Leaders and Architects of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation

Between 1913 and 1991, the success of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America required many voices, hands, and great minds.  Advertisements for the company touted the proficiency and even world-renowned status of architects, designers, planners, and engineers on the BB&ECA staff.  Beyond this staff of hundreds, the leaders of the company both organically grew and precisely drew plans for how they would become the largest design-build company of their time.

Joseph B. (J.B.) Gander (Joe)

In 1913, Joe and his cousin Louie bought into a cabinet shop off an alley in downtown St. Louis because they had good woodworking and sales skills that they thought could make it into a fine business.  Never mind that they both quit school in the sixth grade to go to work.  Joseph Gander was a visionary and frequently said that he never had, nor needed, an art lesson or an architecture degree to know good design.  Though he would have rather played baseball, Gander worked hard, claiming to have “absorbed the necessary knowledge through the pores.”

The early success of the cabinet company led to its expansion into the St. Louis Bank Building & Equipment Corporation, the predecessor company of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America.  Gander was very interested in the expanding the use of fine cabinetry and woodworking, a division of the company now known as Loughman, in order to bring new materials and life into bank buildings. As the owner and president of the company for decades, Gander was viewed as the visionary guiding the company’s incredible growth.  He made the sales force the main focus of the company, not the designers.  Around a strong sales force in every office to be the eyes and ears in every town, county, and state, he built a team of great designers and architects.

Gander led Bank Building & Equipment Corporation as CEO, CFO, marketing director, and lead salesman.  He found time for personal community projects as well.  Gander led the charge to move and expand the campus of Maryville College further west and had the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation plan and design the entire new campus and its four new buildings.  His final project was securing the contract to build a striking new plan for a Catholic Chancery Office for the St. Louis Archdiocese, which he passed on to his chief designer W.A. Sarmiento.

From all accounts, Gander was a leader extraordinaire – tremendous energy, excellent and smooth salesman, iron will but a nice approach where he had the same repoire with the labor man as with the bank president.  It’s what made him known to be so likable and sociable. In an interview with his daughter, Ruth Gander Pfeffer in 2002, she complimented his style by saying that “He was very sharp but also very loyal to his employees. No one worked for Joseph Gander. They worked with him.” 

Though the Era of Growth and Prosperity’s banking boom (1950-1965) reportedly made Gander a millionaire, all of the working and life’s enjoyments also took its toll on his health in the early 1960s.  After a battle with cancer, Joseph Gander died in 1963.  Passed onto Sarmiento on a business trip, Gander stated that the secret to his success was that he had never cheated anybody and always stuck to his strict Catholic morals.

Gander had plans on the drawing board when he died to continue building his design-build company, including the desire to purchase one of the nation’s most well known vault company’s, Mosler.  The organizational process that Gander created over time not only helped expedite the construction process for his clients, it made it more affordable and provided less headaches for them, and he was always seeking ways to improve the process further.

AUDIO: W.A. Sarmiento on his relationship with Gander and his role in the design hierarchy with Bank Building & Equipment Corp.

William F. Cann

William Cann completed his architectural training at Washington University (St. Louis) in 1941 and joined the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation staff as a draftsman in 1948.  He received a license to practice architecture in the state of New York in 1957 where he designed at least four structures during his career.  Cann was promoted to President of Bank Building & Equipment Corporation in the mid-1960s, he retired in 1976 after twenty-eight years with the firm.  Named vice-chairman at that time, he continued to serve as a consultant.

Cann is responsible for some of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation’s most unique architecture including the Elmhurst Branch of Jamaica Savings (NY) completed in 1968, the Washington Federal Savings & Loan of Nampa (ID) completed in 1962, the First National Bank of Mobile (AL) completed in 1965, and the design for the Howard Johnson’s Gate Lodge, c. 1958, and used prominently nationwide by the orange-roofed motel chain.

