A Brief History of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America

Audio:

Sarmiento discusses his time at the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation and the design process.

 

Sections Discussed Below:

Formative Years (Pre-Modernist Period), 1913-1949

From a small St. Louis back alley, the St. Louis Bank Fixture Company specialized in the design, fabrication and installation of wood cabinetry, teller cages, letter trays and other wood fixtures such as custom paneling for executive offices, board rooms and courthouses. This wood-working shop at 811 Walnut Street was acquired in 1913 by Joseph B. Gander and his (cousin) Louis J. Orabka. By the close of World War I, the company added vaults, iron bars, gates and other metal products to its line. But in addition, they made the decision to expand their services to include planning, design, and construction to fixture installation. In 1926, the company moved to their long-time location at 906 Sidney Street.

The company was most prominently known as the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America, but under several different names during their company's history they built and furnished over 5,000 structures across the United States, Mexico, and Latin America. Some of the other names the company was referred to included:

  • Building & Equipment Corporation of America (1913-1943)
  • St. Louis Bank Building & Equipment Company (1923-1986)
  • Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America (1943-1991)
  • St. Louis Bank Building Corporation
  • St. Louis Bank Equipment Company
  • St. Louis Bank Equipment & Fixture Company
  • St. Louis Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of Delaware

Prior to 1929, the company was privately held with all of the stock owned by Louis M. Brohammer, Joseph B. Gander, and Dietrich Hedenkamp. However, when a Delaware holding company was founded in 1929, the three members sold a part of their holdings as a public offering. The IPO signified an upward trend for Bank Building & Equipment Corporation. They had recently designed several structures at the hand of lead architect W.G. Knoebel including South Side National Bank (1928) in St. Louis, MO; Home National and Trust & Savings Bank (1929) in Elgin, IL; First Wisconsin Bank (1929) in Portage, WI; Citizens National Bank in Erie, NY; First National Bank of Waukegan (1925) outside Chicago, IL; and the German Bank Building of Iowa in Walnut, IA. Today all these buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The depression brought almost a complete halt to bank construction and remodeling. The company's only job during the depression years was as both architect and general contractor for the Bank of Sikeston (MO). This project has been attributed to holding the company over during the early 1930s. So much so that the St. Louis Bank Building & Equipment Company appointed one of the bank's owning brothers, Joe Matthews, to a board position to which he served many years to show their gratitude.

The company also manufactured pinball machines, furniture, and designed and built mausoleums to keep its builders, planner and cabinetmakers together. With the repeal of prohibition and the increase of construction of beer halls and cocktails lounges, Bank Building & Equipment Corporation began marketing fine crafted beer cabinets, bars, and lounge furniture to hotels as a major client.

The company had completed its first 1,000 structures for financial facilities by the outset of World War II. Under the promotion of "functional planning," company personnel were anxious to attract customers back after the Great Depression made a mattress seem a safer place to deposit money.

By 1939, the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation and it subsidiaries had recovered from the worst economic time in the country's history to post a net income of $43,671, equal to 47 cents on each 91,981 shares of common stock, as reported in the New York Times. This was a dramatic rise and contrast to the net loss reported in 1938 of $18,909. By 1943, the company reported having approximately 1,500 stockholders.

During World War II, the market for new building again came to a halt. Bank Building & Equipment Corporation again turned to alternative production including pre-fab housing units for military bases, lift-vans, and overseas shipping crates. From this work, they were again able to keep their small, in-house core of planning and design specialists together. This allowed the company to refine its ideas on the changing role of the financial facility and positioned them well to handle the unprecedented growth that was to come afterward and influence the course of financial facility design.

Following World War II, population shifts, growth, and experimentation in the banking industry led to an explosion of demand in the banking industry for services to remodel and expand. The unprecedented demand for mortgage loans created a corresponding boom in savings and loan industry, shifting much of the population to the suburbs. This is where the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation was able to provide their full creative abilities to respond to an opportunity to create architecture that was distinctly recognizably as a financial institution, yet take advantage of the functional design concepts the firm had pioneered.

Gander took a successful business model from the pre-war days and began incorporating it into the company. Known even then as 'design-build,' this process by which a company could provide full services to design and construct and building of any type, could save a client time and money.

The design-build process in America has been attributed to Lockwood Greene Engineers, Inc. (merged to be known today as LG of Korea) dating back to 1832 that built schools, offices, commercial, and religious structures in numerous states. However, bank buildings became a favorite building type for design-build firms. One of the first to launch into design-build construction for banks was A. Moorman and Sons of Minneapolis, MN, from the early 1900s to the late 1970s. The company was responsible for dignified smaller, yet stylistically conservative, bank buildings across the Midwest. From about 1905-1930, Hoggson Brothers also played a major role in the design-build construction of small and large banks across the country. But where Hoggson Brothers failed to make it through the depression years due to personal legal and financial issues, and Moorman couldn't compete nationally, the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation cornered the market for bank designing, and design-build projects.

