Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Photo Essay: Farmers and Merchants, the Old Bank with Big Plans

I don't know how I missed this place in the four years that I've lived in LA.



But as many times as I'd been down to the Old Bank District of Downtown LA, I'd never really noticed the Farmers and Merchants Bank on Main Street.



Farmers and Merchants has since become a local chain of lending institutions, but it all started when Isaia Hellman founded it in 1871...



...and in 1904 built landmark...



...in the style of a Roman temple.



It still stands as an early example of the "temples of finance" that were popular in the early 1900s...



...despite having officially closed for business in the 1980s.



Since then, the Farmers and Merchants Bank building has been used for special events and, of course, film shoots.



Many of the original elements are still in place in the main banking room, and fortunately haven't been covered up...



...including some ceiling lighting fixtures...



...a balcony with original Victorian-style railing...



...and the tile floor.



The space that visitors get to see on the main level during events is vintage, and well-kempt...



...but there's a dark basement underneath...



...where the safe deposit and vaults are...



...that's a bit more sinister...



...and not maintained for the public eye.



The basement isn't exactly modern, but it's vintage to the 1980s era when the bank closed, with drop ceilings, wood paneling...



...and functional carpeting that seems to have trapped that "old building" smell.




But the original vaults are still down there...



...with everything reminiscent of banks of yore...



...standing stoic in unlit rooms, their contents removed...



...their drawers unopened.



It's super-creepy down there and dark hallways that appear to have been blocked off actually extend way beyond what you'd think the footprint of the building above is.



Some demolition has already happened down there, walls partially torn down in a way not indicative of vandalism. There are big plans for the Farmers and Merchants Bank, after all: the forthcoming Old Bank District art museum will be built on top of it, and will incorporate three other buildings at that corner of 4th and Main. And rumor has it that the actual bank itself will be converted into a dining destination below the new museum, like many of the other old bank buildings in Downtown LA that are now restaurants or clubs.

I grew up in an era when banks like this one managed to coexist with small branches at the strip mall and drive-thru tellers with their pneumatic tubes – way before ATMs or Coinstar machines which have made banking more about convenience and less about how much money you actually have (or need to borrow). Banks have gone the way of post offices and train stations and churches, sacrificing elegance for accessibility, commerce, and efficiency.

At least we can find a way to put this lovely building to good use without destroying it.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: Bank of Manhattan Clock Tower, Queens, Abandoned