Arlington Federal Savings and Loan Temple to the Enigma

by Tim Gilmore, 10/4/2022

It’s a puzzle, this building. You want to fit it back together. It startles you, strange that concrete could dazzle so. No one knew who had designed it, that it was, in fact, one of the last buildings of Miami architect Edwin T. Reeder.

Though it served that most mundane function, banking, adding to its experience each new holdup and armed robbery, credited and debited across the decades, yet always it seemed something more than what it was.

The stone surfaces of diamond shapes and fins look loosely ancient, earthen, alternating angles of zig and zag like some lost ziggurat or ancient Timbuktu temple risen from barren earth. This earth, though so much sand, nobody could call barren: vines of leather-skinned scuppernong grapes grow inches a day here in the highest humidity.

Unlikely, but uncanny, comparison. In Mali rises the Great Mosque of Djenné, shade and texture of the desert, centuries-old sun-baked earthen brick towering over the sands. In Arlington, east of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, the old Arlington Federal Savings and Loan Building looks over the traffic on University Boulevard and Arlington Expressway, seemingly sentient, alone now but waiting, like it’s always had business here other than, deeper than, the business at hand.

In the 1960s, Arlington burgeoned as a suburb on and around older communities. It was new. That was the point. Arlington left Jacksonville behind, over the river, until Jacksonville grew around and encompassed Arlington. When memories grew long, when one generation found the last one old, the multitude of architectural styles salvaged from Arlington’s days of new suburbia became “Mid-Century Modern.”

In the early 2000s, in the 20-teens, the strange façade of Arlington Federal looked increasingly exotic as the neighborhood around it declined. Further standing forth, its independence drew a gravity, ley lines, a magnetism, to the axis on which it stood.

When Arlington Federal opened its doors in 1961, it stood outside city limits and neither City Planning, nor Property Records, has deeds or blueprints. The origins seemed to have vanished. And as Mid-Century Modern architects died, researchers tried each of them on for size.

Surely Taylor Hardwick had designed the building; he loved folding lines and cutting fields to jagged angles. Surely Robert Broward designed it; though it differs from his more organicist structures that merged with nature, he worked wonders with a brise soleil.

The brise soleil, often in the form of a screen wall of interconnected geometric blocks designed to block heat and sunlight, became, along with the folded plate and winged roof and the emphasis of function over form, a primary feature of Mid-Century Modern.

Could it even have been Robert Griffith Ernest, that superstar architect who died so tragically young, 29 years old, in 1962?

July 1962 cover of Florida Architect, containing a memorial to Robert Griffith Ernest, a sketch of whom appears top center

Architect Ted Pappas told me he thought Bob Boardman, who designed the Music and Fine Arts Building at Jacksonville University in 1964, had designed Arlington Federal Savings and Loan, but he wasn’t sure why he thought so.

The undiscovered architect seemed to have gone quietly to work, left a diamond in the midst of the Arlington population boom, then ghosted the city, disappearing without a trace. Perhaps this temple to the enigma had always been here, but we’d only begun to ask questions when it was too late.

Edwin T. Reeder’s iconic 417 Lincoln, Miami Beach

In fact, the July 19, 1961 edition of The Florida Times-Union, the only large daily Florida newspaper never to have digitized its archives, named the architect. Edwin T. Reeder was 54 years old when he died in February 1963, having built iconic structures like Miami’s City National Bank and 417 Lincoln in Miami Beach. Reeder had worked with folded plate, extensive glass and the brise soleil on several other bank designs, like the West Palm Beach Federal Savings and Loan.

from The Palm Beach Post, April 1, 1956

Now Reeder’s only Jacksonville building lies abandoned, the sign for Atlantic Coast Bank, its last incarnation, unillumined blue, behind the folded plate over the entrance. (William Morgan and Robert Broadfoot were also designing buildings with folded plate roofs in Arlington in the 1960s.) Out front, the unlit sign stands blue against the blue sky, as though either sky or sign were bleeding into the other, as in a painting by Magritte.

Only ghosts stand waiting for customers at the door from the rear parking lot, broken glass spread across carpets stinking with molds grown of summer rains.

No lines of patrons form. Seafoam-green plaster pillars hover. A hanging butterfly ceiling, descended from the drop ceiling above it, lifts its wings over where no tellers wait and smile as though there’s nothing else they would rather be doing.

Behind the tellers’ desks, vaults stand open. The Diebold pneumatic tube at the drive-through hangs motionless, arrows pointing up for “Send,” down for “Bring,” the sign saying “Positive Picture I.D. Required” turned upside down.

Titanium doors stand wide, safe deposit boxes shimmering in corners. Down the hallways, office doors stand open, file cabinets thrown on their sides, a large jagged knife lying randomly atop a spray of wilted paperwork, but also a key, sleeping bags against far walls, Burger King wrappers, beer cans, a phone book, file boxes, yet-shining gears of combination locks in immovable doors.

The man arrested for armed robbery here on June 24, 1964, booked as John W. Greene, Jr., turned out to be John Fratus, Jr., a Massachusetts ex-con. A former longshoreman, Fratus, in prison for armed robbery, had turned state’s evidence against John Kerrigan, who shot and killed a Cambridge police officer in September 1960. Greene / Fratus had robbed Arlington Federal of $1,416.

Residents who were young when Arlington was young look back on early days and falsely remember low crime, forgetting the declining property values they’d left behind in the city, forgetting how crime in the 1970s skyrocketed as against earlier decades and every decade since, not remembering how masked clowns robbed Arlington Federal year after year.

Before the bank was a decade old, its own administrators were robbing it. In 1968, a federal grand jury charged two Floridians and two New Yorkers with financial fraud involving check-kiting banks in Jacksonville and Palatka for close to $2 million. Two of the men were brothers, one of whom, Alvin Leitman, was board chairman for Arlington Federal Savings and Loan. Milton Rubin, brother-in-law of the Leitmans, was bank president.

from The Fort Lauderdale News, April 20, 1968

Now dead palm fronds rattle at back corners. Even in every smallest corner of a midsized city, the whole world has happened. Every culmination of history accrues to each little corner of town.

Armed robberies skipped through the years, glissading from one foiled plan to the next balaclava’d getaway. Shortly before the bank closed for good, tellers described a “white man dressed in cargo shorts and a dark polo shirt with a ball cap and a closely trimmed beard,” who robbed the bank lackadaisically, just before lunch one July morning, and nobody seemed to know how much money he’d taken.

Look, I tell the shadows, I need a loan. I’m a teacher in a state that hates educators. I’m a poet in a country that mocks beauty. I have visions in a land where adults receive tax breaks for putting out their eyes.

Still the phantoms in windowed corners elude me, ask for evidence of my own existence I can’t provide, slip out from behind their desks to speak to managers for further clarifications and leave me sitting alone for days, days and nights, weeks on end.

Almost all the community banks are gone. Nobody told me that no one was coming back. Eventually, I could tell by the smell. Any day now the bulldozers come. Any hour, the walls come down.

This strange temple to the enigma, this structure that seems to have been here before it was here, Edwin T. Reeder’s one Jacksonville design, this ancient earth cast in modernity no longer new, is scheduled for replacement. The sign out front says a car wash is coming soon.

I’ll still be here, deep inside, waiting, when they knock down the walls. Behind the jagged, elegantly saw-toothed brise soleil, I’ll hide from the sun. I’ve encountered it so many mornings already. Until the city forgets, the mysteries will remain. The mysteries will remain, if nowhere else, in this story.