Earl Davenport

Earl Davenport was a Director of Design at the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation until 1952.  He was also considered one of the top Design Architects on staff.  In an interview with W.A. Sarmiento, he recalled that Davenport was well versed in the Classical, Neo-classical, Beaux Arts, and Bauhaus styles of architecture.  Davenport’s last commission was as designer for the Perpetual Savings headquarters in Washington, D.C. (1953).

Charles Deaton

Deaton’s ingenuity for modern design likely came from when he worked at a Lockheed aircraft plant in California during World War II where he used practical engineering and design concepts to transform sheet metal into aerodynamic shapes.

He began his architectural career in New York City in the 1940s with no formal training, doing minor freelance work.  In 1949, Deaton moved to St. Louis and became an in-house designer for the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation.  But by 1955, he had left the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America and moved to Denver where he lived the rest of his life.

While in Denver, Deaton had a rich architectural career, designing prominent banks, commercial buildings, and residences.  His prominent designs included the Central Bank and Trust in Denver (1960; demolished), Key Savings and Loan (1965; now Colonial Bank), and his own residence, the Sculptured House (1966).  However, his most important bank design may have been the highly sculptural Wyoming National Bank in Casper.  In this isolated location and early in his career (1961), he had his first chance to use new security mechanisms, security doors and vaults, office furniture and a “squiggle” lighting system.

See the Charles Deaton page on Wikipedia.

Justus DeVries

DeVries was a graduate of the Pratt Institute School of Architecture and began his career as a bank specialist in 1946 in New York.  He served as planner and consultant for the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation for over 600 bank projects throughout New England and the eastern U.S.  As his obituary stated, his contributions to banking operational efficiency and contemporary styling were widely recognized.  At the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation, he rose to the serve in positions of vice president, senior consultant, and eastern regional manager before retiring to be an independent consultant.

Charles Guariglia

Guariglia served as one of the chief designers of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation during the company’s Era of Growth and Prosperity (1950-1965) and during the Later Years (1966-1991).  He began his career at the company in 1952 and served as Vice President of Architecture and Engineering before retiring in 1995. 

Charles F. Jost

Charles Jost was born in East St. Louis and graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a degree in architecture. At one time, he held architectural licenses in 25 states.  Jost joined Bank Building & Equipment Corporation in 1940 and was with the firm until 1977. He served in several capacities at the firm, developing the company's design awards program. According to his obituary, Jost also operated his own firm for a while.  He was also a musician and artist, as he painted cities the way that he believed they would look many years later. As a musician, he played clarinet, accordion and piano.  Charles Jost died in 2004.  Jost was chief architect on the Perpetual Building Association in Silver Spring, Maryland. 

Wilbur G. (W.G.) Knoebel

Knoebel was the longest serving architect or designer for the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation, working for the company from about 1920 until the late 1950s.  He was born in 1892 in Highland, Illinois and received an architectural degree from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1914.  Primarily knowledgeable about about the classical style of architecture, Knoebel’s designs appear to be primarily Art Deco and Classical Revival style as illustrated by Southside National Bank (St. Louis) constructed in 1928; Citizens Trust Company (aka Sycamore Building in Terre Haute, Indiana), constructed in 1921; and the Home Banks Building (aka Elgin Tower in Elgin, Illinois), constructed in 1929; and Chippewa Trust Bank Building (St. Louis), constructed in 1928.  Gander and Knoebel had occasional debates about design, including those related to cost savings.  Eventually, Gander chose to move in a different direction with the company’s design and after World War II, Knoebel served the company strictly as Chief Architect for hundreds of projects, but no longer as designer.  Stemming from a minor fender bender in St. Louis, Knoebel was fortunately the original befriender of W.A. Sarmiento who later became the lead designer for Bank Building & Equipment Corporation for many years.

