Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

National Farmers’ Bank, Owatonna, MN

Wow! The last Jewel Box covered on this tour, this was Louis Sullivan’s first bank structure, and the grandest of them all. Located about 45 minutes south of Minneapolis in what is now transitioning towards a suburb, the bank is immediately recognizable by the massive arches on two sides of the building. A prominent, assertive cornice, and a base of ashlar gives this building real presence and solidity from the outside. The exterior is also marked by boldly colored mosaic, in a thin line around the perimeter of the decorative elements.

Not just another building in downtown Owatonna!

Cartouche and cornice, south elevation

Inside is a dazzling composition, covered by a skylight that insures natural light all day long, a rich set of murals, large intricate lamps, and large panels of stained glass. It’s great inside and out, extravagant and rich with decoration (courtesy George Grant Elmslie), yet proportioned to fit in the small Midwest townscape. The building was completed in 1908, after his last skyscrapers in Chicago, and came during a period of declining fortunes and finances that would culminate in one of his darkest years, 1909, with the auction of most of his personal possessions, a sale that fell far short of what he expected, and his subsequent divorce. No doubt Sullivan had pissed off members of the architectural establishment and was reluctant to take on more lucrative residential commissions, and his individual style fell out of fashion, all of which contributed to his professional and personal tribulations. He didn’t want to design banks, but reluctantly accepted these commissions to earn much-needed cash. Whatever he felt about doing these commissions, Sullivan was able to just as successfully design these banks as he did with his skyscrapers during the previous phase of his career, in the last 15 years of the 19th century.

Lighting and murals, interior

Stained glass, arch, and mosaic detail

It’s safe to say that no bank building will ever be built like this again.

Peoples’ Savings and Loan Association Bank, Sidney, OH

100 miles west of Newark is Louis Sullivan’s other Jewel Box bank in Ohio, the Peoples’ Savings and Loan Association Bank, facing the main square in downtown Sidney, OH. The building remains occupied by the bank that commissioned Sullivan to build the structure back in 1917, no small feat in these times. And unlike the Newark structure, this one is in fantastic condition, lovingly maintained inside and out. It was also one of Sullivan’s larger bank commissions, on a scale similar to his earliest bank in Owatonna, MN.

Front facade

This structure has a brick exterior, with terra cotta decorative elements, and unusual for a Sullivan building, has extensive use of mosaic on the main and side facades. The mosaics utilize a more restrained, controlled palette than in Newark, green on the side, and blue on the front. The front facade has a prominent ‘THRIFT’ spelled out in mosaic.┬áThe side facade follows that of Sullivan’s banks, with a row of stained glass windows that let in ample light. The decoration on the side facade is rich, in contrast to his Grinnell bank and lower-budget structures in Algona and West Lafayette.

Side facade

The interior is a successful integration of functional and decorative elements, most notably the air circulation and cooling system that is cleverly disguised in the corner metal and wood planters, as noted by Twombly and Mariscal in their book Louis Sullivan: The Poetry of Architecture. And like in Columbus, WI, the drinking fountain is a real work of art.

Detail, front entrance mosaic

Decoration, front entrance

The building is located on a prominent corner across from the courthouse / main square in Sidney, contrasting with the predominant Second Empire styled courthouse. These banks were not only places of business transactions, but they served as forums and meeting places for the citizenry, in contrast to the bank’s more transient role in a much larger city such as Chicago, and Sullivan certainly had this in mind when he designed the banks. He also consciously democratized the interior, emphasizing transparency and access. The safe is clearly visible and a balancing, symmetrical element, and offices for the bank president and other officers were easily accessible. Some of the banks even had waiting rooms where customers and citizens could interact (not in Sidney).

Last stop, Owatonna, MN.