School and Bank Buildings as Marketing

Was struck this morning by how similar old school and bank buildings tend to be. The builders, like all popular artists of the day, wanted to communicate something. Here we look at what that something is.

Here is a not atypical high school building built in California the 1920s and still in use:

Santa Rose HS
“Santa Rosa High School, July 08” by Wulfnoth of English Wikipedia – self-taken photo by the author. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

This is a fairly lovely building (it’s got gargoyles! Too small to see here) built in what was at the time a very rural area about a couple hours north of San Francisco. The marketing messages are: permanence, importance, and wealth. You don’t throw on all the frills and extras unless you’ve got money to spare. Less obvious messages, perhaps, are Tradition – the building reminds one of many noble civic and commercial buildings – and Beauty/Civic Pride – it’s a nice building, especially for a town full of farmers.

These are very important messages to everyone concerned: Parents get the message that they are doing a noble and good thing to hand their kids over to be educated here; teachers are made to feel a part of a noble (and well-funded) effort to make things better, and students should be just a little cowed to go to school in a building much nicer than their homes in almost every case. Perhaps the hope is that they will therefore behave better? 

Here is one from Massachusetts, built in the 1890s and lost in a fire in 1936:

Brrookline HS MA

Now this building sends some rather different messages. It looks like a combination of a church and a factory – something that harmonizes well with what Horace Mann had in mind (this was built in a Boston suburb, after all). He had died only 30 years before, and his torch had been taken up by every education school and state education department by this time.

Following Fichte, Mann envisioned school as a place where children are removed from the baleful influence of their families and brought up as good, hardworking Protestants who will do as they’re told. As a factory owner himself, and friends with many factory owners, he was very familiar with the problems he and his buddies had hanging on to workers. What with the vast, fertile farmlands of the Midwest being available for the taking, a solid Massachusetts farm boy was quite likely to quite his factory job and head west as soon as he’d earned his grubstake. Further, if you grew up on a New England farm, you were used to calling your own shots – doing what needed to be done when it needed to be done. This sort of can-do self reliance ran afoul of the efficient workings of the factory – it’s counterproductive when the worker bees start thinking.

Trouble was, the New England farmers kept voting Mann’s proposals down. Seems they did not view themselves as his moral inferiors, and took a little umbrage at his attempts to wrest their sons and daughters away from them for proper training – and tax them to finance it. Mann’s reports are in many ways his attempts to spin what he was up to to get it past the gimlet-eyed farmers with their town hall democracies and strong sense of family and community.

In one of those ironies of history, the challenges facing  Mann and his buddies got solved in a completely different way: the Irish showed up in great numbers.  Now, while those farmers weren’t interested in sending their own kids to school, a little (well, much) anti-Irish anti-Catholic bigotry, properly inflamed, was able to convince them that those unwashed criminal papist degenerates needed some learnin’ beaten into them. For their own good, and the salvation of their souls, of course. That 19th century Brookline High School seems to sum that up nicely.(1)

Here is a nice old bank:

The American Trust Company Building was built in 1926 in Petaluma, a half-hour drive south of Santa Rosa.

Another lovely building, that also sends the message of permanence, importance, and wealth, even if it’s fake granite over terracotta – it looks really real. Note that this is a comparatively tiny building, but stands right downtown in a city know as the Egg Capital of the World at the time. People kept cows a couple blocks up the street to the right. (Some still do, but a few more blocks out.) The only other impressive buildings in town at the time were the public schools (maybe – couldn’t find pictures), the Carnegie Library, and a couple churches, most notably St. Vincent’s right up the street.(2) So, despite its small size as banks go, I’m betting it had a significant affect in a downtown full of feed stores and a five-and-dime.

Here’s a more impressive bank:

First Agricultural National Bank, Pittsfield
First Agricultural National Bank, Pittsfield. From Historic Buildings of Massachusetts

Here the builders went full Greek temple, real white marble and everything. In addition to permanence, importance, and wealth, we’ve got that pagan religious vibe. Of course, government building – the good ones, anyway – have long played that card, and for the same reason: the builders want to evoke Tradition and inspire a bit of awe: We Are Not To Be Trifled With, we of the First Agricultural Bank in Pittsfield.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

     Hebrews 11:1 King James Version (KJV)

Schools, banks(3), churches and government buildings(4) house activities you must take on faith: you can almost never see what they are selling. What is ‘education’ anyway? How about ‘interest’ or ‘grace’ or ‘law’? These all fail the Ted Nugent test(5). Yet we must believe they are real, or society collapses.