Louis J. Orabka (Louie)

Louis Orabka’s education ended in grammar school and he frequently mentioned how he never had training in art or architecture, but still found himself to be successful.  This may have been in part to his being a cousin of Joseph B. Gander, President of Bank Building & Equipment Corporation, but also his position as a co-founder for the company.  Since it’s founding in 1913, Orabka was charged with the operation and management of the cabinet shop that eventually became Loughman Cabinet Division. Orabka spent over fifty years with the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation, becoming President by 1962 (as Gander fell into poor health) and then serving as Chair of the Board by 1969.

Wenceslao Alfonso (W.A.) Sarmiento (Wence)

W.A. Sarmiento was born September 28, 1922, in Trujillo, Peru.  He completed school in 1946 at the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria (National School of Engineering) in Lima, Peru and was a vehement modernist.  An admirer of the Bauhaus School design philosophy as well as Frank Lloyd Wright’s application of natural and organic materials and engineering principles, Sarmiento was anxious to apply these theories in communities.

Joining several other architects in South America, Sarmiento signed the MANIFIESTO DE EXPRESIÓN DE PRINCIPIOS (Manifest of Principle of Expression) on May 15, 1947.  The Manifesto decreed that society needed a new architecture for the 21st Century that reflected the evolution of art and engineering instead of revising historical themes.

During his training in the late 1940s, Sarmiento worked for eighteen months as a draftsman under Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil.  This is where Sarmiento’s influence from the work of LeCorbusier and Niemeyer reflect directly in shapely designs and the use of many curves.  However, he worked so far under Niemeyer that Sarmiento knew he was an office ‘peon’ but made the most of his experience, staying after hours to observe and study the designs of the master architect.

In about 1950 while visiting his wife’s sister in Missouri, Sarmiento had a minor car accident.  The other car was driven by W.G. Knoebel.  Knoebel, discovering that Sarmiento was an architect as well, invited him to meet his boss Joseph B. Gander, President of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation.  The two hit it off and Sarmiento was offered a job as a designer at the company.  Following this fortunate circumstance, he came to the U.S. permanently in 1951 and was naturalized in 1956. 

Sarmiento’s designs for Bank Building & Equipment Corporation led to the construction of hundreds of cutting-edge mid-century modern buildings nationwide.  Many towns had never imagined setting their sights on what Sarmiento planted in their downtowns before then!  He became a driving force behind revolutionizing the look and feel of banking in postwar America between 1952 and 1964.  During this time he designed financial landmarks in communities across the country including Newport Balboa Savings (1954; 1960) in Newport Beach, CA; First Security Bank (1955) in Salt Lake City, UT; Glendale Federal Savings & Loan (1958) in Glendale, CA; Liberty National Bank & Trust in Louisville, KY; and the Phoenix Financial Center (1964; 1970) in Phoenix, AZ.  For producing outstanding design, Sarmiento was declared the “whiz from Peru” by the St. Louis Globe Democrat in 1962.

Like the early Bauhaus designers he admired, furniture design was also a strong suit for Sarmiento.  From wood framing to metal forging and cushion sewing, many of the mid-century buildings of Bank Building & Equipment Corp. designed by Sarmiento also included specially designed furniture for the offices.  On the first desk he designed, Sarmiento received a patent for the principle of the framing design, which from that point on he considered very important to protect his creativity and future return on investment.  However, he only received one other patent for the mushroom-shaped fiberglass teller shelters at the Phoenix Financial Center.

After J.B. Gander’s death and over ten years at Bank Building & Equipment Corp., Sarmiento started his own company.  W.A. Sarmiento Architects grew to its height in the mid-1970s to have offices in St. Louis, Phoenix, and San Francisco with a focus to develop contemporary architecture.  Employing about forty-five people in the entire company, they ran a streamlined operation or mainly designers and architects with no employees working in the areas of sales, public relations or legal. Sarmiento ended the company’s business when family obligations forced him to close the business in 1978.

