Archive for the ‘grinnell’ Tag

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.

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Louis Sullivan in Iowa

Three of the architect’s structures lie just a few miles off of I-80, so I paid them a visit on my drive west from Chicago to Omaha. These were all built late in his career, during one of the darkest periods of his life. Despite his difficult personal and financial circumstances at the time, Sullivan’s creativity remained undimmed, and these buildings are hallmarks of one of America’s most original architects.

I crossed the Mississippi River into Clinton, Iowa, a sleepy Midwestern town barricaded behind a levee. Sullivan’s building, the former Van Allen Department Store, the most prominent structure in the city, is located at the main crossroads of the town. It is reminiscent of the Gage Group in Chicago, with a nice balance of horizontal elements in the large Chicago windows, and these ‘vines’ that rise between the windows and blossom at the top.

 

Van Allen Building, Clinton, Iowa

 

 

Van Allen Building, detail

 

The next stop was Cedar Rapids, to visit the now closed, still heavily damaged People’s Savings Bank, located on the bank of the Cedar River opposite downtown. The great flood of 2008 partially submerged the structure, and it’s still boarded up, so it’s in desperate need of restoration. It’s a very understated building, with no multicolor decoration or organic motifs, but with subtle shades of brick red and smaller decorative elements that require a up close look.

 

People's Savings Bank, now Wells Fargo, still boarded up after the flood

 

 

Entrance detail

 

My final stop was the Merchants National Bank in Grinnell, IA. This is a building marked by a rather plain brick facade offset by a very exuberant cartouche above the main entrance. It’s the largest building on the block, sited at a corner, with a solid, but not out-of-scale presence. Sullivan was quite sensitive to the scale of the building and its surroundings, so one gets the impression that this is the dominant structure, while being harmonious with the other buildings nearby.

Merchants National Bank, Grinnell

Cartouche, detail

View in the context of the street

He has an additional building in northern Iowa, in Algona, which I did not have the chance to visit.