Rebuilding our nation’s capital

One of Bank of America’s oldest heritage banks, Bank of the Metropolis in Washington, D.C., was saved from ruin during the War of 1812 by the building’s custodian, Sarah Sweeny. The bank went on to help fund the capital’s reconstruction after the war.

In 1814, a bank opened for business in Washington, D.C. Four months later, British soldiers set fire to many of the city's most important public buildings, including the Treasury Building and the White House. When soldiers set out to burn the bank building as well, they found the building occupied by the bank's custodian, Sarah Sweeny, and she single-handedly changed the course of history for both the bank and the capital.

The Bank of the Metropolis, as it was originally named, is one of Bank of America's oldest heritage bank. It opened for business in Washington, D.C. in March 1814. The Bank's original iconic building stood on the corner of 15th and F streets. Previously known as Rhodes Tavern, a private boarding house, the bank purchased the property for $8,000. Its facade was designed in Federal style, featuring a grand entryway complete with arches and columns. Although the bank later moved halfway up the block, where it still stands today, the new building was also Federal style and featured the same facade as the original.

On August 24, 1814, British troops raided the city, smashing the windows of public buildings and throwing burning torches inside, setting fire to many U.S. government facilities. When British Major General Robert Ross took ten of his soldiers to a local boardinghouse to have dinner, he was ready to call it a night until his admiral called his attention to a nearby bank that should also be burned, Bank of the Metropolis. As the British commander was under strict orders to burn only public buildings, he was careful to preserve the city's private buildings.

Ross asked Barbara Suter, the owner of the boardinghouse, whether the bank was a public or private enterprise. Suter, having previously run her boardinghouse in Rhodes Tavern, answered that the bank was in a private house. She may have known that the bank was indeed a public business as announcements of dividends paid to shareholders had recently run in the local paper.

Nevertheless, the British officers walked one block north to the bank, which had been closed since 2:00 that afternoon. Its employees, along with most of the city's civilians, had fled to the woods to hide from the invasion. The one person who remained at the bank was its custodian and cleaner, Sarah Sweeny. When officers asked her to confirm whether the building was private or public, she convinced them that it was private by claiming that it was the residence of a poor widow. The soldiers believed her and retreated.

Sarah Sweeny was later awarded $100 by the shareholders. And in saving the bank, she also contributed to the restoration of the city's destroyed public buildings. After the war was over and the British soldiers were gone, the bank agreed to provide the U.S. government with funding to aid in the rebuilding of Washington, D.C. Its loan of $100,000 was enough to fully fund one fifth of the capital's reconstruction.

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