During his time at the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation, Sarmiento believes that Glendale Federal Savings was his favorite project, where the vision of his design was executed to perfection.  Another of his favorites, on a smaller scale was the branch bank design for City Federal Savings in New Jersey <link> since he had a lot of fun getting the roof shapes to match up together and meet into the vertical sign at the top.

But these types of creative designs may not have been possible without the latitude that Gander provided Sarmiento for creativity.  It signified the trust between them, which helped make the business successful.  But not every designer had the same level of trust with Gander and thus was not provided that same latitude for creativity with clients.

Sarmiento’s Peruvian culture influenced his use of materials and how they were applied.  “Follow the nature of the material for economical use,” is a Sarmiento motto as well as, “A natural feeling is creative.”

On the principles of design, Sarmiento stated, “Less is More is very cold.  Mies executed his principles to perfection but the buildings did not express life through its materials.  Frank Lloyd Wright is a designer my philosophy is much closer to.”

“My greatest strength is imagination.  For any architect to be successful, they have to see a site, and know what to create.  That's where art is a very important component of an architect's work which cannot be taught by any school.”

Education

1947    Architectural Engineer Degree through a five year curriculum at the University of Engineering, Lima, Peru

1948    Continuing education by studying Classic Architecture by Vitruvius, Palladio, and Vignola, and the contemporary works by LeCorbusier, Walter Gropius, Pier Luigi Nervi, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright

1949    Traveling through main cities in South America:  Mach Picchu, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasilia to observe design and construction of new buildings

1953-55           Continuing studies on new concrete and steel structures as well as mechanical and electrical installations for buildings at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

1993-94           Diploma in Plumbing and Electrical Technology for buildings by the Educorp Career College, Long Beach, California

Practice

1947                Architect in training.  Enrique Scoane Architecture, Lima, Peru

1948-1950       Architectural designer at Guillermo Payet Architecture, Lima, Peru

1950-1951       Private Practice, W.A. Sarmiento, architect, Lima, Peru

1952-53           Designer at Bank Building Corporation of America, St. Louis, Missouri

1954-64           Director of Design at Bank Building Corporation of America, St. Louis, Missouri

1965-78           Established Sarmiento Architects with offices in St. Louis, Phoenix, and San Francisco

1972-82, 1990-93         Director of Design at Murdock Development Co.

Professional Awards

1956    Fine Hardwoods Association award for excellence in the design of production of office furniture

1971    NCARB Certificate #10,603

1972    Certificates in AZ, CA, OH, IL, IA, NE as required by practice

1975    City of Phoenix award for the planning and design of Phoenix Financial Center

Related Awards

2000    The Los Angeles Conservancy nominates Glendale Federal Savings Bank Building to the California State Register of Historic Places.  (not listed due to owner objection)

2004    First Security Bank Building in Salt Lake City, Utah reopens after $6 million rehabilitation. Project is awarded a National Honor Award by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Utah Heritage Foundation rehabilitation award.  Sarmiento provides crucial information pertaining to original design in order to guide rehabilitation and attends reopening of building.

2005    The Pasadena and Foothill Chapter of the AIA awarded their first Heritage Recognition Award to the original design and 1962 addition for the Glendale Federal Savings Bank Building.  

AUDIO: Sarmiento on designing his signature interior stairways, using Phoenix Financial Center as an example.

AUDIO: Sarmiento talks about how his Peruvian culture influenced his design work.

See the Wenceslaus (W.A.) Sarmiento page on Wikipedia.

S.L. Shepherd

Shepherd worked for the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation since 1926, was manager of the New York office, and was appointed as manager of the new Miami office in June 1954.  He was the architect for the West Palm Beach (FL) Atlantic National Bank and possessed over 40 years of experience in bank design.

Charles Norman Stearns

Stearns attended the Maryland Institute of Fine Arts after service in the army in the early 1940s. He was employed by 1947 by the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America as a designer and delineator at the St. Louis headquarters.  It is unknown how long Stearns worked at the company.