Taking Action to Preserve Mid-century and Branch Bank Buildings

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Researched and Written by Donna Jean Reiner

Introduction

For a number of years American preservation advocates have grappled with preservation decisions regarding post-World War II construction.  It may be easier to delineate why buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the first half of the twentieth century are significant and therefore worthy of preserving as a symbol of their time.  Indeed, some of these historic buildings were unique even at the time of their construction.  However, considering that most of the buildings standing today in the United States were built after WWII (in 2004, over 70% were less than fifty years old), it behooves the preservation community to understand the opportunities for preservation as well as the numerous threats to mid-century modern buildings. So, now is the time commit to take steps to educate the public about their value and consider how to reuse each building as the situation warrants.  But more importantly, the preservation community also needs to provide the tools that the general public can use to assist with any preservation campaign.

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Threats to Buildings

The appreciation and use of various architectural styles change over time.  While many changes occurred rather slowly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, since WWII, tastes, styles, and building materials have changed much faster.  In some respects, this has contributed to the notion that America, in particular, is a disposable society.  When a new product appears on the market, people stand in line, sometimes for hours or days, in order to be the first to own it and then toss the older version away without looking back and appreciating the “old.”  This pattern places great pressure on retaining and preserving mid-century modern buildings.  Who wants a building that is out of fashion on the outside?

Many buildings do not appear old but are possibly eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places based on the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s age guideline of fifty years.  Unfortunately, others will never get the chance to reach that “magic” number.  In particular, for mid-century modern buildings, there are numerous threats to their continued existence.  Consideration of these threats during the evaluation process may necessitate accelerating the evaluation of a potentially eligible property.  As an example, of the 127 branch banks constructed between 1950 and 1975 in Phoenix, fifty-five percent of them no longer exist.

Unfortunately, no adequate documentation or explanation exists that identifies the branch bank as a national phenomenon of the post-WWII era let alone this specific building type.

The Owner

The owner of the building can be one of the greatest threats to any historical building whether intentionally or unintentionally.  If the owner lacks interest in preserving or rehabilitating the building, demolition is probably imminent.  At the worst, lack of interest ultimately leads to lack of maintenance which in turn usually spells doom for the building.  The same is true if the owner is more interested in the value of the land rather than the structure.  Traditional real estate logic suggests that demolition of the building might lead to a higher price for the land, although that is not necessarily true.  However, if current zoning prohibits the type of building the current or future owner might propose for the site, the associated costs related to rezoning might actually decrease the assumed value of the land.

Initially, the decision maker in the preservation process of branch banks is the bank, or current owner of the building.  However, dealing with powerful owners or developers is problematic.  Many developers often claim to have money and “promise the moon” if the site is clear.  However, they often do not follow through once the building no longer stands.  Nevertheless, preservation advocates must be able to respond to claims that the building or site does not meet the National Register of Historic Places criteria for listing (i.e., fifty years old, architectural masterwork, first, only, etc.) and “is merely an obsolete building with no redeeming features of significance” with logical and reasonable counter arguments based on local significance.

The owner who appreciates the building, but lacks the funds to preserve it, also threatens its safety.  Neglect to the maintenance under these circumstances is just as detrimental to the longevity of the building.  However, this situation may not be as dire if the owner is willing to evaluate the benefits of historic designation at the national or local levels, or knows about and applies for federal rehabilitation tax credits or local or state historic preservation funds.

Land Values and Zoning

One of the most apparent threats to mid-century modern buildings anywhere is land values.  Since the end of the twentieth century, the U.S. has seen an escalation in property values and the prices paid for many developed and undeveloped parcels.  Realtors know that location can increase the value of property, but the zoning category also has an impact on the property’s value to an owner or developer.

