Midcentury Modern Branch Banks are Authentic Relics of Arizona History
Midcentury modern branch banks are authentic relics of Arizona history.
By John Roark | Photography by Scott Sandler
After World War II, the city of Phoenix experienced an unprecedented boom. Inexpensive land, urban sprawl, accessible highways, affordable mortgage loans—not to mention the new availability of residential air conditioning—helped put the Grand Canyon State at the forefront of a new frontier.
As suburbia expanded, an evolution also occurred within the banking industry. The advent of branch banks in residential neighborhoods meant that the imposing, pillared edifices that represented stuffy finance needed to adapt to a family-friendly neighborhood model.
“There was a paradigm shift, a new mindset on what banks could look like,” says 40-year Valley resident and history enthusiast Donna Reiner, who earned her second master’s degree at age 62 with the publication of her thesis, “Follow the Money: Identifying the Custom Architecturally Designed Branch Bank.” “Away from the downtown core, they began to modernize the buildings to appeal to housewives, who now did much of the family banking. No more walls between teller and customer; softer colors, inviting, carpeted interiors with artwork and comfortable furniture. And drive-thrus, which appealed to women with children. The aim was, with convenience and style, to attract a broader, younger customer base.”
Satellite locations enabled the industry to get a foothold in the suburban landscape, observes Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning architect Darren Petrucci. “What is significant about these branch banks is that they needed to convey permanence. The materiality of these structures—precast concrete, stone, masonry and brick—was very robust and suggested solidity, but their presence within their settings was also essential. It wasn’t about just putting a building down on an urban street. They related to the neighborhoods in a residential, not commercial, scale.”
Petrucci stresses that these branch banks were authentically contextual to the Valley. “The buildings were absolutely about a time and place, but specifically about Phoenix,” he says. “Many of the designs were influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects working here at that time. I would argue that these are the closest things to a pure Phoenix aesthetic that exist. The architecture answers these questions: How do we build in a place that has extreme weather conditions? How do we construct a landscape that’s part of that building? What materials are not just conducive to that environment, but also locally sourced? These are some of the best examples of authentic Phoenician architecture.”
Petrucci also notes that the branches created here in the 1950s and ’60s were groundbreaking because, like all great architecture, their design challenged the status quo, engaging the public in a different way. “All of these buildings were pushing structural strategies. They were all taking risks,” he says. “You wouldn’t expect that from what had traditionally been a conservative organization. They broke the mold of what we understood that a bank could be.”
In Phoenix, the innovation was driven by Walter Bimson, founder and president of Valley National Bank. It was Bimson—who was also a philanthropist and collector of Southwestern art, and instrumental in the creation of the Phoenix Art Museum—who is credited with saying, “Banks, too, can be beautiful.”
Modern Phoenix founder Alison King cites Bimson’s influence. “He knew that good architecture could attract good customers,” she says. “He believed in the power of design to express his corporate ideals and serve as a tangible image of the type of business he wanted to run—and the kind of city that he wanted us to live in. He was a tremendous patron in that regard.”
Once Bimson began dotting the landscape with interesting, innovative structures, other financial institutions followed suit. “Valley National was the largest bank in the state,” Reiner observes. “First National and Arizona Bank had to keep up with Walter. While they made some good buildings, they never did it to the degree that Bimson did. He really raised the bar.”
Most of the structures built in Phoenix between 1950-1975 were single story, frequently on corner lots, and often included gardens with fountains, sculpture and other artworks. While Bimson primarily trusted the vision of the architectural firm of Weaver & Drover, other brands were more likely to sample the talent pool. Western Savings used more than 30 different firms but favored local architects.
More than 70 years after they were built, many of these gems still stand. Those that have dodged the wrecking ball live on, and each has taught valuable lessons about living in the desert. “These structures are incredible models to look at in thinking about residential design,” Petrucci notes. “They had to be climatically responsive. They optimize their exposures. They are residential in scale. These are the same rules we use to try and make a good house. And it is essential for us and future generations that we do what we can to protect them.”
King agrees. “These banks are treasures hiding in plain sight,” she says. “They are hard to forget—and they haven’t completed their lifespans yet. The adaptive reuse that we’re seeing has proven that they have relevance today and are still flexible enough to be used for all sorts of things that aren’t banking. They are an irreplaceable part of our history. We need to ensure that they are taken care of and celebrated.”
WESTERN SAVINGS AND LOAN ASSOCIATION
20TH & CAMELBACK BRANCH
1950 E. Camelback Road
Architect: Ralph Wyatt
Current use: Bank of America
The pair of concrete bas reliefs gracing the south side of this 3,900-square-foot International-style structure were the creation of artist and designer Frank Martin, who also did the bank’s interiors. One represents agriculture, the other construction—the two pillars that Western Savings was built on. “I don’t think there’s another building in the entire state with this kind of artwork,” Reiner says.
The bas reliefs, which were cast in Mesa, are show-stopping, raves King. “They are a throwback to the New Deal Era when banks and federal buildings were incorporating similar artwork. They are a modern interpretation of that spirit, which is timeless.”
VALLEY NATIONAL BANK, ARCADIA BRANCH
4401 E. Camelback Road
Architect: Frank Henry, Weaver & Drover
Current use: Chase Bank
Considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Phoenix midcentury modern branch banks. Designed by Frank Henry, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, the property’s sizable lot includes a landscaped park that serves as a buffer for the adjacent Arcadia neighborhood. Distinctive precast concrete umbrellalike dendriforms provide both shade and structural support. Henry carefully specified the placement of each piece of locally sourced Yavapai schist that accents the exterior stucco.
“This is pretty much the pinnacle of the Valley National Banks,” says King. “As you walk or drive around it, there is no bad side. Every angle is sculptural, Even the aerial view is a work of art.”
PIONEER BANK AND HOME SAVINGS & LOAN
3443 N. Central Ave.
Architect: W.A. Sarmiento
Current use: North Rotunda: Upward Projects; South Rotunda: Shepley Bulfinch
“These are very geometric structures,” observes Reiner. “We’ve got circles parabolas, arches and concavities. The interior steps leading to the second level are ellipses and the ceiling of both feature stained-glass starburst skylights. These round two-story pavilions are part of a financial center that was to include two arced towers, only one of which was built. The 22-foot-high by 15-foot-wide recast reinforced concrete inverted arches that encircle the buildings weigh 7 tons each and provide support for ridged domed roofs.
“These are my favorite buildings in Phoenix,” King says. “They’re so space-age. The meticulous restoration work that has been done on them is phenomenal.”
VALLEY NATIONAL BANK, INDIAN SCHOOL BRANCH
201 W. Indian School Road
Architect: Hermann Jacobi, Weaver & Drover
Current use: Office space
At 14,820 square feet, this is the largest of the Valley National Banks in Arizona. “This is a friendly and welcoming building that invites you to walk around it,” says Reiner of the flat-roof structure accented by cast columns with a notched geometric motif, interior and exterior stonework and walls of floor-to-ceiling glass. “A sheltered breezeway spanning the west side of the bank provides protection from the sun and invites lingering. “You don’t have to hurry inside; you want to take your time. This is a total work of art,” King says.
Purchased by Paul Hoskin and Tom Ryan in 2005, the owners have worked tirelessly to restore and maintain the building, even removing an interior drop ceiling to expose cylindrical skylights.