PSFS artifacts and maintains the integrity of the structure.

Sauerwine isn’t a Philadelphia native — he grew up in the Lehigh Valley — nor does he live here now (after a couple years of retirement in Florida, he realized the saccharine society of the Sunshine State wasn’t for him and retreated back to New Jersey). But he’s a Philly believer through and through. He landed here after graduating from Penn State, and worked for PSFS throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, rising from a branch worker to commercial loan officer to manager of the bank’s pension division.

That love of the city comes through in the book. The 100-page story makes for easy-reading, partly because it’s peppered with lots of images of PSFS memorabilia and partly because Sauerwine’s not a writer by trade, so he favors simple sentences and avoids grandiloquent exposition. That’s not to say he doesn’t tackle some tricky subjects; his explanations of some of the intricacies of the banking world make arcane financial concepts understandable.

The book is likely a one-off — Sauerwine’s next hobby will be working out his own family’s genealogy — and he doesn’t expect to make money on it. But it would certainly make him happy to sell more than the 100 or so copies that’ve been ordered so far, just so more people can fully appreciate the legacy of one of Philadelphia’s greatest establishments.

“I know the AIA convention is in town right now,” he says, “and I know architects love this building, so I hope they come by.”


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