In these economically fraught times, it’s not always easy to find an urbanized restaurant/retail district where one can comfortably kick back a burger and a brew and feel safe, either from crime, civil unrest, or inconsistent enforcement of COVID precautions (depending on what you perceive is the greatest threat). In 2021, the suburbs of large cities may be the best bet for a vibrant, aesthetic downtown experience free of woe. Sandwiched sociologically between the uncertain fortunes of our violent, often heavily restricted urban centers and the shrinking job base of small towns, old-school suburbia typically still boasts that winning combination of an intact and walkable commercial core, along with thriving local businesses that help sustain excellent municipal services (schools, policing, public works). But what is old-school suburbia, exactly? It includes a) the surviving bedroom communities, b) the old streetcar stops, or c) the historic 19th century farm towns that, although independent and self-sustaining at one time, have enjoyed a boost in fortune due to the decentralization from the large city ten miles away—a middle- and upper-middle class suburban push that has surrounded these farm towns and boosted their fortunes. It only took a brief afternoon visit to conclude that Malvern, Pennsylvania is combination of the three.
This borough of approximately 3,000 people has an economy that tethers it to city of Philadelphia, even though Center City Philly is over twenty miles away. And it sits in historically exurban Chester County, with heavily suburbanized Delaware County between. It takes nearly an hour to get from Philly to Malvern by car under good conditions. The congestion separating the borough from its primary city may explain why a sizable portion of commuters would prefer to take the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Paoli/Thorndale commuter rail line, commonly referred to as “the Main Line”—a term not necessarily broadly known across the country but common parlance in the Philadelphia Area. In short, Malvern is a suburb on the Main Line.
Malvern is wedded to the identity of the Main Line, in large part because the construction of this line helped spawn a considerable amount of its growth. Though first settled by Welsh immigrants in the 17th century (as is typical of southeast Pennsylvania), it developed the nucleus of a village in the mid 1800s, when two rail lines intersected nearby. But Malvern didn’t incorporate until 1889 by splitting off from the township that had contained it, a practice no longer permitted under the Pennsylvania constitution. And its population didn’t enter the quadruple digits until the early 1900s, as the “Main Line of Public Works” served as the de facto means of getting affluent city-dwellers to their country estates in the western hinterlands.
By mid 19th century, flight to the suburbs characterized much of Philadelphia, captivating people from all tranches who had the wherewithal to move. The Main Line was simply the suburban arm most bedecked in sterling silver. From that point up to the present, the “Main Line” has been synonymous with affluence. Like bracelets lining an arm, each of the stops on the Paoli/Thorndale Line has morphed into a community with a discrete commercialized core immediately adjacent to the SEPTA station. Malvern’s growth was a bit delayed, no doubt in part due to its greater distance than some of the other Main Line suburbs. After a period of comparatively slow growth from the 1930s to the 50s, it took off again during the Baby Boomer period, compounded by extensive upper-middle class flight during a period when old cities like Philadelphia faced escalating crime and urban decay.
These days, Malvern is comfy, just as it has always been. With an estimated median household income over $100,000 in 2019, it’s not the wealthiest Main Line suburb. But that’s only because there’s so much competition; this string of bedroom communities along the Paoli/Thorndale are among the wealthiest municipalities in the country. And Chester County is the wealthiest county in the state. Though Malvern’s main street is hardly big, the seven-block expanse is more than one might expect for a borough this small, and it certainly has everything one might demand from a prosperous suburb: restaurants, breweries, boutiques.
And it also has this noteworthy structure on a prominent corner, with bars on all the windows.
Doesn’t exactly fit with the character of Malvern, does it? Why would a community this successful and desirable face such persistent issues of breaking-and-entering that a prominent commercial building would need wrought-iron bars everywhere? Is Malvern harboring some crime ring? The stats don’t seem to suggest it: in fact, as one would expect from a suburb on the Philadelphia Main Line, Malvern’s crime rate is 80% lower than the national average. It’s a very safe place.
So what would prompt the bars on the windows to this building, when no other structure in the town appears as fortified? A closer look should clarify.
Yes, it’s a bank. Given the nature of this tenant, it almost goes without saying that the facility would need a greater degree of protection, given the likelihood that the building harbors considerable amounts of currency inside. And yes, I’m aware that the typical modern bank has an off-site repository for all that excess money. But would a bank named after in a town of this size be a national chain? Of course not—the National Bank of Malvern only has two locations, and this is one of them…the main one. The owners of this tiny bank have a lot more riding at this location.
