A Brief History of Bank Building Architecture in the U.S.

From 1900 through 1938, basic bank architecture followed classical lines and the functional aspects of bank planning ran second to the demand for prestige and security.

PSFS-by-joseph-readdy-on-flickr
Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building. Credit: Joseph Readdy on Flickr

Years between the wars were taken by social revolution, economic depression, and movements of Socialism and Communism, all of which came to question the basis of capitalism.  The reaction in this unstable climate with architecture was that of conservatism. Therefore, striking modern designs were slow to emerge.  Yet exterior and interior design came to be seen as unfriendly and inefficient, with teller barricades and bars separating the public from banking employees.

The old sales pitch was strength and security.  Uncle Sam took care of that with federally insured deposits.  Selling service and money became the business of banking.  Much of this of course was spurred in the early 1950s by greater prosperity, the automobile, a population shift into suburbia, and the extension of branch banking.

However, between wars there were some bank presidents and boards who had the confidence to step to the forefront and jump-start both America’s economy and imagination with new architecture.  One major building that stood out as a sign of things to come was the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society headquarters designed by George Howe and William Lescaze (1926-1932). The PSFS Building (photo right: Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building. Credit: Joseph Readdy on Flickr) was the first skyscraper to not just include toned down Art Deco details and some streamlined elements, but make a unified Modernist statement as whole.  To accomplish this, Howe and Lescaze spent years considering each aspect of PSFS in detail and integrated into the whole as a new approach to tall buildings.

Even before European modernism exerted an influence on populous architecture in America, the banking industry led the way in adapting a new aesthetic for major urban buildings.  Modernization on Main Street and new design in the suburbs opened pathways for contemporary design.  The mid-century design philosophy for bank buildings between 1935 and 1955 brought ideas for opening up the lobbies, tossing away the iron bars and putting tellers and customers face to face to merchandise services with a more friendly atmosphere.

As authors Dyson and Rubano note, these “moves were driven by broad cultural, economic, regulatory, and technological changes.  These forces helped transform an institution that represented tradition in all facets to one that embodied a new American vision:  the modern, progressive bank building as a powerful image-making and passive advertising tool.” In detail, bank buildings beginning in the 1930s gradually began to exhibit more modernist materials such as “semicircular public space[s],” lots of glass, “unadorned exterior surfaces,” aluminum, black marble (instead of white), steel windows, and air conditioning” as Donna Jean Reiner stated in her thesis.

With details such as these, signature structures within the banking industry were built within a short twenty-year time span, bringing convenience and efficiency to the forefront of a once conservative business.  In contrast to the asymmetry of PSFS, the simple, smooth Equitable Savings block gave a new image of a minimal and efficient post-war modern bank.

Pietro Belluschi designed Equitable Savings and Loan Association Building (1944-1948) in Portland, Oregon as a startlingly modern structure.  Expansive green glass contained within a flush gray grid of granite and small panels gives the building a purity that had not been seen in America previously. The reflective thin members of masonry lent themselves to providing the vast majority of the structure to glass, giving it over transparency through the building as well as reflectivity against the sky.

Equitable-Savings-by-smallritual-on-flickr
Equitable Savings Building, Portland, OR. Credit: Smallritual on Flickr
In New York, where the classical fortress bank was defined, glass and aluminum began to erase past allusions of style in favor of transparency.  Manufacturers Trust (1954; SOM/Gordon Bunshaft) featured one of the first curtain wall construction systems in the United States, providing transparency, an exposed structural system, open floor plan, and a direct view to the vault for the public from the street.  These elements were combined to give one of the seminal designs of the mid-century era as bank architecture made the full transition to the International Style.  After the opening of Manufacturers Trust, banks clamored to adopt the new style.

As national technology quickly evolved with the U.S. space program, banks capitalized on the popularity of the forms of the space age era as well as the ability to create dramatic forms to express their unabashed positivity for a bolder future.  Signs became larger, shapes became more reflective of air and movement, and technology improved the ability for architects and engineers to collaborate to create spaces that created texture, feeling, and seamless integration between inside and outside environments.

 

Manufacturers-Trust-Bank-NYC-Courtesy-Robert-A.-Young
Manufacturers Trust Bank, New York, NY. Credit: Robert A. Young
However, within the context of the seminal architects and buildings that are currently recognized as the forefront of bank design, the designs of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America should be consider among them.  Their “strong statements of design” following World War II may have been the general topic of comments by Albert Barash, an architect who wrote extensively in Banking on various aspects of bank design during the late 1960s. Bank Building & Equipment Corporation became known for eye-catching signs, aerodynamic designs, bold colors and new materials, and above all, customer convenience.

The Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America continued to design signature buildings into the 1970s, though it was popularly believed that particular styles or building materials were no longer essential to convey the strength of the institution.

Drive-In and Drive-Thru Tellers

Researched and Written by Donna Jean Reiner

Following World War II, banks were much more aware of the importance of the car to their customers.  While the first drive-ups appeared at banks in the late 1930s, very few were part of a bank design until the late 1940s.  Drive-in teller windows often added to older buildings were not ideal because the available space on the site was not large enough for the maneuvering of a car.  Two industry journals, Banking and Burroughs Clearing House, provided guidelines on adding or including drive-in teller areas for bankers in 1949 and the early 1950s such as placing the drive-up window “on the left side of the driveway,” and the appropriate grade and width of the drive-ways.  Architectural Record also featured pictures of real examples in a number of issues in the 1950s and 60s.  By 1957, over fifty percent of “ABA member banks had, or soon [would] have, either drive-in or parking facilities.”  A few banks even had walk-up windows.  Separate drive-in teller islands outside newer structures became quite common by the 1960s.  

The Bank Building & Equipment Corporation specifically had developed a type of drive-through unit called the Yardstick Bank that was designed as smaller, more automated and thus faster and more efficient as branch satellites than typical branches.  This could have been the forerunner of the first ATMs.  By the 1970s, banks might even have a site that only provided drive-through service.  Banks even “borrowed” a device from department stores, the pneumatic tube system, for many drive-in islands.  All these innovations demonstrated to customers that banks cared about accommodating their various needs.