However, Hoggson Brothers derived a systematic design-build approach by which Gander could follow for bank construction. They advertised the Hoggson Building Method in their national campaigns as well as in promotional booklets with more details. It outlined how the design-build contractor was responsible for aligning all the producers (architect, contractor, decorator, etc.) in order to create efficiency. Since that was the contractor's responsibility with a fixed cost, any additional cost that fell outside that amount (such as to cover additional work time, or wait for a product to arrive) also became the responsibility and cost to the contractor, not the owner. However, Hoggson Brothers was never successful at implementing their method outside of a regional scope.

To make the process happen on a wider basis, Bank Building & Equipment Corp. owner J.B. Gander created a smooth process between departments and gathered one of the most talented teams of salesmen, designers, and architects to help transform the concept and experience of banking while modern buildings gave cities new visual references. It's likely that when Gander implemented this system it satisfied many business owners, created aesthetically pleasing and at least satisfactory buildings, and created a highly profitable company for the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation.

By 1947, Bank Building & Equipment Corporation promoted that 52 banks had selected them since V-E day alone.

For 1948, Bank Building and Equipment Corporation of America and its subsidiaries reported a net profit for the year of $387,692, compared with $309,550 for 1947.

Bank Building & Equipment Corporation pioneered many major innovations for the banking industry to accommodate new customer habits due to the decentralization of cities. The development of the drive-up teller unit, installation of the full-service suburban or branch bank, and increased use of automation are among the nationwide banking innovations led by the company. The company was boldly predicting that fully automated mini-banks would be developed within the next fifty years to further serve the needs of customers. With the popularity of using drive-up banking increasing, the thinking that "if they can't drive in, they may drive by" was quickly accepted by bank presidents and set up the Bank Building & Equipment Corp. for many projects during the next two decades.

Era of Growth and Prosperity (Mid-Century Modern Period), 1950-1965

BBC-staff-1956
Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America employees, 1956

It was no surprise to anyone and not an overstatement that much of the transition from customer-proof to customer-friendly was being spearheaded by the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America. With regular advertising in many of the country's major financial publications displaying their designs, and new bank-friendly policies in the post World War II era, the company rocketed to the front of the pack with innovation. In the new era, they helped popularize the branch bank, the consumer-oriented lobby, drive-up banking, and the modern teller station.

According to company statistics, fifty banks reported deposits increasing an average of 33.7% after modernization and increasing checking deposits an average of 20.6%. This was at the same time that the Federal Reserve had reported that total deposits of all insured commercial banks had shown a cumulative decline.

In 1950, Bank Building & Equipment Corporation had completed their first project outside the U.S., the Banco Commercial Mexicano (Commercial Bank of Mexico) in Chihuahua, Mexico. They followed that with the design by W.A. Sarmiento for the Central Bank of Honduras in 1952 in Tegucigalpa, the country's capitol.

However in 1952, remodeling jobs at Bank Building & Equipment Corporation were outnumbering new construction projects 10 to 1, which likely contributed to the company's profits remaining relatively stable at $330,936 rather than growing. In 1953, the company reported some amazing statistics: that they were completing a new building every three days, working in 32 states, and had another 22 contracts in five Central and South American countries. Bank Building & Equipment Corporation was not only helping to revolutionize architecture and construction for the financial industry through the design-build process, they were bringing innovation to the industry through technology and branding. A twelve year relationship began in 1953 between Perpetual Building Association of Washington, D.C. and the company. Over that time span, they built five new buildings together including four in the Maryland suburbs that all reflected a similar architectural appearance but evolved with the availability of new materials.

With exponential growth still on the drawing board, the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation prepared for an expansive future. By 1955, they had diversified their materials suppliers and producers to both expedite the construction the process and reduce the overall cost for clients. Adding to their highly reputable cabinet shop (Loughman Cabinet) and brick factory, they purchased two marble quarries (one each in Minnesota and Alabama) and invested in two vault-manufacturing companies.

Looking to expand further into the Central and South American markets, J.B. Gander had a wholly owned company named Design, Inc., used for work in hotels and similar projects, as well as a subsidiary company in Mexico City under the name of Edificios Para Bancos, and another subsidiary named Bank Building Corporation International, which was used for doing work in other countries outside of Mexico, mostly in the Latin American countries.

With over 3,200 project amassed by 1956, the company's marketing slogan was "From America's financial design center." At that time, the firm had 35 projects going in the St. Louis area alone with budgets ranging from $15,000 to $6.5 million, and had 350 other projects under contract. And truly the company's design-build services had skyrocketed. The complement of a great sales force, design team, and design-build system at the company allowed Bank Building & Equipment Corporation to crank out quality projects.

From Perry Langston's A.G. Gaston Building (1959) in Birmingham, AL, to Melvin Rojko's round design for the First National Bank of San Jose (1963), to W.A. Sarmiento's blend of rooflines, colors, and playfulness at Newport Balboa Savings (1954; 1960) in Newport Beach, CA, designers gave the their clients a blend of artistic functionality that sold more customers more banking products. Their designs were successful and they could prove it.

