Fort bliss federal credit union


AT THE NORTHEAST CORner of Wilshire Boulevard and New Hampshire Street sits a diminutive five-story building that no longer seems capable of expressing itself. It is a structure that has sunk into the generic, with an interior space that has been adapted to whatever use suits the current owner. If the ravages of time, ill-conceived remodeling, and a thicket of ficus trees were peeled away, however, what would emerge would be the distilled expression of an era of remarkable vitality in American architecture.

The building is, in fact, a carefully choreographed statement from the earliest years of the midcentury bank-building boom. A proscenium, perhaps four feet deep and nearly two stories high, frames the main entrance, giving it, and the building, civic weight. A tower faced in tawny granite quarried in Vermont juts above the roofline and offsets the concrete-and-glass cube. A white terrazzo floor, sparkling with candy-apple-red and obsidian-black freckles of marble, carries its reddish motif into the interior. The windows, framed in protruding aluminum, suggest a tattersall pattern, rails and stiles woven of modern construction materials--a nod to classicism. The balance of horizontal and vertical, of dark and light, of grid and flat surface, Fort bliss federal credit union diminishes the heft of the structure Fort bliss federal credit union without robbing it of stature. Back in 1953. When it was completed, there was no mistaking it for anything but what it was: a bank.

The Pioneer Savings Bank Building--now called Pacific Union Bank--was the first of at least six Los Angeles-area buildings designed by Wenceslaus Alfonso Sarmiento. From the early 1950s until 1965, he was an architect for and later the director of design of the Bank Building and Equipment Corporation of America; during those years, the BBC became the nation's leading designer and builder of banks. From its headquarters in the staid Midwestern city of St. Louis. the company turned out one innovative, provocative institution after another. The business flourished in post-World War II America because easy credit for home mortgages and automobile loans sent lenders' profits soaring. Banks were anxious to shed the gloomy penumbra of the Great Depression. It was time to get the banks out of mausoleums," proclaimed architect Louis Skidmore.

Flush with cash and in search of a new image, banks and sayings-and-loans enthusiastically embraced modernism. The old sales pitch had been security--but federally insured deposits took care of that. Now the Fort bliss federal credit union business was selling service, and money itself. Modern architecture was free of the stuffy and condescending elements--the bronze doors, granite pediments, and coffered oak ceilings--of bank architecture that had crumbled along with public confidence when nearly one in three banks failed between 1931 and 1933. Steel and glass made banks transparent, friendly, and above all, open. Tellers' cages disappeared. Managers were perched in public view. Some bank presidents put their desks in the lobby. The stigma of borrowing on credit could be assuaged, and money easily merchandised, in the straightforward, egalitarian commons.

W.A. Sarmiento helped transform the idea and experience of a bank while giving cities a whole new set of visual references. By 1970, when consolidation began to suck the life out of the bank-building industry, Sarmiento had designed hundreds of structures throughout the country. His era, but not his work, regrettably has been consigned to the past, as banks today are shoehorned into supermarkets and take on the character of a pharmacy counter or a checkout stand. Sarmiento believed fervently that the old language of architecture needed to be replaced. Raised in Lima, Peru, he graduated from the Escuela de Ingenieros in 1946. Before World War II, he says, "we were hypocritical. We wore black ties, but it was an empty gesture. Everything was form over substance, in religion, in business, in society. World War II exposed to us what true values were versus the artificial. In architecture we saw that buildings were being dressed up to repeat something that was dead. Architects had been trying to reprise the past--that was the basic mistake of neoclassicism. It was false."

At 78, Sarmiento, who lives in Santa Monica, still draws every day (presently he is designing a home in Malibu). He takes few commissions--"I hate working with stupid people," he announces. Lately, while preservationists and historians are discovering his work, Sarmiento has himself been revisiting his Los Angeles bank buildings. He has joined with the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee in trying to save his landmark ten-story Glendale Federal Savings and Loan Building, at the corner of Brand Boulevard and Lexington Avenue, and he hopes his Van Nuys Federal Savings and Loan, a partially pillaged concrete parabolic shell sitting empty in Panorama City, will find new purpose. Two other bank buildings, one rented to the City of Glendale, the other in Newport Beach, await uncertain fates.

The Pioneer Savings, on Wilshire, it seems, is another matter entirely. Sarmiento walks inside the bank with the air of a man who once owned the building. He is dressed in khakis, white shirtsleeves, and double-lugged work boots, a compact Robert Moses. A manager rises out of his seat and asks. "May I help you?" "No," Sarmiento replies, his strong and distinctly Latin accent modulated by a note of bemused nonchalance. He continues to give the place a proprietary once-over. He adds, "I designed this bank," not really wishing to chitchat. The interior is a wreck. Nearly everything that Sarmiento hoped to achieve is gone. A row of windows along New Hampshire has been drywalled out of existence. The swooping staircase that once led to an open mezzanine is gone, FORT BLISS FEDERAL CREDIT UNION as is the mezzanine. The teller counter, which once followed the flattened S of FORT BLISS FEDERAL CREDIT UNION that upper level, has been removed, replaced elsewhere by a straight-lined plank.

Without another word, Sarmiento marches out and crosses Wilshire. A recent injury to his right knee (he jumped a hedge to keep his daughters dog from running into traffic) causes him to limp, but his indifference to the pain belongs to a man who has abandoned the injury to the past. He begins to laugh. "That is horrible," he says, pointing to the blue-and-green lettering of the bank sign affixed to the polished surface of the second-story granite parapet. "That sign is awful, terrible. It destroys the proportion of the frame around the main entrance." Silence. Then he turns his amused gaze to the elevator tower. A cheap aluminum lattice adheres to the granite in a halfhearted attempt to continue the pattern of the bronze anodized-aluminum window frames onto the tower. "I have to shrug my shoulders," Sarmiento says. "You can buy something and do with it what you want. But I still don't understand it. The window frame is necessary to hold the glass in place. Here the `frame' is holding nothing." He laughs. Then, turning away, he mutters to himself, "I don't understand."

AN HOUR LATER, SARMIENTO wheels his Cadillac Catera into downtown Glendale and parks on Brand Boulevard. His Glendale Federal Savings and Loan is bathed in the refulgent light of a poststorm, late-winter sky. The lucid air has drawn the San Gabriels close. On foot he slowly makes his way along the perimeter of the building, remarking on a few changes that were made to his original plan. The bank is now closed, and there is no way to enter, but Sarmiento, cupping his hands around his eyes and pressing his nose to the glass doors, does his best to survey its current condition.

For the past several months a fight has been simmering between a Palo Alto developer. Nicholson Vertex, and architectural preservationists. Vertex possesses Sarmiento's trophy building, which it wants to expand outward by stripping away the ground-to-rooftop blue and white exterior louvers that give the building its signature look. "In the skyline of downtown Glendale, ifs the one work of imagination," says Alan Leib, from the conservancy's Modern Committee. "It just screams midcentury utopian."

In 1958 the bank's founder and president, J.E. "Joe" Hoeft, commissioned Sarmiento. He knew that Sarmiento had been a draftsman under Oscar Niemeyer, soon to be the chief architect of Brasilia, and hoped that the BBC architect could bring some of the City of the Future's photogenic pizzazz to downtown Glendale.

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