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This branch bank by 4240 Architects, Inc., of Chicago and Denver, is an impressive example of architectural branding and ranks among the most highly refined instances of New Modernism anywhere in the South.
CertusBank, N.A. emerged in early 2011 when CertusHoldings took over CommunitySouth Bank and Trust of Easley, South Carolina. Between 2011 and 2013 CertusBank, which ranked as one of the country’s largest minority controlled financial institutions (its founding executives were African American), acquired other banks, first in South Carolina and then in other southeastern states. After moving its headquarters from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Greenville as the epicenter of its operations shifted southwards, CertusBank broke ground on a completely new branch on a prominent site on Augusta Street, at the busy corner of Church Street, east of Greenville’s downtown.
This undertaking signaled an initiative to use branch design to brand CertusBank, whose architectural image up to that time was a disparate accumulation of hand-me-down buildings. The new branch bank’s design intended to project an image of CertusBank as an institution that did more than take over failed regional banks. It meant to suggest the promise of an entrepreneurial bank utterly different from the institutions it had absorbed, an institution that was more than the sum of its parts and was distinguished by a forward-looking business model.
The choice of an uncompromised New Modernist aesthetic, produced by architects from outside of South Carolina, assured that the Augusta Street branch of CertusBank would have no parallels in Greenville’s recent bank architecture (mostly characterized by neo-baroque styling, little of which qualified as serious design). When completed, the structure raised by CertusBank on Augusta Street possessed an astonishing freshness matched by very few contemporary buildings anywhere in the state. Its clean lines, smooth surfaces, and striking use of color made it instantly recognizable as a unique contribution to the architectural heritage of South Carolina. Thus, it effectively branded CertusBank as a formidable enterprise.
The site plan of the Augusta Street branch divides the bank’s functions between two buildings. The smaller, with a ground plan in the shape of a parallelogram, accommodates drive-through customers. The larger building contains the banking hall, staff offices, and auxiliary spaces; the trapezoidal structure is so situated as to allow two of its four flat facades to be read as “billboards” by southbound traffic on Church Street and northbound traffic on Augusta. Because the plot is irregular, great skill was required in placing the two structures in a skewed relationship that suggested a dynamic composition while permitting a logical traffic pattern into and through the facility, in addition to providing adequate parking.
Conceived as a prototype, the larger, trapezoidal building is enclosed mainly by glass that opens nearly the entire interior to views from outside, an effect that suggests the metaphoric transparency of CertusBank’s operations. The building is roofed by a bridge-like concrete structure, pierced by skylights and spanning the solid end walls between which occur only clear or opaque partitions. The interior space is conceived as a kind of community living room in which customers and bank tellers can interact on an informal basis. Furnishings offer customers a choice between traditional teller service and digital banking at a bar equipped with networked, touch-screen computers. Showcasing the bank’s involvement in digital technology is a multi-screen projection array built into an inner wall and used for advertising or for making educational presentations to customers.
In September 2014, CertusBank opened a similar branch facility at 3900 Pelham Road, but before that branch was completed, the fortunes of CertusBank reversed. In spring 2014, the Greenville News reported that the bank was in financial difficulty. A year later, CertusBank announced that it would close its Greenville headquarters (1 North Main Street) and sell off its other branches.
In October 2015, BNC Bancorp acquired CertusBank’s Augusta Street branch along with its other South Carolina locations. The new owner modified the structure by adding new signage, repainting in red areas that had originally been painted bright blue, and effacing the name of CertusBank, which had been cast into the branch’s concrete walls in negative relief. The Augusta Street branch bank’s subtle color scheme and its minimalist approach to advertising were thus compromised. The building thereby lost its importance as an instance of architectural branding, although its considerable significance as an artifact of African American architectural patronage remains intact.
“CertusBank Plans to expand.” Greenville Journal, March 9, 2012.
Dykes, David. “CertusBank to Sell or Close All Remaining Branches.” Greenville News, June 1, 2015.
“CertusBank Branch Prototype.” 4240 Architecture. Accessed October 6, 2015. www.4240architecture.com.
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