There was a time when an area on South Palm Canyon Drive close to the Ramon Road intersection was referred to as The Financial District. Dominated by large financial institutions, these structures were a monument to desert area commerce and the money that existed in the region. However, most of these banks and lending centers were architecturally significant works of art and today we are lucky that many of them remain untouched. Only a couple of them however are being utilized for their original purposes. Some remain vacant. Some have been converted to office/retail environments and some may actually be nearing functional obsolescence.
They still dominate the street and I remember a time in the mid 80’s when these building hosted bustling commerce transactions and the parking lots were filled with exotic and expensive cars I had only seen in magazines before. Terrazzo floors, stainless steel handrails, exposed staircases and other extreme detail elements added to the illusion of luxury and wealth. At a time when customer service was mandatory it’s obvious that the banks of the Palm Springs of yesteryear used building design as a competitive edge.
Through the years the banks may have changed names several times but it wasn’t until the 90’s when they began to disappear altogether. With the dissolution of Savings and Loans and mega bank mergers, the need for so many large institutional structures became scarce.
For Palm Springs though these structures also represent some of the best California architecture from that time period. The Bank of America building on South Palm Canyon just as it merges with Indian Canyon may be the most noticeable of this collection. Originally constructed as City National Bank and designed by Victor Gruen Associates, Rudolf Baumfeld, Chief of Design, in 1959, this building has remained an icon of contemporary desert architecture with its blue tiled exterior walls featured in such accomplished periodicals like The New Yorker and more. Structurally unchanged since built, it was a recipient of a Palm Springs Modern Committee award in 2003.
What is now Chase Bank at Ramon Road was originally built as Coachella Valley Savings and Loan in 1961 designed by E. Stewart Williams. Just down the street the original Coachella Valley Savings and Loan still stands vacant. It was built in 1955 and also designed by E. Stewart Williams. Williams is also credited with the original Santa Fe Savings and Loan from 1960.
More iconic is The Merrill Lynch building which stands vacant on the west side of South Palm Canyon. It was built in 1971 and designed by Donald Wexler.
Walking through the area it’s easy to spot all the former banks with their drive through windows and night depository boxes. Some have transitioned to other purposes quite easily while still others struggle. The financial importance of downtown Palm Springs may have waned but the architectural significance will continue. Such a dense area of design from that era may be rare so preserving the original integrity is important. More important however is taking the time to notice it.
When in the area park your car north of Baristo Road then simply walk to The Bank of America and back to see all these buildings and more.