A banking beacon of Charleston history

In coastal South Carolina, the nation’s longest-serving bank branch is revered by Wells Fargo and viewed by many as a local jewel.

July 29, 2014

Just across from the Battery, where the first shots of the Civil War sounded, Wells Fargo’s banking store at 16 Broad St. remains a key icon of Charleston history and business.

Considered the oldest continuously operating bank building in the U.S., the neoclassical structure known locally as “16 Broad Street” was founded in 1817 by John C. Calhoun, the nation’s seventh vice president. Calhoun opened the bank as a branch of the Second Bank of the United States.

Wells Fargo’s banking home in Charleston, 16 Broad Street is a complex of five buildings, including the banking store. Its signature feature is a carved gilt eagle over the front door — a reminder of its connection to the central bank chartered by Congress in 1816.

South Carolina Regional President Rick Redden says leafing through some of the original ledgers reminds him why the bank is a Charleston institution.

“There are few places that have as rich a history as Charleston, and this is part of that legacy,” Rick says. “While customers love the beauty of this building and that we’ve preserved it, what they care about most is how they’re treated. The most important legacy of this building and banking store isn’t the architecture, but our service.”

Personal Banker Eli Dutcher, whose favorite feature is the hand-carved crown molding that took months to complete, says customers have taught him a thing or two about the bank.

Personal Banker Eli Dutcher with a photo and piece of the original teller line at 16 Broad Street in Charleston
Eli admires the historical teller line display.

“Many of our customers have taught me because, from the photos on the walls to the names on the ledgers, that’s their families,” Eli says. “Just last week, someone came by after seeing a piece of the original teller line in The Charleston Museum. We have a piece of the teller line and a beautiful photo of what it used to look like in our lobby, as well. There aren’t many places you can work where that kind of legacy surrounds you every day. It’s history that makes for great conversations.”

Katherine Pemberton, who manages research and education for the Historic Charleston Foundation, says the building’s pediments, pilasters, columns, curved windows, and other features represent a new nation “looking toward the past of Greece and Rome and marching towards that classical style.”

Katherine says that Broad Street remains Charleston’s business epicenter with its attorneys, bankers, and real estate agents.

“Sixteen Broad Street’s status as the oldest continuously operated bank in America speaks to the philosophy Charleston has about its buildings,” she adds. “The city’s motto from the 1790s is, ‘She guards her buildings, customers, and laws,’ and Charlestonians continue to be interested in protecting the past through their buildings.”

Nic Butler, historian for the Charleston County Public Library, says Calhoun’s bank opened when spirits were high as the nation threw off the embargo and other hardships from the War of 1812 and financial markets boomed.

Contributors: Anne Oberlander