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Home Savings' Buyer to Close 161 Calif. Offices

Mergers: Three of the S & L's landmark branches are included in Washington Mutual's consolidation.

October 07, 1998|LIZ PULLIAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three landmark Home Savings branches with their distinctive mosaics, murals and sculptures are among the 161 California bank offices that will be closed next year by savings and loan giant Washington Mutual Inc.

The closures and other consolidation moves are expected to cost as many as 3,500 bank employees their jobs and to displace thousands of customers, although many of the customer accounts would be moved to branches within a few blocks. The largest number of closings will be in Los Angeles County, with 40, followed by San Diego County with 22, Orange County with 21, Alameda County with seven and Ventura County with six.

The closures include three of Home Savings' signature white-marble monuments in Santa Monica, Riverside and Chula Vista, as well as Home's downtown Los Angeles headquarters. The buildings' facades feature murals or mosaics that depict scenes of Southern California life, such as farmers toiling in the fields and Spanish missionaries encountering Indians.

Customers at the Wilshire Boulevard office at 26th Street in Santa Monica on Tuesday bemoaned the loss of their 29-year-old branch, which features a mosaic, a stained glass window and sculpture fountain of families cavorting at the beach.

"It's stupid," grumbled lifelong resident Tom Daspit, who said he enjoys gazing at the stained glass beach scene as he waits to see a teller. "It's a gorgeous building."

The branch's accounts will be moved less than a block away to a Washington Mutual office. In fact, 42% of the closing branches will move their accounts to other offices less than a quarter mile away, the bank said. The 26th and Wilshire branch is being closed because it lacks safe-deposit facilities and has only 10 teller windows to the Washington Mutual branch's 20.

But some customers said aesthetics played a role in their deciding where to bank.

"One of the reasons I came to Home Savings when I opened my account several years ago was because I was attracted to their buildings," Santa Monica customer Mark Senstad said.

Washington Mutual says that customer amenities, visibility and parking determined which branches would stay and which would go. The buildings' style and artwork were not a factor, Washington Mutual spokesman Tim McGarry said.

McGarry said the Seattle-based banking company will try to find local places for the movable artwork, including sculptures and paintings that adorn most of the Home Savings branches, and that it is searching for buyers who would preserve rather than raze the buildings.

Many of the buildings and mosaics were designed by Millard Sheets, an architect, muralist and teacher. H.F. Ahmanson commissioned Sheets and his Scripps College colleagues in the 1960s to create the buildings and artwork. In some critics' eyes, though, the edifices became anachronisms almost immediately. Whereas other banks at the time were aiming for a sleek, modernistic look, Sheets' designs were intended to convey a sense of grandeur and stability.

Aaron Betsky, architecture curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, once wrote that the Santa Monica building "looked like the tomb of Silent Majority." However, he said Tuesday, the buildings lent cultural and architectural significance to communities that were often devoid of other landmarks.

"They created an architecture that was grand, but in a populist way," with marble to connote stability and gilt edges to denote wealth, Betsky said. "No one would argue that [the artwork] was the greatest quality. . . . It's the kind of artwork and architecture that told you something about your community."

The branches' size has condemned them in an era when banks are increasingly opting for efficiency and technology over architectural statements.

There should be no shortage of potential buyers for the buildings, however. Brent F. Howell, a retail leasing broker for CB Richard Ellis, said he expects that many of the closed bank branches will be sold or leased relatively quickly, thanks to their locations at busy intersections and their large parking lots--two important criteria for retail tenants. The branches could be popular with expanding drugstore chains that offer drive-in pharmacies, he said.

"There always seems to be a new player that wants to come into the market," said Howell of potential new tenants. "They are well-located properties, and they continue to be in demand."

Analysts generally expect a smooth transition for Home Savings customers, citing Washington Mutual's relatively trouble-free combinations with Great Western Bank and American Savings Bank. Those mergers were notably free of the kind of technical glitches and customer defections that marred the Wells Fargo & Co. takeover of First Interstate Bank two years ago.

"Things have gone very smoothly in the conversion process," said Joseph Morford, a bank analyst with Van Kasper & Co. in San Francisco. "I think that bodes well for customers of Home Savings.

But because Washington Mutual's previous mergers have given it such a large number of offices, the geographic overlap with Home Savings is high and about 15% of the combined companies' 22,000 employees are expected to lose their jobs. Most of the cuts will be in administrative and back-office positions.

The layoffs are in addition to the up to 8,000 jobs expected to be cut as a result of BankAmerica Corp.'s merger with NationsBank Corp. and the 2,100 jobs to be lost with Wells Fargo's pending combination with Norwest Corp.

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Times staff writer Jesus Sanchez and special correspondent Stephen Gregory contributed to this report.

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