October 18th in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1957, the Long Beach Independent published the following black and white illustration of the proposed Bank Of Belmont Shore branch to be built in early 1958.

he footprint of the property the bank would have stood on would have encompassed the lots where Brita’s Old Town Gardens (225 Main Street), The Flipside Beach Boutique (231 Main Street) and the First Team Real Estate (245 Main Street) now do business. It might have also included the land where Nick’s Deli now serves breakfast burritos, but it’s difficult to tell just from the illustration.

Seal Beach history is filled with ambitious proposals that never became a reality, and this is one of stranger ones.

The bank building was scheduled to be opened on the southwest corner of Electric Avenue and Main Street on the inauspicious date of April 1st. Charles L. Green, the member of the bank’s board of directors in charge of planning the new branch told a Los Angeles Times reporter on June 29th that architects’ plans were to be completed in two months. And what plans they were!

The architectural style eschewed the traditional bank design of classical marble columns in favor of a more modern and open look with plate glass walls on two sides and a nautical theme for the interior decor. This was not an unusual aesthetic for the mid-fifties. What took the design on a Mr. Toad’s wild ride into wonkiness was revealed in seven words that were part of the caption for the illustration: Live seals will swim in a pool.

I assume that the smaller structure that runs from inside the bank building out into the landscape in front of the bank is the pool for the seals. It’s hard to tell from the grainy illustration taken from a newspaper page that was poorly scanned for microfilm archives, but there does seem to be at least two seals featured in the architect’s rendering.

LIVE SEALS WILL SWIM IN A POOL

Now, please. I ask you to pause and take a long moment to imagine the entirety implied in the concept of “Live seals will swim in a pool.” Close your eyes if it helps you imagine — but only for a moment. You’re going to have to reopen them to read the next paragraph.

First, think about what it would be like to do your financial business in a building with a pool of seals. Could you go over the details of a home mortgage, a business loan, or a deposit error with a bank officer or teller while playful aquatic mammals splash around and grunt a few yards away? If you were a teller or vault manager, could you concentrate enough to balance out your drawers at the end of the day after listening to that cacophony for eight hours? Who feeds the seals? Where’s the closest veterinary who can treat sick seals? What does it smell like in the bank? What do you do about all the kids and oddballs who show up just to watch the seals and get in the way of your actual customers. On a practical level, the seals would be cute for about a day, and then they would become a banking nightmare.

I found this news item only a few hours ago, and these questions immediately occurred to me. Who came up with this idea, and why didn’t he reject it for instantly apparent practical reasons?

Did Charles L. Green visit Marineland (which opened in 1954), see a crowd of tourists around the seal tank, and say to himself, “Boy, if only we could get a crowd this size into our bank. We’d make a fortune! Wait a minute, we want to open up a Seal Beach branch! This is genius! I can’t wait to tell the guys!”

This was during the economic and real estate boom brought by the construction of the Long Beach Marina, so maybe this aquatic scheme seemed… on brand?

Whatever sparked the inspiration for this idea and whoever pitched it, Not single member of the Bank of Belmont Shore’s board of directors objected to this lunacy. What I would give to be a fly on the wall when these solid community leaders and supposedly sensible businessmen decided to pass the idea on to an architectural firm.

I don’t blame the architects. If the check clears, crazy people’s money spends just as well as sane folks’s cash.

If I’m flippantly casting aspersions of the sanity of someone’s kindly grandfather or beloved relative nearly two-thirds of a century later, please forgive me. Whatever their finer qualities and life achievements might have been, you have to admit that approving a tank of live seals in a bank was crazier than a soup sandwich.

Or maybe it was all merely an elaborate April Fool’s Day prank The Bank of Belmont Shore was playing on the City of Seal Beach. It was due to be opened on April 1st, after all. Who knows?

Please forgive this self-indulgent digression. Sometimes the ideal of objective history telling must set aside for a good “What were they — nuts?” rant.

——————-

Luckily for whatever unsuspecting seals might have ended up in such unpleasant captivity, the branch was never built, but the reason remains elusive. According to city council minutes, the City of Seal Beach did business with the Bank of Belmont Shore between 1955 and 1958, but there is no mention of a potential bank branch in the city. The likely reason for plans for the proposed branch being abandoned had less to do with impractical building designs and more to do with internal issues within The Bank of Belmont Shore that become public in December 1957.

The Bank of Belmont Shore always had a troubled history. The original Belmont Shore branch building still exists at 5354 East Second Street and is a familiar landmark to anyone who visits Belmont Shore regularly. The building was built in 1929 and spent the good part of two decades as a location for a variety of short-lived restaurants. In 1950, Pasadena investors bought the building and commissioned Francis Gentry to design and remodel a state-of-the-art banking facility tucked stylishly inside a distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival exterior with drive-thru teller windows. That remodel was completed in 1951.

Then the $ 200,000 building remained unoccupied for more than a year and a half. The venture was originally to be funded by a half a million dollar stock offering to local investors, but only $35,000 was raised. Soon, the Pasadena investors were beset by liens against the building by Gentry, the Herman Safe Co., and speedboat race champion Richard Loynes, owner of the land leased to the investors. When the bank finally did open on December 14, 1953, none of those original Pasadena investors was listed among the names of new bank’s leaders and officers.

For the next few years, news articles about the bank were favorable, mostly highlighting community involvement or meetings held the bank’s popular community room. The bank was even a sponsor of The Miss Universe contest and often hosted appearances of individual contestants.

This image of civic virtue came crashing down when it was revealed that the bank’s president and vice-president had embezzled from the bank numerous times to a staggering total of $305,000, starting a mere month after the bank’s grand opening. The two bank officers were forced to resign to face an indictment with seventy counts of embezzlement, conspiracy, misapplications of funds, and making false entries. They were also forced to sell their shares in the bank, giving more honest investors control of the bank.

By all accounts, the new management ran The Bank of Belmont Shore honestly and well, and the institution’s prosperity grew year-by-year. Unfortunately, at the same time the two resigned officers were in and out of court for their crimes from 1958 to 1960, constantly tainting The Bank of Belmont Shore’s reputation with news stories of fraud, embezzlement, and dishonesty. In May 1960, The Bank of Belmont Shore was renamed Coast Bank the day before the former bank president was sentenced.

That’s not really Seal Beach history, but it does explain why none of us will ever ask on social media if anyone else remembers the bank on Main and Electric that had a tank of seals.

– Michael Dobkins


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