Oldest ‘Jewel Box’ bank draws tourists in Minnesota
In 1908, architect Louis Sullivan designed a bank in a small farm town. Now, 106 years later, it’s a Wells Fargo store — and people are still talking about the light symphony he created.
Linda Alexander takes more than her money to the bank; she takes her guests.
She’s a customer of Wells Fargo’s bank in Owatonna, Minn. About an hour south of Minneapolis, it’s located inside the finest of eight jewel-box banks architect Louis Sullivan built across the Midwest from 1907 to 1919 (see map).
Designed to resemble treasure boxes, the masonry-clad steel frame buildings awe tourists and bankers alike with their stained glass, murals, plaster, terra cotta, tile, wood, and other ornamentation.
“I love bringing people here from out of town because it’s so beautiful and every time you go in there’s a different perspective and you see something you haven’t seen before,” says Linda, pointing up at the four electroliers — electric chandeliers that weigh 5,500 pounds each and were designed to resemble blooming flowers. Sullivan couldn’t find wood to support that kind of weight so he hung the massive lights from steel beams that run across the bank’s 60-foot width.
“Where else can you find a bank that looks like this?” Linda asks. “They don’t make buildings like this anymore.”
Banking meets art on the prairie
Sullivan and his team of craftsmen built the National Farmers’ Bank of Owatonna building in 1908 for $125,000 — more than $3 million in today’s dollars. According to a May 2013 study by Bancography, a firm that helps banks and credit unions plan new locations, the average new bank branch costs $1.3 million and is 3,040 square feet.
The Owatonna jewel box is the largest of the eight at 4,600 square feet. Sullivan built it long after his 1891 Wainright building in St. Louis commission, which earned him the title “father of the American skyscraper.”
It began rising in 1907 at the corner of Broadway and Cedar streets across from Owatonna’s Central Park, representing the shared vision of banker Carl Bennett and Sullivan. A Harvard-trained musician, Carl had given up his dream of becoming a conductor or concert pianist to run the bank for his father, Leonard Bennett. When business demanded a bigger bank, Carl sought a building that would become a “true and lasting work of art” for his farming town.
When he asked Sullivan why he should hire him and depart from the neoclassical banks that dotted the landscape — temples of finance with their rows of imposing columns — the mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright reportedly said, “A thousand architects could design those buildings. Only I can design this one.”
And that he did, wrapping masonry cladding around a steel-frame building with 40-foot ceilings and evoking the hues of Midwestern farm life with a symphony of light created from intricate tile, plaster, terra cotta, stained glass, mural, iron, metal, and woodwork. In Carl’s honor, Sullivan put a B for Bennett inside each of the corners of his jewel box.
That was 106 years ago. Today, Sullivan’s design is still considered one of the best-preserved examples of the prairie school architecture that grew out of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. It was a philosophy calling for the creation of buildings that reflected American art and forms instead of mimicking European design.
For world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli, who designed some of the tallest buildings in the world (and the Wells Fargo Centers in Minneapolis and Winston-Salem, N.C.), the Owatonna bank was “a masterpiece” and “one of the most beautiful things Sullivan – or any architect — has ever designed.”
Architectural historian Tom Martinson simply calls it “one of the greatest buildings in American history” because it’s unlike anything built before or since.
Store manager Sarah Roths did the same thing tourists from around the world do the first time she walked inside the building’s great hall four months ago.
“I looked straight up and my jaw dropped,” Sarah says. “On weekdays, 80 percent of the people who walk in are customers and 20 percent are tourists. On Saturdays, it’s about 50/50. You can always tell who the tourists are because they do the same thing. They look straight up. It’s a space that inspires awe, and is welcoming at the same time.”
Wells Fargo owns two of Sullivan’s jewel boxes, which reflect his famous “form follows function” design. It leases the other, the Merchants National Bank building, to the Chamber of Commerce in Grinnell, Iowa. Four of the eight are still being used as banks. All still stand.
Stewards of an architectural icon
So who has the job of preserving an architectural gem listed on the National Register of Historic Places, memorialized in 1981 on a U.S. postage stamp, and showcased in a number of feature films?
That’s Mike Molzahn, who manages 65 Wells Fargo-owned buildings in greater Minnesota for Wells Fargo’s Corporate Properties Group. “It’s like inheriting the family fortune,” Mike says. “You don’t want to be the one who lost it.”
Mike says the company has sought — in several renovations — to correct past wrongs and honor Sullivan’s legacy while also making the space functional and welcoming for bankers and their customers.
It’s a task that included using brick from the original foundry for a 1997 renovation and finding one of the original brass teller wickets removed during a 1940s renovation for the restorations that now cover the teller windows. Installed in 2004, that work won the National Historical Landmark Steward Award from the National Park Service.
This year, it was the carpet, and Mike turned again to the Steele County Historical Society for the final call on the color for the replacement.
“Under the carpet were tens of thousands of green tiles,” Mike says. “I have file cabinets thick of information about Sullivan and the building and its history. As much as possible, we try to make sure whatever is done matches up historically with his original vision. The historical society said, ‘We love this [carpet sample] because it looks so much like the tiles’ — so that’s the one we went with. We want to be good stewards.”
David Bowers, the architect who has guided several renovations, says Sullivan’s Jewel Box stands as a monument to architecture that reflects community.
“Bennett and Sullivan wanted to celebrate what a small Minnesota town was at the turn of the century — a prosperous place rooted in a flat land rich with seasonal color,” David says. “One of the leading dairy centers in the state, Owatonna’s cows and horses and farmers are what made it prosperous so that’s why scenes from a local farm adorn the walls.
“Even if you were a shopkeeper, you understood what it meant to live close to the land so his jewel-box creation really represented the wholesome aspirations of the banking community and the entire community then just as it still does today. The people saw themselves in the building, and knew it was for them.”
Adds Mark Smith, who features the Owatonna bank in his 2010 documentary, Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, “The ornamentation and use of color is a celebration of what people came to the bank for: to store their prosperity or get the seed money necessary to grow their businesses.”
Sullivan would die broke in Chicago; and Carl Bennett would lose his bank during the Great Depression.
But their art and influence live on.
“A lot of historians believe that without Sullivan, there would have been no Frank Lloyd Wright as we know him,” Mark says. “And while it may not have been recognized in the early 1900s, Sullivan’s genius certainly is known today, as are his jewel-box banks on the prairie.”
Take a visual tour of Sullivan’s Owatonna banking jewel.
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