Banking on an original: Work underway to restore interior of one of the city’s most iconic buildings

When the signage for the Bank of America building on South Palm Canyon Drive came down, some locals feared the worst. Well, worry not — the move was for all the right reasons.
Restoration work is well underway on the Bank of America building in Downtown Palm Springs. A sample of a possible new exterior color can be seen on one wall.

“The word iconic is terribly overused,” begins Gary Johns, president of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation (PSPF). “But in this case, the Bank of America building is an iconic building in Palm Springs.”

He is, of course, not talking about just any Bank of America building. He’s talking about the midcentury modern masterpiece designed by Rudi Baumfeld in 1959 on South Palm Canyon Drive. It’s more sculpture than building, instantly recognizable thanks to its shimmering blue Venetian mosaic tiles and its frothy, curvilinear roof inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel in France.

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Approaching the building from the south, it is impossible to ignore because it sits at the literal fork in the road between Indian Canyon and South Palm Canyon drives. 

Johns thinks that’s part of its appeal. He says it’s not just an interesting and eye-catching building, but its surroundings add to it rather than detract from it, “It’s so perfectly sited. There’s nothing around it, and it floats in that little peninsula. You see it coming east. You see it going south.”

The building is internationally recognized for its importance and is one of the biggest draws during modernism week. So when locals noticed the Bank of America signs had been removed and the building was closed, some worried about the future of the site.

Steven Keylon, vice president of PSPF, was quick to calm the fears of some residents on social media. He said all was well, and that the plans for the renovation had been carefully looked over by preservation foundation. 

“It’s a Class 1 Historic Site anyway, so every proposed change had to go before the city-appointed Historic Site Preservation Board,” he confirmed.

It looks bad now, but when interior work is finished at the Bank of America building, the floor will be closer to the original intent. (Photo: Gary Johns)

When the renovation is complete, the exterior will change just slightly. Plans call for the walls to be painted tan instead of white to match the building’s original paint more closely. There will also be an ATM screen installed outside.

The bulk of the work will take place on the interior, with flooring being the most notable change. Johns and Keylon both think the building had Terrazzo flooring when it opened. Since then, the flooring has been covered up by layers of different modern flooring. The most recent change was perhaps also the most incongruous with the building.

“It was covered up by this distressed wood plank like something you might find in an old barn in Connecticut. That was one of the most egregious changes,” explained Johns.

The new flooring will be poured Terrazzo. Other changes on the interior include the restoration of Murano glass and walnut panels.

There is no need for major work on the building, Keylon says, because it has had good stewards and has been well-respected almost since the beginning

Gensler, the architectural firm overseeing the project, is highly respected. Johns said he has confidence that they will adhere to the original spirit of the building.

He’s not without concerns, however. On a recent visit to the site, he noticed some of the blue mosaic had been damaged when the Bank of America sign was removed. “Now there’s gaping two-inch holes,” he said. “Now my concern is, can the blue tile be matched? Will the damage even be restored? Are they just putting up a bigger sign to hide all the damage they did?”

Johns said he is in contact with the architectural firm and has reached out for answers to those questions. 

A standout structure

Rudi Baumfeld was working for Gruen Associates when he designed the Bank of America Building. Victor Gruen founded the architecture firm, and he is considered the Father of Shopping Malls after designing the world’s first enclosed regional shopping center. 

Gruen left his mark all around town. He designed the former Palm Springs Post Office that is now home to the popular Eight4Nine restaurant on North Palm Canyon Drive, according to Chris Menrad, a founding board member of the Palm Springs Modernism Committee.

Gruen was also hired by the first all-female Agua Caliente Tribal Council to design a future development for Section 14 that included 1,500 hotel rooms, a convention center, and a new casino. The Palm Springs City Council rejected the plans in 1958.

The organic lines of the Bank of America building stand in sharp contrast to what most people think of when they think of midcentury modern design: long flat roofs with a lot of straight lines. Keylon said that’s a common misconception.

“It’s not all sleek, white, and shiny with a pop of color,” he says, describing the common clichés dotting several thousand Pinterest inspiration boards and the pages of Atomic Ranch magazine. “There was a lot more texture and color and creativity. There was a sense of humor even.”

The building originally housed City National Bank and was one of four notable midcentury modern banks all within walking distance of each other that made up The Financial District of Palm Springs in the 1950s and 1960s. Johns mapped out the other banks: “You have the Union Bank on Ramon, Santa Fe Federal Savings which is now the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture & Design Center, and the Chase bank.”

This building designed E. Stewart Williams, which now houses Chase Bank, is part of what was once known as the city’s banking district.

The Chase bank sits less than a quarter of a mile away from the Bank of America building. That building was designed by E. Stewart Williams and is characterized by its upside-down arches. 

Traditional big banks in New York City often have huge, heavy, and imposing Greek columns and arches to signify strength and security. But the inverted arches of Williams’ bank literally turn that idea on its head, and make it seem more forward-looking and even whimsical. 

“These are buildings that were designed and built specifically for Palm Springs. They just wouldn’t fit in any other city,” said Johns.

Design for all

The bright doors and breezeblocks of the midcentury modern homes in Palm Springs may leave an outsized impression on tourists, but some of the most distinct midcentury modern buildings in the city aren’t the houses. “Some of the best buildings out here are the gas stations and banks,” said Keylon.

That’s part of the ethos of some midcentury modern architects and sculptors, especially Victor Gruen. It’s the idea that ordinary buildings like banks or gas stations can be extraordinary —  beautifully designed and enjoyed by all, even though they’re utilitarian. 

Case in point, the explosion of midcentury modern gas stations that were also built in the ‘50s and ‘60s by architects such as Albert Frey and William Cody. Their design wasn’t just a quirk — it was mandatory that the gas stations blend in with the city.

“The City Council and the Planning Commission would not allow a corporate gas station to be built in Palm Springs,” explained Johns. “All gas stations had to fit the architecture of the city.”

Only two of the original five midcentury modern gas stations remain, including Frey’s Tramway Gas Station, which is now the Palm Springs Visitor’s Center. Johns says we’re lucky the building was saved.

“That building was a battlefield for years because a developer wanted to tear it down,” he said. “It took two attempts to get the City Council to save it.”

Elected officials saw the light, and now the city’s main thoroughfare is bookended by two masterpieces of midcentury modernist architecture — the Frey Visitor’s Center and the Baumfeld Bank of America greeting visitors coming in from the north or the south and asserting Palm Springs’ place in the history books.

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