There is a large bas-relief of Alexander Hamilton on the side of the building at 1337 Connecticut Ave. NW. Any idea why?
— Josh Gibson, Washington
Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda and his much-lauded Broadway musical, we live in the age of Alexander Hamilton, the founding father supposedly forgotten by America. But Hamilton never really went away. He’s is in our wallets — on the $10 bill — and he’s larger than life on the side of a building south of Dupont Circle.
For a clue as to why, let us follow Lindsay Jenkins into the basement of the building, as Answer Man did on a recent afternoon. Lindsay is the co-owner of Humble Beast CrossFit, an exercise studio that opened two years ago at 1337 Connecticut Ave. NW. The building is also home to the Gryphon Restaurant and a nightclub called Kabin.
In the basement, past Humble Beast’s mats, weights and sweating clients, is a large safe, a vault actually, designed and built by the Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe Co. of — wait for it — Hamilton, Ohio. Today, the safe stores booze from the Gryphon. When the building opened, it stored another kind of liquid asset: cash and checks. When the building was dedicated in 1954, it was the largest branch of Hamilton National Bank.
Hamilton National Bank came into existence in 1933, created from the ashes of eight failed District neighborhood banks, including Potomac Savings Bank, Woodridge-Langdon Savings & Commercial Bank and Seventh Street Savings Bank.
If you’ve seen “It’s a Wonderful Life,” you know there were runs on banks during the Great Depression, with customers clamoring for their money. It became so bad that shortly after taking office in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt shut down all commercial banks for a week — the “national banking holiday.”
The idea, said Gary Richardson, an economics professor at the University of California at Irvine and former historian of the Federal Reserve, was to give the government time to figure out how to address the problem, deciding which banks were strong enough to reopen and which had to be liquidated.
“The banks in Washington that merge into Hamilton are ones that are shut down on the banking holiday but not immediately reopened,” Gary said. “They fail what we would call today their stress tests.”
As the economy improved, banks were able to give depositors more of their money back. Customers whose banks were folded into Hamilton National Bank got about 90 cents on the dollar.
At first, the branches of the Hamilton Bank were in the old buildings of their constituent banks. The one on Connecticut Avenue was the first new branch. The four-story building was designed by the architectural firm of Corning and Moore, who did many apartment buildings and strip shopping centers in the area. The large portrait of Hamilton — left of the entrance, about four foot square, above three stars reminiscent of those on the D.C. flag — is signed “C. Papaleo” and was made by the Lamb Seal & Stencil Co. of Washington.
Just a few months after the Dupont Circle branch opened, Hamilton National Bank was purchased by the National Bank of Washington, which itself was bought in 1990. The building was later dubbed the Penelope by the Greek-American family firm that owned it after the bank moved out.
Alexander Hamilton will stay where he is, said Felipe Serpa of Valor Development, owners of the building, which will be turned into a boutique hotel. “The plaque is deemed historical,” he said.
The company that made the plaque — Lamb Seal & Stencil — was founded in 1900 by Richard Lamb, a British immigrant who fought in the Battle of Santiago in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. It was at 824 13th St. NW before moving in 1982 to 14th Street NW. In 1996, Lamb Seal & Stencil was sold to its employees and moved to Chantilly, Va. And then Answer Man loses track of it.
Here’s another business Answer Man is curious about: Wilco Sales. In 1959, it placed tiny ads in local papers advertising a Do-It-Yourself Beatnik Kit for $9.95. The kit included a Beatnik beard, a striped shirt, white pants, a coffee mug and six authentic Beatnik poems. “Perfect for parties and gag gifts,” promised the ad copy.
The ad is all over the web, on T-shirts and refrigerator magnets. And to think it came from Washington. Anyone out there remember Wilco Sales or have the DIY Beatnik kit in their attic?
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.