Growing up in Pennsylvania, I spent a lot of time around old
buildings. Most were not famous structures, just local homes, barns,
springhouses, and other outbuildings that were constructed in the 18th
century and hadn’t bothered to fall down. Styles ran the gamut.
Just like almost everything else in early America, reflections of
our early architectural heritage can be found still today in the
coins, medals, and paper money we collect.
Perhaps the earliest American structure depicted on a numismatic
object was the old Gloucester courthouse in Gloucester, Va., depicted
on the extremely rare 1714 Gloucester tokens.
Just two are known, neither in very nice condition, but both clearly
depict a now-long-gone Virginia Tidewater structure. The current
courthouse is rather new by the standards of the area, having been
built in 1766.
The brand new Park Theatre graced an English-struck token collected
today as the “Theatre at New York” token. The token is dated 1797,
before the new Park Theatre made its debut in January 1798. That
building is also long gone, rebuilt after a fire in 1820, leaving its
appearance quite different, then gone entirely after 1848. Today, an
electronics store sits on its site.
Paper money offers a wealth of examples, though few of the
structures survive: the Savannah Courthouse and Fort George in
Georgia, Fort Johnson in North Carolina, the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse
and Walnut Street Workhouse on issues of Pennsylvania, and the
Exchange and Customs House in South Carolina, among others. Of these,
just the last is still standing in its original form, easily
recognizable and a major tourist attraction in Charleston.
While plenty of Colonial structures appear on early American medals,
most depictions are inaccurate, even totally fictional.
Among the most notable exceptions are the images of Havana’s Morro
Castle on the 1763 medal celebrating its destruction; Cliveden, the
home of Benjamin Chew, found on the 1777-dated Battle of Germantown
medal; and the First Bank of the United States on the 1795-dated
Alexander Hamilton medal struck at the Philadelphia Mint.
Each of these medals depicts a structure based upon a careful
eyewitness view. In the case of the last medal, engraver Moritz Furst
likely walked by the First Bank often; it was just five or six blocks
from the first U.S. Mint on Third Street, where it remains even today.