Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

Louis Sullivan’s Henry Adams Building, Algona, IA

The building was constructed in 1913-14 for $15000, on a low budget, but Sullivan designed a small gem. The economics and the siting dictated a small structure, in a small town in northern Iowa.

Also known as the Algona Land and Loan Office, it’s a one-story structure now housing the Chamber of Commerce. The decorative palette is limited, with a cornice line of alternating recessed brick, punctuated by green / white decorative tile. The side elevation is similar to many of the other Jewel Box banks, with a row of windows and tiled columns. The entire building rests on a base of green glazed tile, giving the appearance of the building literally growing out of the ground. The main facade borrows a page from Wright’s Unity Temple, with the main entrance accessed by stepping into a ‘picture frame’, and then behind a head-high planter. So the building surrounds the visitor before entering the front door.

Front elevation

And the beautifully restored planter. . .

Much of what is seen today is the result of a major renovation, as the building was in poor shape up until around 2000, and has since been restored to its current appearance. As in Newark, the building went through a series of tenants, including an insurance agency and a men’s clothing store. The insurance agency tacked on a tasteless addition to the back in the 1950s, and the clothing store owners badly disfigured the entrance and hacked out the stained glass windows. The planters were removed in the 1970s, the stained glass windows were sold in the 1980s, became basement decoration in Minneapolis, before ending up in Chicago. The panes were located and returned to Algona, and the planters have since been recast. The brick is apparently new. A small hint of the old structure is located in the rear of the building, with what appear to be the old brickwork remaining.

Algona Land and Loan, now the Chamber of Commerce. Note the green tilework at the base.

So the building is now looking good, while it’s one of Sullivan’s more modest structures, it bears all his hallmarks of scale, style, and dignity. The restoration, BTW, was an effort between concerned citizens of Algona and a number of Chicago firms (VOA, John Vinci).

Merchants’ National Bank, Grinnell, IA

The Louis Sullivan tour continues! Ninety minutes west of Cedar Rapids, just off of I-80, is the small college town of Grinnell, Iowa, with the archetypical Midwestern Main Street of mom-and-pop shops, a theater, restaurants, and a park housing a number of civic structures. Facing the park is the Merchants’ National Bank (1914), probably Sullivan’s most photographed structure, and easily one of his signature works. The large cartouche, lavishly decorated, stands in contrast to the rest of the building, a simple brick backdrop for the outburst of the main facade.

Cartouche, absolutely glorious.

The building is a box made of tapestry brick that lends it a rich dark hue. The side facade is lined with a series of stained glass windows, like many of his other bank structures, and the roofline is a repeating motif that gives a Gothic-like variety to the top of the structure. Other than that, there is little in the way of decoration. There is no colored mosaic tile, which was used sparingly in Owatonna, and would not be used again until the construction of his two later banks in Sidney and Newark,Ohio. Something overlooked in the structure is the horizontal element, achieved by a layer of bricks laid crosswise (along the short dimension) every sixth layer, which gives it a subtle rhythm to the otherwise plain surface. His use of tapestry brick was also partially symbolic in addition to being aesthetic, the color variety producing a rich pattern, and could also be seen as a symbol of unity in variety (like “E pluribus unum”) or even as an architectural expression of democracy.

East elevation, note the subtle horizontal lines

It’s well-known that Sullivan was in a middle of a quarter-century long, unrelenting decline, but his powers of design and architecture were brilliant as ever, and a true American original. I can’t really characterize the style of his buildings, Sullivan simply falls into his own category.

The sketches for the structure are informative about the state of his architectural practice. Sketches of his Auditorium Building from the 1880s were presented on fancy, scripted Adler and Sullivan letterhead, while Sullivan’s designs for the Grinnell structure were executed on both sides of paper borrowed from a nearby pharmacy. While 1914 would be one of his more productive years after the end of his partnership with Adler, he would complete an average of less than one project per year during the last phase of his career, roughly 1908-1924. He was to be forced out of his tower offices in his Auditorium Building a couple years later, and had great difficulty landing commissions, despite his fame. The influence of his bank structures lives on next door in the extension building to the original bank, a reductionist version of the large arch of his bank in Owatonna, MN.

View from the southeast, with the extension structure echoing his Owatonna bank

Grinnell obviously loves this building, road signs along US 6 point to the “Jewel Box”, the street corners are decorated in the motif of the cartouche, and it’s now occupied by the Chamber of Commerce. Unfortunately both times I’ve visited Grinnell, I’ve arrived too late to have a look inside, so that will have to wait until next time.

Peoples Savings Bank, Cedar Rapids, IA

I revisited this structure recently, and described it in an earlier blog entry on Louis Sullivan’s buildings in Iowa. Completed in 1912, this is the most subtle of Sullivan’s Jewel Boxes, and his least exuberant, with a rather sober brick facade and a minimum of decoration. It lies across the river from downtown Cedar Rapids, and the building sustained major damage in the flood of 2008. As of today, it remains vacant, although it is still owned by Wells Fargo and there appears to be some effort to fix things up. The building is currently threatened, not only from the flood damage, but also from plans to beef up the levees to prevent a repeat of the 2008 flood.

Decorative elements and stained glass up top

The shape is unusual, not a box like his other banks, but a more complex double box form with a wide base and a smaller, central second story, and satellite light fixtures also designed by Sullivan. Above the main entry is a space for the sign, delineated by a very gently curving layer of brick. Along the sides are motifs spelling PSB, the initials of the bank, and on the top Sullivan introduces the gryphon that populates many of his bank buildings.

Main facade, note the horizontal brickwork above the main entrance

PSB logo, one of Sullivan’s few pieces of decoration on the building