These highly speculative times create problems when the current zoning of a property does not meet the plans of a developer.  If the parcel where the branch banks sits is large, then the owner may consider rezoning the site.  But this is not a new phenomenon.  Such zoning changes generally mark the end for a one or two story branch bank regardless of its architectural interest or historic significance.  Unfortunately, this choice may destroy the original integrity of the branch bank setting and ultimately lead to demolition unless there is a clear alternative, or preservationists can offer a viable option.  Still, a proposed change in zoning may provide the opportunity for preservation advocates to intervene.  In some communities such as Phoenix, Arizona, the process for rezoning allows for public comment in a minimum of two hearings.  During each of these steps, preservation advocates have the opportunity to make a case for why the branch bank is important to their neighborhood or area.  It is also during this process that public concerns may impel other city officials to step in or initiate meetings between developers and preservationists with the hope of reaching a mutual agreement on the project.

Size of Building: Remodeling and Maintenance

Today, size matters.  Branch banks were often small because the intent was to serve the surrounding area even though they may have been a full-service branch.  Sites were not necessarily of exceptional size, but even if they were, the building’s design and placement on the site did not overpower its surroundings.  A small, accessible, and open building lent itself to be more inviting to its neighbors.  Unfortunately, this small size often raises issues due to the trend toward large-scale developments.  Unless the new owner is imaginative and hires an architect or contractor sharing a similar imaginative spirit, the consensus may be to demolish the building.

The small general floor plan of branch banks also contributes to the need for expansion which can greatly impact the original design.  In some cases, the original architects included expansion plans in their design. However, the present owners may not be willing to explore these alternatives before they decide to do something else because the incentive to demolish and replace is strong, likely being seen as a better investment.

When initially assessing the exterior integrity of a branch bank, one needs to carefully determine possible additions.  If possible, determine when these changes occurred and if they were part of the original design.  This may be difficult if permits and original plans are unavailable.  However, if the permits and plans are available and the remodel follows those plans, then the assessment should explain this.  If not, then note that too.  Other cosmetic changes to the exterior may be difficult to detect unless collective memory and old photographs can verify the original exterior and subsequent changes.

Delayed maintenance for any building creates long-term problems regardless of the building’s age.  Delays in exterior maintenance become critical with mid-century modern buildings because of the lifespan of some of the construction materials.  Many times buildings constructed after WWII featured experimental components.  As technology improved, new construction materials evolved.  However, these materials did not necessarily stay in favor or prove to be viable for an extended period of time.  Thus, if the original construction materials are no longer available, there must be an evaluation of substitutions for consistency with the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.  The evaluation of the property must assess whether changes are reversible if they were not part of the original design.  Evaluation of replacement materials should also consider whether the original is still available when commenting on changes, and whether the substitute closely replicates the original.

Bank Consolidations and Mergers

Bank consolidations and mergers could pose an immediate difficulty for the current branch bank building stock in most communities.  Mergers and consolidations often lead to the downsizing of property holdings.  The banks will sell the excess property to whoever wants it.  In Phoenix, when Valley National Bank, First National Bank, and Arizona Bank became part of larger national banks, the perceived need for all the smaller branches located throughout the city diminished.  Some newer or smaller Phoenix banks that wanted to expand purchased existing branch bank buildings while other types of financial institutions such as credit unions purchased a few others.  Some found new uses, but many were demolished to make room for new buildings.  Following the collapse of the savings and loan industry in the late 1980s, some of the new larger banks that entered the market, such as Bank of America, purchased those buildings and either re-used, sold, or demolished them.  The result was that several architecturally significant bank branches were eventually lost in these multiple transactions.

Strategies for Preservation

The continued existence of any building depends on its serving a useful purpose for the owner, the economic situation of the owner, the economic climate of the area, the understanding of the building’s symbolic contribution to the history of the area, and the public’s desire to protect and preserve that building if it faces demolition or alteration.  Rapidly growing cities like Phoenix that have rich histories despite a fairly small historic building stock, often face greater challenges in the realm of preservation (especially with respect to buildings labeled mid-century modern or less than fifty years old).  Part of this attitudinal problem stems from a transient population that has little connection to and knowledge of the community’s past.

