With their soaring pillars, immense bronze doors and dimly lit interiors, banks used to make small depositors feel even smaller – but at least they believed their money would be safe.
By the 1950s, though, banks were eager for a friendlier image and Peruvian-born architect W.A. Sarmiento proved to be a master at providing it. In more than 100 bank projects, including Glendale Federal Savings and a half-dozen others in the Los Angeles area, Sarmiento drew customers with splashes of color and playful architectural features, including winding, sensuous staircases that would have been just right for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Sarmiento, an architect who changed the public personality of banks and created modernist landmarks, died Nov. 24 at his Santa Monica home. He was 91.
Family members said he had been in failing health for about a year.
Most Americans never knew his name, but Sarmiento helped change what it meant for them to go to the bank. Gone were the iron bars dividing tellers and customers. Bank managers sat out in the middle of big, open rooms. Light poured in and curving surfaces added visual softness.
Even the vaults were sometimes out in the open — a reassuring sight to Americans who lived through the Depression, when nearly a third of American banks failed within two years.
"They were saying, 'This is your money and we're not going to hide it," said Kirk Huffaker, a preservationist who championed the restoration of Sarmiento's First Security Bank in downtown Salt Lake City.
Sarmiento's buildings reflected America's postwar optimism and his own zestful view of the future, said Chris Nichols, a preservationist and editor at Los Angeles Magazine.
"They could have been World's Fair pavilions," Nichols said, "or they could have been equally at home in science fiction movies."
In fact, one of Sarmiento's best-known projects, the Phoenix Financial Center, was the setting of a 2000 sci-fi spoof, Garry Shandling's "What Planet Are You From?" A high-rise that resembles a curved computer punch card with two adjacent domes, it was described by the Phoenix New Times in 2007 as "a wacked-out wonder."
In Los Angeles, Sarmiento built the pod-like Van Nuys Savings in 1954, in Panorama City. It became a furniture store.
In Newport Beach, the bayfront Newport-Balboa Savings he designed in 1954 and remodeled in 1960 was a lively mix of elements, with louvers in un-bank-like blues, greens and oranges. It evoked "a yacht in full sail," wrote architectural historian Alan Hess.
It eventually housed a yacht rental business. Over the years, many of its distinguishing features have been stripped away to the point where "you've got a building that's just an echo," said Alan Leib, a former chairman of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee who was a leader in saving Glendale Federal Savings and Loan.
The Glendale bank was the tallest building in town when it was built in 1959.
Described by architectural historian Robert Winter as "pure 1950s razzle dazzle," the 10-story bank became an "imaginative space that enriched the community," a writer for the Verdugo Monthly, a local publication, wrote in 2008.
Leib and others fended off a series of changes that would have altered the building's distinctive appearance. That building and another once-threatened Sarmiento bank in Glendale, Fidelity Federal, now house offices leased to the entertainment industry.
Sarmiento sometimes wandered by Glendale Federal after closing time.
"I would walk around late at night and touch my hand to the glass and concrete," he told Los Angeles Magazine in 2001. "It was like visiting an old friend."
Born Wenceslao Alfonso Sarmiento Leon on Sept. 28, 1922, in Trujillo, Peru, Sarmiento grew up in Lima. He graduated from Peru's Escuela Nacional de Ingenieros in 1946.
He also served in the Peruvian army, flying mail over the Andes in a biplane. On one trip, he crash-landed and was lost in the jungle for two weeks, surviving dysentery and an attack by a gang of monkeys. He finally was rescued by lightly dressed indigenous people who fed him roasted caterpillars.
"He said, 'By that time, I was naked too so we didn't have anything to hide,'" his wife, Adrienne, said in an interview.
Sarmiento worked briefly for the celebrated Brazilian architect
Heading to the U.S. in 1951 for greater opportunity, Sarmiento found it accidentally. Visiting his sister-in-law in Missouri, he rear-ended a car driven by an architect for the Bank Building and Equipment Corp. of America, a
He started his own company in 1965 and relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1970s.
In addition to his banks and commercial buildings, Sarmiento also designed the graceful, circular Chancery building for the Diocese of St. Louis.
A quiet, introspective man, Sarmiento wasn't as well-known as some of his contemporaries because he didn't relish self-promotion, according to some who knew him.
But when his Glendale Federal building was under threat, he jumped into the fray.
"He brought down his scrapbooks and spread out his drawings," recalled Nichols, who was also involved in the preservation effort. "He was as enthusiastic 50 years later as when he came up with his plans."
Sarmiento was preceded in death by his first wife, Dora, and son Peter. He is survived by his wife of 27 years, Adrienne; son Louis Sarmiento; and daughters Marion Sarmiento, Jeanette Momper, Jean Giangiorgi and Jane Evans.