The Farmers & Merchants Bank Building
302 Pine Avenue, Long Beach CA 1923
2008 Louise Ivers
The Farmers and Merchants Bank is one of the most notable institutions in the city of Long Beach, not only because of its commitment to sound financial practices, but also because of the opulent architecture of its headquarters. Throughout its lengthy history, the prosperity of the bank has been guided by three generations of the Walker family. The founder, Charles J. Walker, opened a real estate office in Long Beach after he married Carrie Zeigler in 1895. Always involved in charitable endeavors, C. J. Walker was on the Board of Directors of the Y.M.C.A., as well as that of the Methodist Church. In 1900 he was elected President of the City Board of Trustees and then became Mayor. In addition, he was a major investor in the Long Beach Land and Navigation Company, which owned the future site of the harbor, and the Mercantile Company, which later became Buffums Department Store.
C. J. Walker's first foray into the banking business occurred when he became a member of the Board of Trustees of the First National Bank. Located at the southwest corner of Pine Avenue and First Street, the brick building was constructed in 1900 and had a distinctive clock tower, which was incorporated into the 1906 remodeling by the Long Beach office of Train and Williams. Gables and finials adorned the top of the tower of the original bank building and a two story oriel window projected from the oblique corner of the structure. In 1907 an anonymous group of Los Angeles investors took over the First National Bank and appointed C. J. Walker as President. He saved the institution from a run on its money and soon founded the Farmers and Merchants Bank in November 1907.
The Farmers and Merchants Bank opened on the first story of a remodeled commercial building at 227 Pine Avenue. Above the corner entrance a cornice supported by large brackets projected outward, but otherwise the structure was rather plain. The bank remained there until the present headquarters was built at the corner of Third Street. In September 1921 the East Long Beach Branch opened on Anaheim Road at Obispo Avenue in a striking neoclassical structure with engaged Corinthian columns on high pedestals supporting a cornice with dentils.
In 1922 C. J. Walker commissioned noted Los Angeles architects, Aleck Curlett and Claud Beelman, to design a new flagship for the Farmers and Merchants Bank at the northeast corner of Pine Avenue and Third Street. The Daily Telegram reported that it would "be built of reinforced concrete, with brick and terra cotta trim. It is the intention of the owners to make it pleasing to the eye and a credit to Long Beach." Ground was broken on 12 July 1922 and the grand opening took place on 7 April 1923.
The public banking room in the lower portion of the structure at the corner retains its red Italian marble entrance with double doors of brass-plated steel. Inside are a pink marble floor; marble benches for customers; original metal teller's wickets; terra cotta friezes with classical motifs on the mezzanine walls; twelve brass chandeliers with inlaid designs in turquoise enamel; and skylights of amber stained glass. The massive vault is reached by marble stairs leading down to the basement. On the exterior of the banking room giant Ionic columns support an entablature topped by a cornice with dentils. The ten story office tower has an entrance on Pine Avenue behind the public banking room and relief panels of urns with plants flank the attic windows. Acroteria line the roofs of both structures. The Farmers and Merchants Bank has recently undergone an impeccable restoration and is the only bank building in the Pine Avenue business district that remains intact.
Curlett and Beelman's design for the bank was typical of the early 1920s when financial institutions were mainly constructed in classical styles in order to present impressive facades to passersby. A bank that resembled a Greek or Roman temple connoted stability to potential customers. Curlett and Beelman also designed the Cooper Arms Apartments of 1922-23; the Security Bank Building of 1924-25; and the famed Pacific Coast Club of 1924-27 in Long Beach.
In 1937 Gustavus A. Walker became President of the Farmers and Merchants Bank, succeeding his father. Under his tutelage another branch opened at the northwest corner of American Avenue (now Long Beach Boulevard) and Fourteenth Street on 28 April 1941. Designed by Raymond A. Sites, a local architect, it had the first drive-in window in California and only the sixth constructed in the nation. The Streamline Moderne façade was clad in enameled metal tiles and the stainless steel doors were surrounded by glass blocks. No longer a bank, this distinctive building now faces demolition by the Redevelopment Agency.
By 1973, the Farmers and Merchants Bank had ten branches and in 1979 Kenneth J. Walker, grandson of the founder, became President. In 2007 the bank celebrated its one hundredth anniversary and published a handsome book to commemorate the Walker family. Due to its conservative financial practices, the institution will undoubtedly be around for another century to mark its two hundredth year in business. It is not only leader in the realm of finance, but also in historic preservation.