Before mid-century modern buildings, such as Phoenix’s Custom Architecturally Designed Branch Banks, disappear altogether, we must have the opportunity to recognize and acknowledge their place in architectural history and seek to preserve the best that remain.   The Custom Architecturally Designed Branch Banks are deliberately individually designed buildings that were in some cases put out to bid for design, and in other cases the financial institutions sought out specific architects to request their services.  In Phoenix, the major banks and savings & loans all joined forces to follow this pattern despite the beginnings of cookie-cutter buildings for chain design.

Education of the public becomes a key in this strategy process.  It may be as simple as reminding all concerned that even significant people such as Mozart, lived a short life, but their works remain important for centuries.   It is no different with architects and significant buildings.  By not doing so, a noteworthy part of a community’s cultural and economic history and resources will only be a fleeting memory or a picture in a book.  The following information extrapolated from real examples provides some practical tools in educating the public.

Determining the Specific Circumstances for Each Site

In developing a preservation strategy, it is necessary to assess the threat to the building.  The following are some of the specific circumstances that will raise red flags regarding the longevity of a historic building:

  1. Absentee owner and neglect
  2. An owner wants to demolish the building to sell the land
  3. The property is in escrow to a developer
  4. Potential new tenant or owner

The circumstance may dictate the most appropriate initial step to take in an attempt to preserve the building.  Other circumstances that may impact the advocacy process are:

  1. A friendly owner with no money who is just holding the property
  2. Existing use or tenant
  3. No immediate threat
  4. National or local designation already in place
  5. Public interest
  6. Potential for community and media support

These six circumstances may not require immediate action, but do require noting when watching a specific property.

Advocacy, Education, and Appreciation

Advocacy is a means of developing a local constituency.  In this study, we are looking for people who are interested or could be interested in mid-century modern architecture and buildings.  Therefore, education of the public begins with explaining why Custom Architecturally Designed Branch Banks are important.  The following are suggested tools and methods in this advocacy process.

In the case of the Phoenix examples, the Custom Architecturally Designed Branch Banks are important not merely for their architectural significance, but also for the story they tell about the city’s rapid growth in the 1950s and 60s.  And stories are a key to developing interest in the buildings.  Far too often the public takes a building for granted as it is just the place where they do business.  They have forgotten how much it impressed them the first time they walked in or how it came to be in the first place.  And it may not seem old if one remembers its construction.

Creating interest in mid-century modern buildings means being proactive.  Support groups for post-WWII era buildings can help others become converts not only in saving a particular building, but also to the efforts of the preservation movement.  Phoenix has such a group, Modern Phoenix, which focuses primarily on post-WWII residential properties because that is the larger public interest.  However, there is strength in numbers in the preservation process.  One step then is to make sure that support groups such as Modern Phoenix understand that there are significant commercial buildings from the same time period.  Advocates should place equal emphasis on commercial buildings’ importance in the history of the community.

Expanding awareness beyond those who are already predisposed to have some interest in either the time period or preservation in particular takes time and creativity, but is not necessarily difficult.  With the permission of the building owners, arrange for a tour of the interior.  If that is not possible, then organize tours of the exterior emphasizing the story of the building and the area.  Again, emphasize stories associated with the building to enhance awareness of the branch bank’s importance remembering that more people will relate to them than to architectural terms.  Tour organizers might build on the nostalgia for the particular era of the place by having people dress appropriately and display vintage cars.  Pick a theme for the tour while “stress[ing] that the historic resource is a wonderful and important example of the real thing…[and] its presence is part of the legacy that makes our community special.”

Not everyone is able to go on a tour.  Thus it also becomes important to increase the interest in the buildings by putting them on display through other means.  Simple methods can be promoting these branch banks on contemporary electronic platforms such as websites or blogs.  Using the most current electronic means targets younger people who are becoming more aware of their community surroundings and interested in preservation.  This in turn increases the grassroots foundation for future preservation efforts.

Critical in this advocacy process is the education of owners, architects, planners, developers, and city officials.  All these groups at one time or another will have some impact or input on whether a historic building will remain standing.  Owners and developers need to know the economic advantages of keeping and using the building.  Architects, particularly those who do not work with historic buildings, need to know how to protect the exterior integrity in a remodeling project.  Planners and city officials need to understand the power of preserving part of the community’s history and sense of identity for future generations.  All this takes time, but is certainly doable.

