ASU’s University Center was Once Downtown Phoenix’s Largest Office Building

by Douglas C. Towne
Community History Uncategorized Douglas C. Towne May 17, 2023

In 1956, it was hard not to notice the new nine-story First National Bank of Arizona Building at 411 North Central Avenue in Downtown Phoenix. The neon sign atop its three-story rooftop bulkhead, which covered the building’s machinery and water tanks, was the largest in the state. People more than 25 miles away claimed to admire its 100-foot-long neon beacon.

The bulkhead’s east and west sides featured the bank’s name in giant neon letters. The bank’s logo, an outline of the state containing a 21-foot-high “1st,” was on the north and south sides. The bank leased the porcelain enamel signs from Electrical Products Corp at 1555 Grand Avenue, which took three months to install.

First National Bank of Arizona building, 1956. (Photo: Doug Towne)

Architect William D. Reed of Dallas designed the building, which would become the largest office structure in Arizona, and the adjacent three-story, 600-car parking garage. James Stewart Company, an international firm with an office in Phoenix, was the general contractor. The construction material was reinforced concrete supplied by Arizona Sand & Rock Company. Excavators moved more than 30,000 cubic yards of earth to construct the building’s foundations.

The bank’s two main entrances featured carved cement murals made of 650 tiles created by Texas artist Buck Winn. The bank’s grand hall had columns of Swedish green marble, teakwood paneling, and a Travertine marble floor imported from Italy. The walls featured seven murals, The Foundation of Confidence, painted by Phoenix artist Jay Datus. The murals depicted the story of human progress in Arizona: “The foundations of confidence are in Heaven and Earth, but each man builds his own.”

On opening day, a stagecoach driven by the buckskin-clad owner of Bud Brown’s Barn, and guarded by Maricopa County Sheriff L.C. Boies and his posse members, ushered in the bank’s first customer. The building was bathed in the glow of 25 5,000-watt floodlights for its opening weekend. The lights were shipped from a movie equipment supply house in Los Angeles. The bank hired 20 guides outfitted in snazzy uniforms to take groups of up to 15 visitors through the building.

First National Bank of Arizona was chartered in 1887 and previously headquartered in the Fleming Building at First Avenue and Washington Street. At the time, the bank’s new headquarters, it had 24 branches across the state.

University Center at ASU Downtown. (Photo: Arizona State University)

Arizona Public Service purchased the building from First Interstate Bank, First National’s successor, for its headquarters in 1971. The building served as headquarters for APS until 1989, and then it mainly housed employees connected to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. In 1997, APS sold the building and donated Datus’ murals to the Mesa Southwest Museum. New owners rechristened it as the 411 Building.

In 2004, the University Center of ASU Downtown, an administrative and student-services facility that anchors the downtown campus, moved into the building. Reportedly, a below-ground bank vault still exists but is empty. The building’s riches continue in how it has been repurposed to add to the vibrancy of Downtown Phoenix, sans its iconic rooftop neon sign from long ago.