Today, we’ll leave aside churches(6) and government buildings and focus on banks and schools. What if a bank were to explain to its customers: ‘What we do is take your $1,000 and lend it out at interest to maybe a hundred people. We then have $100,000 lent out, all of it making interest, of which we give a small portion to you as interest on your deposit. Thanks. The rest we keep, and hope and pray all, or almost all, of those people we lent the money to pay us back. Because if even 1% of the loaned value defaults, we’ve completely wiped out your deposit! But don’t worry, we’re experts! And we keep all that interest income just in case somebody defaults. And besides, the government has our backs! Just recently, they gave us banks a couple trillion so that we could ‘maintain liquidity’. And this is about all your non-expert head could hope to understand – it gets much, much more convoluted.”

Much better if the banks let their architecture speak for them: ‘Look at all this marble and granite! Obviously, we’re not going anywhere, and we’re just LOADED with money! What are you worried about? Obviously, it all works!’ All banking activity could be conducted from a shack or a lunch wagon just as well – but that doesn’t work, from a marketing perspective.

Similarly, schools are trying to sell us that, despite making all kids miserable at least sometime, and some kids miserable all the time, and cranking out illiterate, innumerate and irrational ‘product’, we should nonetheless trust them to raise our kids for us. Back when school buildings were beautiful, they were attempting to exterminate the one room schools. While they couldn’t argue superiority in ‘product’ (one room schools cranked out much better educated students than the ‘scientific’ schools, at a tiny fraction of the cost and hours), they sure could win the Building Contest: ‘Look at all this! It’s a temple of learning! You want to send your kids to some one-room shack surrounded by mud, with an outhouse out back? Or shall you send them to this veritable Parnassus, this paean to modern life in concrete and stone?

Of course, all that great school architecture started winding down around 1940, when demographics and technology (tractors, mostly) had depopulated the farms. Much of Whittier High, in my home town, was built in the 40s, and has a not unpleasant Art Deco vibe, but does not have the same Temple of Learning feel at all.

After that, school architecture went all to hell. My favorite example is San Francisco State (the student center doesn’t look even this good in person) because it is so relentlessly ugly. Slabs of concrete with bunker-style slit windows and public ‘art’ that, were it placed in a junkyard, you couldn’t pick it out.

Banks are still typically nice buildings, even if the suburban branches have gone sort of ‘strip mall’ in their sensibilities. Schools, on the other hand, launched the next phase of dumbing us down once the locally controlled one-room schools had been disposed of. Beauty might get people thinking – and we can’t have that.

  1. As is so often the case, the builders of the brass bull ended up inside – once the project got going, only the rich (and the obsessively dedicated) were able to send their kids to different schools. The rich get to keep their own schools as well as their own health insurance. Eventually, they get to keep their own private armies, too. Eventually, the beast eats them anyway. History, baby!
  2. Lots of Portuguese immigrants who wanted a nice church and got one. St. Vincent’s has largely escaped wreckovation, and in fact received a nice paint job not too many years ago. Very pretty church. We were married there.
  3. For our purposes here, let’s classify insurance companies, stock exchanges and other financial institutions with banks. Same concepts.
  4. Law firm buildings sometimes look like temples as well, for the same reasons.
  5. If you can’t bite it, it doesn’t exist.
  6. Can’t completely ignore churches. Catholic and Orthodox churches, insofar as they are attempts to manifest the Incarnation, have a different motivation than other religious worship buildings. They do not merely give glory to God, which falls under the attempt to make real something that cannot be seen, but body Him forth. With the True Presence in the tabernacle, the entire building becomes like Mary, holding within herself her own Creator. And, like Mary, the building itself becomes full of grace, highly favored, the Holy of Holies. For the builders of the great cathedrals, overwhelmingly named for Mary, this Incarnation in stone becomes the chief reason to build as beautifully and permanently as possible.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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