Four Midwest Jewel Boxes Built By Louis Sullivan – A My Curated Tour©

This is the first in a series of My Curated Tours© that include multiple sites to visit around a single theme. The tours are designed to be within a regional geographic distance and visited easily over a few days. I hope you enjoy this first Tour!

The first built and most exquisite Jewel Box in Owatonna, MN

Step into 1900 when the Victorian age is blending with industrialism. Arts & Crafts and Prairie School architects are building tall as well as low. Louis Sullivan had a flourishing practice in the late 1800s building steel office buildings in Chicago after the fire. He also was a designer and gave Frank Lloyd Wright his first position. But now, he found himself on hard times. Commissions had faded and his work was less in demand. He took commissions where he could find them and oddly enough it was small towns that came calling. He responded with a series of some of the most breathtaking bits of American architecture that exist. He designed eight small town banks with such attention to detail and craftsmanship, artistry and design that they have come to be known as the Jewel Boxes. Luckily, today we can step inside many of them and see what Sullivan crafted. All are on the National Register of Historic Places and their state register as well. 

I visited four of these structures in Iowa and Minnesota and was not disappointed. They are within 400 miles of each other and worth every minute of driving to see them. Each building is open to the public and the businesses and organizations that occupy the structure are all welcoming to visitors who want to see the buildings, often offering knowledgeable information about the design and history. All had pamphlets or flyers or wall plaques with information about the structure and the current efforts to maintain them. Come now on a tour like no other. Let’s start with the most modest and smallest of the four in Algona, Iowa. 

Algona

Algona is certainly off the beaten path, miles from the Interstate and nestled in the cornfields. The Henry Adam’s Building as it is identified on Google Maps, was originally occupied by the Adams Land and Loan Office. The building was completed in 1913 and currently houses the local Chamber of Commerce. This is a small Jewel Box bank and unfortunately, many of the original elements were removed and sold across time. The current Sullivan Building Foundation in Algona has created replicas of some items, including the entryway urns, from the original blueprints. They managed to purchase back six original stained glass windows from collectors. Inside, the footprint reflects Sullivan’s approach to these local institutions – rectangular, open, and incorporating natural light through the stained glass. This bank is not ornate, but one of the more interesting elements I found was in the ceiling art. There is faded stenciling in the arts and crafts style that is original to the building. Considering how many times this building changed hands, this is a true delight to find. 

The outdoor embellishments in Algona are typical of Sullivan’s craftsmanship. There are green and creme terracotta pier caps and tile work that complement the red brick structure.The one and a half story rectangular and linear design of windows and framing repeats on the side wall of the building, giving it a look of infinity. Some of the inlaid tile work is original and some is refurbished or replacement tile work. Regardless, the finished product is a fine salute to Sullivan’s original creation. 

Owatonna

At the other end of the spectrum is the Owatonna Bank Building in Owatonna, Minnesota about 90 minutes south of Minneapolis and 100 miles from Algona. Built in 1908, It was the first of the eight Jewel Box Banks and Sullivan put everything he had into the design of this magnificent building. It is considered to be the archetype of his work on these bank commissions. The exterior reflects an image of an impressive vault, designed to safeguard the fortunes of farmers and business people in this small, rural town. It is crafted in the signature style of green tile inlaid on red brick, stained glass windows, and ornamental plaques. This 49 foot tall square building was commissioned by the National Farmers’ Bank and now is occupied by a working branch of Wells Fargo bank. While the exterior is certainly impressive, it is the interior that took my breath away. 

Walking into the bank you immediately are taken with the soaring ceilings and crafted walls and woodwork that look more like a palace than a bank. The walls and ceiling are covered in elaborate, repeating designs that include 200 colors. According to the bank’s information pamphlet, Sullivan sought to create a “color-tone poem.” He achieved that. It took me a while to take in all the detail, from the original opulent chandeliers, to the soaring half moon arches that frame the farm life murals, the interior view of the stained glass panels that form the two matching half moon window arches, to the teller cages that flank the ubiquitous bank clock and balcony. It is as if a thousand paintings melded into one spectacular interior. Every nook and cranny is covered in intricate design that in the arts and crafts style, repeats itself continuously across the feature, be it cornice, arch, or molding. There are crests in the upper corners of the walls that have a B on them. They honor the original founders and managers of the bank from the Bennett family. 

No attention to detail was too small. The ornamental chandeliers also have embellished caps on the ceiling that complement the ornate stems of the fixtures. The clock plating that is affixed to the balcony is mirrored in a plate that stands opposite over the entryway. To ensure enough natural light inside, the ceiling is arched and houses stained glass to complement the front and side arches of soaring glass panels. There is a green terra cotta embellishment that runs along the tops of interior low walls that separate offices, teller cages and the balcony. The design complements the same green terracotta relief on the exterior with agricultural motif. Inside are leaves on vines and outside there are leaves with berries or grapes. The stained glass in all four bank buildings includes a dominant blue pattern. It is only in the Owatonna building that blue also is included in the tile inlay. A flawless attention to detail by Sullivan. Finally, the pastoral murals reflect the agricultural industry in Owatonna that was at the center of community life. The murals were painted by Oskar Gross and the cows look dreamlike standing on the rolling hills with blue sky backdrop.

Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids is on the far western side of Iowa, approximately 200 miles from Owatonna, MN. Here I found the 1912 People’s Savings Bank now occupied by Popoli Ristorante and Sullivan’s Bar. According to Jude Villifana, Managing Partner of the business, the owners sought to save the original structure after it suffered extensive damage from a devastating 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids. The two story high restaurant sits on the banks of the Cedar River and the first floor was completely flooded. Fortunately the original chandeliers and second level murals were spared damage. The restaurant and bar opened in 2014 after restoration of the building to its original glory. The building was already on the National Register of Historic Places meaning this restoration had significant requirements. Not only is the history of the building incorporated into the restaurant starting with it’s namesake Sullivan’s Bar, but there are storyboards and pictures explaining the history of the structure throughout. Columns were restored with the signature arts and crafts motif and Sullivan’s iconic stained glass windows are visible throughout. The chandeliers are original and their design is more formidable and less ornate than the Owatonna Jewel Box. These are plaster globes in copper color and include the terracotta plaques seen in the other banks as well as agricultural themed embellishments. 

This bank retains some of the original hardware used for banking. The overnight vault and day vault are retained and incorporated into the functions of the restaurant. The massive round-doored overnight vault is now a private dining space replete with information about the original building design and architect on its walls. The smaller and rectangular day vault is now used as a wine room.  The original metal work that separated the teller cages is now used to separate dining booths and sits atop the booth as a gentle reminder of the value of form and function, one of Sullivan’s precepts. Finally, there are several places in the restaurant where the walls and corners are clad in marble. This marble once flanked the original teller cages and is now beautifully repurposed. 

Not unlike Owatonna, the Cedar Rapids Jewel Box has murals of agricultural life. These original tableaus are scenes of farming, settlers, and farm animals. The artist, Allen Philbrick, was affiliated with the Art Institute in Chicago and was a personal friend of Sullivan. In addition to the murals, the building retains the original stained glass skylights above the booths as well as an entire second story of stained glass windows. 

The red brick building has very little exterior ornamentation. However the PSB (People’s Savings Bank) is part of the entryway decoration and there are griffins that adorn the second story. More on them in the next bank discussion. 

Grinnell

The final Jewel Box on this tour is 90 miles away in Grinnell, Iowa. Grinnell is a small farm and college town that is just off I-80. It once was an active stop on the underground railroad thanks to the town’s namesake, Josiah Bushnell Grinnell who was an ardent abolitionist. The Merchant’s National Bank was built in 1914 and was used by various banks well into the 1990s. Today the Chamber of Commerce uses the space, but an addition to the building, built in 1974 is a functioning branch of Wells Fargo bank. The Grinnell bank is an amalgam of Sullivan’s design features. It has soaring stained glass windows, ornate terracotta plaque work over the exterior entrance, but no colorful tile or or other colored terracotta on the red brick walls. Of course there is a linear, running design along the roof line and around the windows, as well as a very detailed and ornate framing of the entryway door itself. 

Inside, what remains of the original bank is a much simpler design than Owatonna or Cedar Rapids. The chandeliers are arts and crafts style stained glass boxes that hang from chains to the second story ceiling. There is an entire wall of stained glass windows that is quite dramatic, though it is modest in its interior framing. Outside the windows are separated by gold columns with embellished headers. There are framed panels on the upper walls, but no murals. The walls are undecorated and are shown as such in early photos of the bank. There are however, beautifully crafted terracotta headers (though they are colorless) that run at either end of the bank over the entrance and framing the exit area. I suspect there is a small balcony in the rear of the bank where these headers run, like in Owatonna, and that behind this area was the original vault. Now it is an exit that leads into the new wing and current bank tenant. The most notable treatment in the bank is over the entrance. A clock sits above the door and is cased in a decorative glass tile inlay that is mostly green and blue. Over the doorway is the beautiful yellow, rose styled stained glass that outside is encased in an ornate plaque. Outside, the stained glass is difficult to see and may be behind protective shielding. Inside, it is reminiscent of the sun and is the only one of the four banks that uses yellow as the dominant color in glass. The interior also sports wood paneling which was a 1950s addition. Fortunately, the original check writing desk, which is hand carved wood, remains as the centerpiece of the main floor. 

One of the unique items of this bank is the winged lions (also called griffins). There are two gold lions at the outside entrance holding shields announcing the bank’s name and year of the building’s construction. These two are reproductions. The originals are displayed inside. One was restored after an incident of vandalism and the other is in pieces, but displayed in a case. There are similar lion features that sit atop columns on the second story exterior of the Cedar Rapids bank. The griffin decoration also can be seen in the Jewel Box bank in Newark, Ohio.

The other four Jewel Boxes are in Ohio, Indiana, and Columbus, Wisconsin. The Wisconsin bank is the last bank built by Sullivan and is located just outside Madison. The Farmers & Merchants Union Bank building was built in 1919. Sullivan also designed a department store in Clinton, Iowa, the Van Allen Department Store built in 1913. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places. 

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