When you walk into your bank branch’s lobby, it’s not likely you feel particularly inspired. Is your branch yet another box of stucco wedged between the Panda Express and the Quizno’s? If it were to pick up and leave, could it be easily replaced by an Aesop’s Tables? And you’re giving these tasteless people all your money?

Bank branches used to be more than oppressively banal boxes that house cheap-suited loan officers and some chintzy furniture. Go to any older urban neighborhood, even ones that were historically very poor, and you’ll likely see some beautiful, permanent-feeling architecture at the local bank branch. Of course a lot has changed in a century. It’s not so important that banks impress those in their footprint with their gaudy branch locations and secure vaults. Their headquarters are located in far-away skyscrapers in Delaware or North Carolina — they don’t need to demonstrate architectural prowess locally anymore. And besides, the risks of the banking business come in the form of CDS on Greece’s national debt, not Bonnie and Clyde — the physical heft of all that marble might make old banks look more secure, but that’s hardly necessary these days.

A nation of stripmalls and freeways isn’t deserving of much better, anyway. As soon as one of these new suburban “communities” is created, it will need a bank to extend subprime financing to its new residents — all the better that the bank is as tacky-looking as the overvalued, stylistically-baffling McMansions it helps sell to new homeowners. But even communities not full of subdivisions are flecked with these prefab-looking stucco boxes that are about as inspiring and welcoming as dentist’s office. And they did nothing to deserve this.


Identifying the problem

That’s the problem that Frank Berrish of Visions Federal Credit Union, of Endicott, N.Y., sought to solve when opening a branch in Sayre, Penn., about 14 years ago.

“Every branch bank looks like a cookie cutter of another one,” said Berrish, in a phone interview with MyBankTracker. So Visions sought to do something different. To give customers a little of “the wow effect,” to use Berrish’s language, Visions FCU added decorations that pay homage to local history or culture. “If you’re gonna put the investment in a branch,” said Berrish, “you might as well.”

Sayre, in north-central Pennsylvania, is a popular area for sports and recreation, explained Berrish. So, they built a pentagonal, rustic building inspired by a lodge in Yellowstone. They festooned the branch office with images of fly fisherman, and some vintage fishing tackle, and gave the place some character.

In Watkins Glen, N.Y., which is near the Finger Lakes wine-growing region in Upstate New York, Visions FCU has a mosaic of a vineyard made by an Italian artist, at the front of the building. The interior windows have tromp l’oeil images of grapes hanging from rafters. In their Norwich, N.Y. branch, Visions FCU celebrates the history of the Chenango Canal, which used to run through the area, from Binghampton to Utica. The teller counter is fashioned out of old-timey cargo crates. There is a small indoor waterfall, as well.

A touch of local flair

The banks are hardly grandiose, in fact they’re quite modest looking. The decorations serve only to give the branches some flair.

“It doesn’t cost you anything to differentiate yourself from the box next door,” said Berrish.

And sometimes the theming of the branches is more practical. In Binghampton, N.Y., which has a 14,000 student university, Visions’ branch office has beanbag chairs for lounging about, a telephone pole for posting flyers, computers that students are free to use, free wifi, and large screens they use for Guitar Hero contests, on occasion.

No matter how unlikely it seems that college students might want to spend their free time in a credit union branch office, regardless of amenities, the effort towards the young is hard not to appreciate. Some large banks are creating disincentives for certain customers to enter their branches. Bank of America’s eBanking account , which has replaced its student checking account, will waive its monthly fee so long as students don’t use tellers to withdraw cash, just ATMs.

Visions is actively drawing students in, even for non-banking related activities, at least in Binghampton.

And no matter how charming or folksy the decorations may or may not be, or how authentic the connection to local history, Visions FCU has at the very least made an effort to make their bank branches somewhat different, somewhat situated in place. Visions FCU has been expanding their footprint lately, so from a business standpoint it can’t be a bad idea.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Berrish. Perhaps not.

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