Other methods of display are exhibits in art museums and particularly contemporary art museums if possible.  People who appreciate contemporary art should acknowledge the importance of mid-century modern architecture.  There might be lectures and workshops associated with such an exhibit which can draw more people especially if any living architects of these buildings can be the speakers.  Finally we must not ignore printed matter.  Magazine articles, brochures, books, postcards, and photographs all stress the value of these buildings.  Each method tells its own story.  After all, we are a visually oriented society and pictures do speak loudly.  Ultimately, the education campaign is one of “reason and persuasion” Thus education of the building’s owner, public and government officials, realtors, and architects can lead to the interest in local listing of “young” but interesting resources.

Communication Tools

This chart provides a comprehensive set of communication tools one can use in an organized advocacy campaign depending on the urgency of the situation and the audience.

Universe of Communication Tools as Part of Comprehensive Communications Plan


Print

Electronic

Interpersonal

Other

Annual report

Bookmark

Brochure (General & Membership)

Calendar

Crisis communications plan

Directory

Elevator speech

Fact sheet

Flyer

Info packet (standardized)

Invitation

Key messages

Letter template

Logo, tagline

Newsletter

Op-ed

Postcard

Poster

Press release

Proclamation

Report

Speech

Thank you note template

Blog

Directory

E-mail Masthead

E-newsletter

Event calendar

Fax alert

Phone “hotline”

PowerPoint

Screen saver

Survey (Candidate)

Television show

Video/CD/DVD

Web banner/button

Website

Facebook

Twitter

1:1

Award ceremony

“Boot camp”

Breakfast, monthly

Conference

Media briefing

Media workshop

Meeting

Open house

Phone call

Speakers bureau

Teleconference

Town hall

Town hall post-event

Videoconference

Webcast

Teacher workshop

Trade show (statewide)

Traveling exhibit

Ad campaign

Award program

Banner

Billboard (roadside & terminal)

Board game

Conference display unit

Distribution lists, e-mail

Distribution lists, mail

Flag

Hat

Media coverage

Postage stamp

Presentation binder

Public libraries

Scout badge

Stickers

Tchotchkes

Tee shirt

Evaluation of Integrity and Alteration

Advocacy and education about mid-century modern buildings cannot happen in a vacuum.  We must know what buildings fall into this category.  Therefore, a complete inventory of branch banks, following the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s guidelines for survey methods must occur.  This process would typically involve consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office or local preservation officials.  During this inventory process, those doing the inventory will research and analyze exterior changes and the impact these may have on the integrity.  While this is a long process, the inventory will form the foundation for future work and historic designations.  Once completed, the next step is to determine which of the branch banks are the most appropriate to consider for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

National Register of Historic Places

Before seeking listing in the National Register of Historic Places, check the status of the building.  It may already be in the National Register of Historic Places or some prior research may exist.  The easiest way to determine this is to check with the State Historic Preservation Office.  If no information exists, then the first step is to determine the age of the building.  If the building is fifty years or older and still has its historical integrity, then it is important to select which criterion is most applicable to the individual property based on 36 CFR 60.4:

  1. Criterion A:  A Property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
  2. Criterion B: associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
  3. Criterion C:  embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represents the work of a master, or that possesses high artistic values, or that represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction

Under Criterion A, the pattern of events is the association with local and state banking history and historical national trends of branch banking.  According to National Register Bulletin 15: How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation, “the property’s specific association must be considered important as well.”

The requirement branch banks will most likely meet is the one related to the type, period, or method of construction, which is Criterion C.  Each in their own way has a distinctive style and design that makes them significant examples of mid-century modern branch banks. Criterion A or C are the likely choices to select.  It is unlikely that Criterion B is applicable to any branch bank.

