Ahead of its time in every nearly every decade, the cutting-edge design of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America provided the country with its most innovative and appealing architecture in the 1950s and 60s. Similar to many of the nationally renowned bank designs of this period, new design by the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation incorporated a landscaped first floor plaza, space for additional retail outlets, the use of dynamic curtain walls for texture, heat absorbing louvers, and interior features of monumentality such as sweeping staircases, luxurious interior finishes, and great flexibility. However in many cases, Bank Building & Equipment Corporation projects were built before those that received more attention on a national level.
The firm lobbied the federal and many state governments during the depression to open up bank merchandising to the public. Allowing these physical changes helped alter the customer’s actual and perceptive separation of personal interaction, and this open environment continues to be the method of personal banking that is utilized today.
By 1940, many of the financial industry’s leading journals such as Burroughs Clearing House were promoting the inclusions such as fluorescent lighting, recessed and indirect lighting, acoustic ceilings, sound-absorbent rubber-tile flooring, glass-block interior partitions, and reinforced-concrete construction in the “ultra-modern” bank building. In addition, it was also typical as banks became more similar to retailers that they took on similar elements of storefront retail design such as floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows and large multicolored neon or backlit signs, and time and temperature boards. Bright colors on the interior replaced dark tones, and large murals filled blank walls or sometimes floors, commanding new attention from customers.
In 1953, Bank Building & Equipment Corporation owner Joseph Gander said, “Until five years ago, most American bank buildings were colonial or classical in design. Now ninety percent of the banks are going contemporary modern.” One year later, the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Bank by Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) in New York City would create national headlines as modern bank architecture became mainstream in America. However, the work of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation to create modern design was already making more headway to move modernism forward at a more rapid pace in many small towns and medium size cities.
In hiring progressive designers and capitalizing on the popular appeal of unconventional designs, the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation leaped to the forefront of bank design. W.A. Sarmiento and William F. Cann were among the futuristic-minded designers using expressive structural systems and non-traditional geometries for some of the company’s most intriguing buildings. These featured expressions of technological advancements such as parabolic arches, complex massing and compound curves, thin-shell concrete domes, and other bulbous volumes.
The Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America has also been part of the movement to help perfect drive-up banking under their theory that “if they can’t drive in, they may drive by.” They promoted that their research led to the installation of the first drive-up teller unit, which contributed to the widespread proliferation of the full-service branch bank.
Understanding new trends in development and design, Gander was also attempted to stimulate new geographic markets for modern architecture such as Central America and the islands of the Caribbean Ocean. And as Gander noticed outside of America, “there is even more universal acceptance of modern architecture because they have never recognized the older styles of architecture.” Chief Designer W.A. Sarmiento was the company’s lead outside of the United States. He reflected recently that even he believed that their success was limited due to these countries inability to pay the 8% architectural fee, which to them seemed like gross overspending for a non-necessity. However, Bank Building & Equipment Corporation desired to grow the Mexico City office and marketed heavily in the country.
Where much of this success led was to the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation’s emergence as a top design-build firm in the mid-twentieth century. J.B. Gander held deep concern that his top designers could leave the company with their client list and ideas so he separated many of the functions within the company between several departments. As a project would come in, the designer would take the lead to create the product for the site. That design would be passed onto the architectural department, headed by the lead architect for the development of a full set of construction drawings. The architect would be responsible for passing those onto the construction department for building. Construction would also be working with cost estimating and budgeting throughout the process. Therefore, the a building could get built within one company, but move through the series of departments swiftly without the client knowing many hands were involved.
Use of New Materials
The Bank Building & Equipment Corporation took great pride is pioneering the use of new products and techniques that were in limited or experimental use, promoting them for aesthetics, efficiency, and financial return. Company president Joseph B. Gander considered the firm as a laboratory for diversified new design ideas, which should be of value to every banker. The challenge became successful in evoking the venerable banking qualities of security, efficiency, strength, and modernism by physical means without adding significant expense.
Lobbies, as public areas, became showcases for the designers who often gave them “tasteful yet practical” period treatments with wall-to-wall carpeting, recessed lighting, acoustically treated ceilings, textured plastic wall coverings, colorful casement draperies, and custom styled furniture. Many interiors show sweeping carpeted stairways, bold striped flooring, raked counters, and dazzling draperies. A mural, fountain or other art form may have also been included as an added “appeal for the all-important woman customer.” And where merchandising was the order of the day, Bank Building & Equipment Corporation also took care to incorporate community rooms, lounges, exhibit areas, and special kiddie areas into some banking facilities.
