Secret Philly

Secret Philly: Inside the historic Callowhill bank that was home to Stephen Starr’s hottest club

Today, the Northern Savings Fund building is finding new life as offices, exhibition space and (maybe) a speakeasy.

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Courtesy Arts + Crafts Holdings / Library of Congress
monicazorrilla

Updated Sept. 12 

The front facade of 600 Spring Garden St. looks grey and out of place amid the modern mixed-use development rising all around it.

You can tell the stone structure has been there a while, but isn’t a particularly intriguing edifice. It emits austerity and abandonment. Its only semblance of vibrancy is light graffiti — some smudged out scrawls on the front door and a fading stylized “S.” The only form of life surrounding it are the passersby on their way to the PNC Bank next door.

On the inside, however, the building still sings with vibrancy.

Enter the former Northern Savings Fund, and the architectural boldness of Frank Furness and partner George Wattson Hewitt becomes strikingly present. There are secret passageways, narrow iron staircases, brass-sheen columns, immense windows and three giant vaults that could easily serve as sets for Gringotts Wizarding Bank in the next Harry Potter film.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

These ghosts of progressive 19th century design share space with memories of some of the most outrageous club nights in Philadelphia, which took over the rooms from the ’80s through the ’00s. If you peer closely enough into the vaults, you can almost feel the stickiness of sweaty vodka and hear the hypnotic bass emanating from Josh Wink‘s legendary deejay sets.

Who was the visionary who saw the potential of this historical landmark as a choice location for wild nightlife? None other than mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr.

Now, after nearly a decade of collecting dust and being left behind, the Northern Savings Fund has found its next purpose: home to the headquarters of Arts & Crafts Holdings — and possibly a speakeasy too.

From money-lending to mosh pits

Not much has been written about the Northern Savings Fund and Safety Deposit Company, nor do records show how long the bank existed in the space on 600 Spring Garden St..

However, a nomination for the building to be considered for the National Register of Historic Places — submitted by architectural historian Dr. George E. Thomas in 1977 — shows that its exterior was once a lustrous Néo-Grec expanse that fit in with the vibe of 19th-century Callowhill (a “fashionable neighborhood in North Philadelphia,” per Thomas).

With the wear and tear of the years, Northern Saving Fund’s exterior no longer lives up to those claims, but it at least we know it has the potential to be restored to its former beauty.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

Thomas was less impressed with two new additions to the building’s interior — one constructed in 1888 by Frank Watson and the other in 1903 by George T. Pearson — but still considered it to be of architectural and historical significance.

In Thomas’s plea to save the building from being demolished, he recounts how it serves as a “reminder of the vitality of American commercial forces” and notes that the building “represents an era when the more flamboyant generation of post Civil War leaders took over the institutions and the shaping of our city.”

A year after his nomination, Thomas and other design geeks got their wish: the Northern Savings Fund was placed on the historic register, thereby making historic preservation tax credits available for the next owner of the building.

Who was the next owner? The answer is somewhat unclear, but what we do know is that the next high-profile owner was Starr.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

This was 1988, seven years before Starr launched his restaurant empire with The Continental. At the time, he was running a business called The Concert Company. He sized up the hulking structure and apparently thought to himself, yup, this is the ideal venue for ground-shaking sound systems and hundreds of pink-haired punks to get freaky.

More than three decades of clubbing at Northern Savings Fund followed.

‘Partiers of all persuasions’

Aptly named “The Bank,” the club Starr opened made great use of the space’s interior. Vaults became ideal spots for dark passionate kisses or the frenetic wave of glow sticks. Counters where checks were once written became bar tops, stocked with liquor and outfitted with draft beer dispensers.

Between September 1988 and February 1998, one blogger nostalgically reminisced, The Bank was the “preferred venue for partiers of all persuasions,” an unpretentious venue constantly packed in spite of it looking like a “dank, crappy fraternity house.”

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

Open Wednesday through Saturday, each of the three levels of the structure — though there are technically two stories, the lower level/basement area was remodeled to fit the needs of a club — played different genres of music and were engineered for different vibes.

As the blogger explained in his aforementioned post:

  • The main level housed the dance floor engineered to bounce along with nightly revelers, plus two large bars, all observable from a balcony where the DJ booth was located.
  • The basement had a more laid-back attitude: a velvet Elvis print overlooked a long bar, pool tables, booths, and a jukebox. The perpetually filthy bathrooms were down there as well, around the corner from the structure’s original vault chamber.
  • Initially closed off, the upper floor struggled to find an identity after it opened, but in later years became a retro lounge/disco, complete with authentic decorations from the 1970s. There was also a “hidden” bathroom up there.