If the building in question is not yet fifty years old, one can defend the building for “exceptional” significance which can be at the local level.  National Register Bulletin 22: Guidelines for Evaluating and Nominating Properties That Have Achieved Significance Within the Past Fifty Years explains the exceptions and special circumstances which may qualify such a building for listing.  Therefore, it becomes important to build the case for significance on the local level in order to strengthen the argument for national designation of many of these custom branch banks as a building type.  In the case of a group such as the Phoenix Custom Architecturally Designed Branch Banks, it may be more important to document them as a thematic group rather than individual properties.  Thus, one should also refer to the National Register Bulletin 16b: How to Complete the National Register Multiple Property Documentation Form before embarking on preparation of a National Register nomination for these branch banks.

There are a number of justifications and benefits for seeking listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  One is the honor for the owner and the building.  There is a certain cachet associated with having a building listed.  Many people implicitly believe that once a building is on the National Register it is safe from demolition.  While that is not true, national listing can sometimes help rally the public’s interest in saving the building. From the preservationist’s perspective, there is perceived “clout” associated with a National Register listing.

Local Designation

If National Register designation is not applicable or possible due to other constraints, then local designation may be an alternative.  Local designation of mid-century modern properties may be the most logical step in the process to protect properties that do not appear to meet the criteria for eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  But why seek local listing?

Generally this type of listing has more “teeth” than a National Register listing because it correlates to the strength of the local historic preservation ordinance and force of zoning.  Since the criteria and standards for local designation do not focus as much on the age (fifty years old), communities may accept the historic significance of mid-century modern buildings less than fifty years old because their associative value to the community is stronger.

Yet, assessing the significance of recent past buildings can be difficult and complex.  Is the building the first, the oldest, the only, or the most unusual?  And should this matter in the decision-making process?  Today, the preservation process requires more “ongoing study and interpretation” to establish the importance of a building or site.

The initial step in Phoenix is to survey the existing branch banks in more detail, prepare a local contextual history using this thesis, and perhaps formulate a thematic context that will be the foundation for a multiple property nomination.  The completed survey and historical context may lead to the acknowledgement of the value of the branch bank as an important building type.

With this information, the next step is to educate policy makers, such as city council members and planners, regarding the importance of these branch bank resources to the community’s history and give a visual presentation of the most significant examples.  This presentation should inform these officials “that by preserving the building they will show themselves responsive to the latest findings of scholarship.  They will demonstrate a level of vision that will keep their city or town in the forefront of preservation planning.” Even though the City of Phoenix has a viable preservation program for designated old buildings, preservation advocates must make sure the policy makers are aware that the city’s “newer” building stock in their own district also has significance, and faces constant threats from new development.

The third step is to seek local designation for architecturally outstanding buildings before they reach fifty years old.  While local preservation standards generally follow the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s criteria for listing in the National Register, city and state preservation officers must remember that the so-called fifty-year rule is only a guideline.

Local listing is a way to develop pride in city’s mid-century modern building stock.  However, if local designation is not possible, then seek a formal determination from the State Historic Preservation Office.  This will support advocacy efforts regarding the historic value of the building.

Myth Busting

Advocates must be able to address the skepticism of the value of a mid-century modern building.  Often one hears such comments about a particular building as “It’s ugly.”  While this is really an aesthetic issue and difficult to overcome, taste should not be a consideration when evaluating the historic value of a building.  Unfortunately, too few people miss such a building when it no longer exists even if it was a unique design or architecturally significant for the community.  Remember though, in time people will rediscover and appreciate architectural styles and materials, just like clothing fashions.  According to Robert Venturi, people “tend to abhor the architecture of the recent past and admire that of the distant past” because of our “cycles of taste.” The question is whether the building can survive that long without preservation intervention.

Advocates can counter accusations that preservation is anti-development with the argument that preservation is protecting a piece of the community’s history.  They can explain that the “accelerating rate of change in the built environment, [and] certain classes of buildings and structures produced only decades earlier...[have become] almost as rare as their centuries-old counterparts.”

If preservationists disagree on the merits of a building, remind them, “as well as the general public, that some of our most treasured historic landmarks were once universally reviled.” At one time, for example, people thought Victorian buildings were ugly.