And, thus, we witness all those bars on the windows.
What really takes me by surprise, though, is the consistency of this theft deterrent—at least on the first floor, it’s everywhere.
So, how to explain all these extra precautions? We don’t see these in most banks. The reality, of course, is that buildings comparable to the National Bank of Malvern—almost definitely a century-old structure or more—don’t have a row of windows on one side (almost like a sun room), or basement window wells, or that prominent mansard roof. In fact, they often have no windows, or if they do, the fenestration is such that it’s nigh impossible for a person to break in. Think of the iconic symbol of an old bank building: classical revival architecture, thick limestone walls. The material and physicality intends to imply permanence (timelessness) and security (impenetrability). It was a smart enough typology that many banks continue to inhabit these old limestone buildings to this day, and if the bank failed, the building is usually too sturdy and distinctive to face the wrecking ball. A developer is happy to snatch them up and repurpose them, perhaps for something as banal as a McDonald’s. Or even stripping away the old classical facade for hip new housing.
But that’s obviously not the case with the National Bank of Malvern. It’s hard to imagine that the structure’s original intended use had anything to do with banking. It might have even been a private residence, but that window-saturated “sun room” was an add-on. On the other side, away from the street, witness two other late-stage modifications: a shelter for the ATM and a drive-through banking window.
They’re reasonably subtle and might pass muster among the less discriminating historic preservationist community. But it’s hard to imagine the preservationists getting too excited about all those bars on the windows. Or the rest of Malvern, for that matter. A visitor steps into the town, sees this structure at a prominent intersection, and thinks—even if unconsciously—that Malvern has a high crime rate.
As is usual in these cases, the bars at the National Bank of Malvern emerged through a series of compromises. I suspect the narrative went something like this: a small, long-established community bank purchased the property when it was no longer viable as a private residence. It made a good office building, and it would take little extra work to transform it. But the bank had the money to buy it, and this particular bank is a staple of the community. Banks need a greater degree of security, and they need those modern amenities: the drive-through window, the semi-exterior ATM. It’s not that a contemporary bank design can’t feature windows—they often do—but they have to deploy glass of a certain thickness, apertures of certain dimension or height from the ground, and electronic surveillance to ensure extra security. Needless to say, a late 19th century structure with a mansard roof isn’t going to fit 21st century standards for security, but punching out those old windows to comply with modern standards will almost certainly compromise the historic integrity. The result? Bars that serve the same purpose of deterrence that they would in a high-crime neighborhood in Philly.
I’ll concede that this narrative could be way off-base. In fact, this is a case where some last-minute deep-dive research suggests that I’m completely wrong. According to the cited article from The Hunt Magazine, this family-run bank built this three-story Victorian structure in 1887, in its third year of operation. The domiciliary fenestration helps make the structure warmer and more inviting—a deliberate gesture because the upper two levels became leased apartments the generate revenue in case the bank failed. Even a safe little town like Malvern still faces threats of larceny that evolve in tandem with crime prevention strategies. The other modifications took place incrementally so the business could evolve with the times, perhaps some of the modifications preceding the era of preservation activism (which didn’t take off until the late 1960s). The window bars arrived at a certain point long ago. The owners of the National Bank of Malvern likely faced minimal objection, because it’s their property, it always has been, the locals know them, and the businesses is older than the borough itself. Thus, we have an unconventional structure housing a common main street use, featuring the necessary security precautions installed as an afterthought. From what I can tell, no other property in Malvern needs such deterrents; here’s the view across the street from the bank.
The signage isn’t visible, but the low-slung buildings house an upscale Italian restaurant.
And what about the parcel immediately adjacent to National Bank? It’s another old residence converted into a business.
The old Malvern Inn also dates from the same time period as the borough’s founding. It’s now apartments with a boutique on the first floor. And who owns the property? None other than the National Bank of Malvern. Notice the absence of any window bars. The savvy family who runs this bank, one that persevered an additional eighty years after the Great Depression, know where the extra fortification needs to go. And even if Malvernians might normally look askance at any indicator that the Main Line has gone to the dogs, this time it’s a long-running businesses whose family owners are a part of the community. They might as well keep their investments stored there. It’ll be safe!