The Bank was also purportedly voted “the most likely place to get laid on a Thursday night,” which could have been due to the fact that the $10 cover charge on Thursday nights included an all-night open-bar shelf swill. (Yeah, those were different times.)

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

The resident deejay at The Bank was Bobby Startup, a veteran who spun and scratched remixes for over 40 years in Philly. What beats did Startup dropped at the club? Here’s a playlist created in 2014 as an ode to Startup and a reminder of his work.

More memories of the club come from DJ Lee Mayjahs, organizer of The Philadelphia Experiment, forever Burner and current resident deejay at Fishtown’s Liaison Room at Front Street Cafe. Mayjahs worked at The Bank from 1992 to 1995 as a bouncer, and established ties with local deejay celebrities — Josh Wink, King Britt, Boy Blake — that would later influence his own work.

He also almost died there.

Not because of the state of the neighborhood, though it was experiencing a downturn. “The Bank was in Callowhill when it was really industrial and felt remote and bare,” Mayjahs said. “We were close to the high-rise Richard Allen projects [and] this was in the ’80s and ’90s during the boom of crack so the neighborhood was rough.” As a security measure, he remembered, staff at the club “became friends with the addicts that would walk along Spring Garden Street. I think it helped to earn their trust to keep patrons safe.”

No, his near-death experience was because of visiting college kids. One Saturday night in 1995 — and the last night Mayjahs ever worked at The Bank — a school bus full of drunk young men showed up.

“Maybe 30 young guys, headed to a strip club,” Mayjahs recalled. “They were like, mooning people out of the window and giving people the finger.” A few got out to use the ATM behind the club, which turned into them trying to enter through the back door without paying a cover. That’s when the chaos started.

As Mayjahs was running to provide backup, he was accidentally caught in a spray of mace. As he was blinded and fighting back nausea and tears, fists came pummeling at his face and feet kicked his ribs. “It turned into a total fucking riot. All of a sudden, we had local guys from the neighborhood, we had regulars, we had our staff coming out and fighting these assholes.”

And then, shots were fired. Luckily, Mayjahs said, one of the bouncers was dating a cop, and she rushed to the scene with nearly 20 police cars in tow. If they hadn’t personally known an officer, Mayjahs believes people would have definitely died that night. Those types of instances weren’t unusual for The Bank, he said.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

Perhaps because of the prevalence of occasions like that, The Bank eventually closed and was remodeled and replaced with The District, another Starr venture that was meant to be more upscale than its predecessor. Per reader William Farlow, who worked at the nightclub as a construction laborer and as a bartender, The District never quite found its footing.

After Starr, ownership traded among various people who opened clubs named Transit, 90 Degrees and Statuz Nightclub, but none had the same staying power as The Bank.

Reimagining a historic building

Today, the former Northern Savings Fund has landed in the hands of Arts + Crafts Holdings, a local real estate investment firm that has been buying up properties in Callowhill and redeveloping what has ballooned to 1.2 million square feet of holdings in the neighborhood.

Arts + Crafts describes itself as “focused on establishing Philadelphia’s authentic creative class commercial district at the northern edge of Center City” by “reimagining historic buildings and the urban spaces between them.”

The plan for 600 Spring Garden St., according to comms director Kelly Edwards, is for it to serve as Arts + Crafts’ new headquarters. In addition to offices, it will be a venue for events and collaborations with other creatives. The first exhibit, which runs Sept. 21 to Nov. 1, is about the history and practice of redlining in Philadelphia. Titled “A Dream Deferred — Redlining: Past, Present, Future,” the interactive show is a joint project with Little Giant Creative.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

Though Arts + Crafts Holdings will be officially moving in this month, Edwards said, they’re still unsure about one component: what to do with the lower level.

There’s a glimmer of an idea floating around, though — turn it into a speakeasy. It’s an unassuming and inconspicuous location, with a full bar and bathrooms, plenty of lounge space and lots of 19th-century vaults in which to dance or sip. All Arts + Crafts needs, per Edwards, is a willing operator.

No, Stephen Starr reportedly is not interested.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla/Billy Penn

 

 

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