Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at

Montrose’s Most Spectacular Architecture is Hidden

In the 1920s, Southern California was booming. Money was easy, and businesses paid to be conspicuous in their wealth. Banks were some of the biggest participants in their opulent displays, which were most extravagantly evident in the architecture of their buildings. Banks at that time were massive temple-like structures, with cavernous marbled lobbies.

Many of those incredible architectural masterpieces survive today in downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena, and are now, after years of neglect, being restored to their former glory for successful use as unique coffee shops, galleries and retail outlets.

Montrose had its own spectacular bank building on the corner of Ocean View and Honolulu, where Color Me Mine was recently and where the new Starbucks proposes to be.

Built in 1929, the Crescenta-Cañada Bank was absolutely beautiful. The new centerpiece of Montrose was opened with much fanfare and on its first day was visited by thousands of people. It was a long, tall building, two stories high, capped with a Spanish tile roof in a Mission Revival architectural style. The grand front entrance was a tall sweeping archway extending up almost the entire two-story front face. Elaborate wrought iron covered the cavernous opening, diffusing the light and providing a lockable doorway. Once inside, the grand lobby was open all the way to the ceiling, giving an impression of one of the California mission chapels.

The most stunning feature was the massive wooden beams extending high across the top of the tall open lobby. The dark wood beams were stenciled with blue and red designs. On the east wall, high windows streamed in the morning light. On the other side, windows along the entire west face provided a view of the Verdugo Mountains and opened to cool afternoon breezes. The floor was of patterned and polished cement, stained dark, with shiny red and blue enameled tile insets. The tellers were on the west side, set up on a platform, and the counters separated by columns. The manager’s offices were on an enclosed mezzanine across the back wall. Mounted on the walls of the high offices were two small glass slits overlooking the lobby so the manager could secretly view the customers through one spy-hole and the tellers through the other. The bank vault was dug deep underground below the building, the thick concrete-walled cell accessed by narrow winding stairs.

So what happened to this cool old building? The bank enjoyed several years at that location, but as the banking center of Montrose moved east into modern buildings, the old Mission-style bank was leased as retail. Sometime in the ’50s or ’60s a plain drop ceiling was put in and the upstairs became storage. The arch was covered and the front of the building was extended out a few feet to accommodate display windows. The polished concrete floor was overlaid with linoleum, and the vault door sold for scrap.

And so, one of the best pieces of architecture in CV has slept unseen for over half a century. The painted beams are still visible in the upstairs storage area and the plastered-over archway can be seen there as well. The high windows are still there, but now only light the storage area, and the underground bank vault is filled with boxes.

Both the building’s owner and Starbucks are aware of the architectural gem they’re sitting on, but they’ve declined to shoulder the expense of a restoration. When Color Me Mine was a tenant they pulled up the linoleum to expose the decorative floor, but I would imagine that Starbucks will recover it. The fake front façade will be pulled off in the Starbucks remodel, but will be immediately covered again.

And what about the ghost I’ve been told haunts the vault? Will he or she object to being disturbed by coffee grinders at 5 a.m.?

Fortunately this remodel won’t destroy the features I’ve described – only cover them with a new layer of mediocrity.

And the best piece of architecture in Montrose will slumber on unseen, until somebody comes along with a vision of what an amazing space this restored former bank could be.