From a 1956 New York Times article, here is a description of how the company described the typical new materials used in a new or remodeled structure:
“Masonry is eliminated from the street fronts, steel framing is reduced to a minimum, and the rest of the façade is sheathed in glass. Ornamental bronze and marble screens, separating the public from the bank’s working space, have been replaced with streamlined counters in fine woods, hardly more than waist-high, placing tellers in a closer and friendlier relation with customers. Floors formerly paved with travertine or terrazzo are in many cases covered with overall carpeting, which discourages patrons from throwing papers, cigarettes and chewing gum on the floor.”
The Bank Building & Equipment Corporation liked to grab the public’s attention with design, though keep the Joseph Gander, the bank president’s, was pleased with efficient utilization of all the space available. An example of this was Gander’s own office at the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation headquarters. Gander also liked that Sarmiento used new materials and used traditional materials in uncommon fashion, seeking efficiency.
However, while the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America used modernism to attract attention and new business, not all their ideas treated an existing building’s original character sensitively. In speaking to bankers, economics was typically the bottom line. An example of this practice was given in a 1952 interview:
“The lobby of one institution had an old-fashioned ceiling thirty feet high. By creating two floors with nine-foot ceilings, Gander and Orabka (President and Vice-president of the company at the time) added 10,000 additional square feet of floor space and that, leased at $5.00 per square foot, brought in an extra $50,000 in gross income every year.”
By the early 1960s, designers for the company were re-evaluating the use of natural materials for exterior application, replacing them with alternatives such as using precast stone panels. Citing the speed and economy in erecting the panels, the pre-cast units were believed to provide dimension, art, and design value without bulk. They also thought that the success of pre-cast was due to the fast moving development of adhesives, especially the epoxy resin that could weld structural components together to be lighter, but stronger and larger. In addition, new sealing gaskets were available to speed the installation of glass curtain walls so that large sheets of glass sheets could literally be “zipped” into place, and “unzipped” for maintenance or replacement.
Typical Remodeling Project (c. 1945)
The Great Depression left an indelible scar on Main Street America and much of it needed a facelift according to Banking economist Millard Fraught. He believed that the “average pre-World War I storefront, typical of America’s smaller towns, should be brought up to the standards of modern merchandising.” This was the professional niche that the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation spanned the country, urging modernization with bank presidents.
The cost of interior modernization was often between $10,000 and $50,000 and would take less than six months time to complete. Though there were no restrictions on what the project could encompass, they often insisted that air conditioning be installed because of the increased comfort factor for both the customer as well as the morale of the employee.
In general, remodeling projects recommended the removal of outdated banking equipment like tellers’ cages, and installation of a new counter and cabinetry to provide more outlets for greater efficiency. This work could include new lighting and repainting in a lighter color that could happen over a weekend. So for less than $5,000 a modern transformation could happen on the interior with a few new products and very little budget.
With a higher budget, a bank could get new mechanical and electrical equipment, furniture, and update the façade with cast stone and black granite cladding for under $40,000. This was far less than a new building and provided the modernizing that widened customers eyes. Other alternatives included replacing the front doors and windows with aluminum, bronze or steel.
Unfortunately, some of the most destructive remodeling projects included the installation of suspended ceilings with acoustic ceiling tile. These ceilings were functionally used for remodeling in older buildings as an affordable way to hide HVAC ductwork. However, the installation almost always had disregard for character-defining features of a building such as decorative plaster, murals, tile, skylights, gold leafing, and lighting that would either be removed, obscured or destroyed. Ornate classical ceilings replaced with two-by-four ceiling tiles, fluorescent lights, and air diffusers were extremely popular for bank remodeling, including many projects by the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation.
As a full service design-build company, the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America offered complete architectural, contracting, decorating and furnishing services, available as a package or separately. However, each of these would be handled be separates entities and sometimes divisions within the same company.
In brief, the process to get from origination of a project to construction was laid out by the company as follows in their promotional literature:
- General counseling on site
- New construction vs. remodeling
- Cost guidelines and a presentation of services
- Banker signs a consulting services contract
- Requirements, recommendations, and schematic floor plan
- Architectural contract
- BB&ECA project manages the local construction contractor
- Provides cost estimate
- Guarantees to deliver total project within 10% of estimate
- Construction begins