Gander leveraged that success to secure several projects for the company that were not bank related during the early 1960s. A few worth mentioning due to their uncharacteristic design or specification for the client including the IBEW Local #1 Headquarters (1960) in St. Louis, MO; Maryville College (1958-1961) in Chesterfield, MO; Paradise Island Towers (1963) in Treasure Island, FL; and the development of the design for the Gate Lodge for Howard Johnson's Motel (1958).

But there was also tremendous growth of the "non-bank bank" with more automation and decentralization in the early 1960s. Designs for the period conveyed a more secure and conservative atmosphere, but continued to expand drive-in services complete with TV access, closer proximity to offices, and less exposure to weather. All the technological and environmental improvements were meant to draw a closer relationship between the bank and the customer as well as reduce wait times.

By all accounts, the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation's mid-1950s plan to stay at the forefront of the industry into the early 1960s was successful, resulting in tremendous growth for the company – from $8 million in sales in 1951 to $28 million in 1961. By 1962, there were $38 million of projects in the pipeline of which $16 million were backlogged up through 1963. By 1964, the company reported sales of $35 million.

In 1962, Louis Orabka had taken over the company presidency for an ailing Gander. At this time, Bank Building & Equipment Corp. was completing an average of one building every three days for the past five years. They had also completed a reported 4,000 projects now and grew to a staff of over 300 including 150 designers, engineers, and draftsmen. In June 1962 the company was inducted into the Hall of America's Builders at Pepperdine College. At the induction, the stated that the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation has been instrumental in bringing about the widespread use of warm, contemporary designs in financial building.

Later Years, 1966-1991

Into the late 1960s, the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation began to feel fluctuations in the financials markets as well as the impacts of a recession on the construction industry. However, the charismatic leadership of Joseph B. Gander at the helm of the company, missing since his death in 1963, was undeniably one of the largest factors in changing factors inside the office. Chief of Design W.A. Sarmiento also left the company to found his own design firm, keeping a promise to himself that he would not stay with the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation for more than ten years. Though the company's growth in sales to $44 million in 1967 was its highest ever reported, the impact of significantly lower returns the next year at $34 million caused the company to begin a new five-year plan for growth.

A couple of major stunning designs emerged from the company in the late 1960s from the hand of architect William F. Cann. The Elmhurst Branch of Jamaica Savings (1968) in Queens, New York City leaps into the category of amazing forms, combining angular corner treatment with complex intersecting rooflines that recall the intersecting hyperbolic paraboloids designed by Sarmiento for the company more than five years earlier. Mobile, Alabama's landmark First National Bank (1965) tower on a pedestal is still a beacon of modernism in its downtown today.

Released in 1969, the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation's new plan for growth emphasized a boost for design and construction to current clients and providing any product or service that bank purchasing officers consider. Their services will also be diversified in products to include advertising, computer programs and equipment, forms, and personnel and executive recruiting for the financial industry. Outside the financial industry, the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation desired to break into new markets such as hospitals, airports and schools, applying their current design, architectural and construction expertise.

The "project analysis" approach implemented by the company during the 1950s and 1960s that allowed them to successfully expand exponentially for several years, rooted in a systematic approach to researching growth prospects and space requirements for clients. Expanding that fundamental core research component became the goal of Bank Building & Equipment Corporation when they expanded in 1973 with their Financial Research Associates division. This new division took assignments for banks, credit unions, and thrifts for clients in every state as well as consulting assignments from rural, suburban and urban markets, and institutions ranging from ten million to multi-billion dollar institutions.

The design of the company took a decidedly different approach in the 1970s, using precast structural components for affordability and retaining generous transparency. A few examples of these First National Bank of Evansville (1970), Evansville, IN; Merchants & Farmers Bank (1972) in Columbus, MS; and, National Bank of Commerce (1973) in Columbus, MS. These buildings may still have continued the tradition of banks hiring Bank Building & Equipment Corporation to design and build the newest building in town. However, W.A. Sarmiento's design for his private firm during the same period was far more contemporary and expressive. Though more limited in scope, Sarmiento's work on the addition to the Phoenix Financial Center in 1970, First Financial Bank & Trust Co. (c. 1970) in Lincoln, NE, and for Western Savings Bank in Arizona was creatively moving architecture forward.

Though many of the efforts were successful in allowing the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation to remain a profitable and highly competitive company for many design, financial, and consulting services into the 1980s.

On May 1, 1990, the shocking headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch read "Bank Building Corp. Files Bankruptcy." After losing $10.4 million in the last year, and with liabilities of $25.7 million and assets of only $19 million. Much of that was attributed to falsified records that concealed losses at the Loughman Cabinet Co. division. Though the company attempted to reorganize and correct the irregularities attributed to the division, it was not successful. The loss had come on top of a weak reporting year in 1988 when the company's net income was only $10,000 due to problems at Loughman; though in 1987 the net income was $2.8 million.

The unfortunate bankruptcy brought an end to a long and prosperous company with an outstanding reputation and history for quality design and service.