Federal and State Rehabilitation Tax Credits

One justification for listing in the National Register of Historic Places is that it affords the owner the opportunity to seek federal rehabilitation tax credits which are an incentive for the owner to invest in rehabilitation of the building.  Despite the over 2,000 individually listed properties younger than fifty years old, very few of their owners have actually obtained these credits.  Why?  In some cases, buildings have not reached the stage where major rehabilitation is necessary.  On the other hand, owners may be unaware of these rehabilitation tax credits, or the process is too daunting.  Either way, preservationists know that various financing alternatives can be a critical factor to enable an owner to keep and restore their historic building separately or as part of a larger development project.

Opportunities for Rehabilitation

Branch banks, no matter the size, are appropriate for “new” financial institutions and many of the Phoenix branch banks continue to serve as banks and credit union facilities.  The designs are rather versatile enabling a building to serve many different purposes with minimum alteration and the owner may benefit from tax credits.

In Phoenix a charter school, car rental agency, restaurant, engineering firm, offices, city department, city senior center, and a retail business all utilize former branch banks for their operation.  While the exterior remains the same, there may be minor or extensive work to make the interior usable for their particular situation.  Some businesses reuse the vault while others remove it.  Other businesses restore as much as possible of the interior to its original condition.  In either case, the building still stands as a vestige of the original branch bank functions.

Documentation of Losses for “Academic” Purposes

While not a method that will physically preserve a building, documentation of buildings before demolition provides information for the future.  It is critical to undertake this process so there is record of the appearance for scholarly purposes and community memory even if the building is lost.  At this time there would also be documentation of subtle changes.

Cautions

In any strategy plan, there are generally a few cautions.  In the act of preserving mid-century modern branch banks, the following are the most common:

  1. You cannot save every building.  That means in the advocacy process, you must pick and choose your battles carefully.  Being too obnoxious, too contentious, or too vocal may cause ill feelings before the next battle and doom it from the start.
  2. It is important to remind both sides of the debate that preservation of particular buildings or types of buildings is really an effort to protect a significant part of local history.  This may be the key to getting public officials to notice and also a means to explain the importance to out-of-town owners who have no real connection to the community.
  3. Make sure you are aware of local laws or state legislation that might impede the listing of a property in a local historic register.  Such laws generally relate to zoning.  In Phoenix, as well as the entire state, Proposition 207, passed in 2006, now makes listing in a local historic register difficult if the owner believes such a zoning overlay will reduce the value of the property.  Such laws may require greater finesse to convince the owner of the value, often increased, in local listing.  That is when financial “carrots” may come into play to make listing palatable.
  4. Without squabbling in public with other preservationists, find the experts on this particular building type or period of history, and seek their assistance.  According to Richard Striner, you might consider questioning the credentials of those preservationists or individuals opposed to preserving the target property.  Determine if they have “done independent research on the building type, the locale, or the historical period in question…and [if] the results [have] been published.” This may be a risky proposition, so weigh the consequences before implementing this action.
  5. Assess the obstacles and the risks of pursuing national and local designation recognizing that the decision may depend on the local political climate.

Conclusion

Preservation of mid-century branch banks can happen.  Several examples around the country demonstrate the potential. While their architecture is distinctive, even quirky, it is important to document and protect these buildings for future generations.

The threats are real.  Functional obsolescence can trigger demolition.  Business downsizing, which naturally happens over time, can lead to closure.  And any idle building, regardless of the ownership situation, is subject to damage and neglect inside and out.

While available preservation tools and methods may not all work for every situation nor should they all be used, knowing the specific circumstances for threats allows community and preservation advocates to plan and implement an appropriate strategy.  When cities and their preservation partners take the time to promote significant mid-century modern commercial properties, others will take notice and follow suit.

Local designation has the force of zoning and provides the best protection. Active citywide non-profits, statewide non-profits, and the State Historic Preservation Office may play a more active role than the municipality. Depending on the locality and particular preservation challenge, the preservation community should determine what entities are the most effective point of contact for advocacy and other intervention strategies.

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