In the twilight of his career, noted architect Louis Sullivan designed a series of small yet visually stunning banks for eight rural communities in the Midwest. They were nicknamed “jewel box” banks because of their compact size and stained glass windows.
These banks were scattered across the Midwest, with three in Iowa, two in Ohio and one each in Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They were built in the years 1908-1920.
Louis Sullivan grew up in Boston, but came to Chicago after the great fire of 1871. The city was rebuilding, and architects and contractors had plenty of work. Sullivan eventually became a business partner with Dankmar Adler. Together they made a legendary impact on Chicago and American architecture. Sullivan’s building concept of “form ever follows function” is often quoted.
Adler, who was the business head of the partnership, retired in 1895. Sullivan continued on his own but by the early 1900s, commissions had fallen off and finances were bad. The jewel box banks gave him a chance to rebound.
Sullivan preferred to have the banks located on a corner of a prominent spot on Main Street. He traveled to each location and thoroughly studied the site before designing his building.
In keeping with his philosophy of form follows function, the banks were functional yet artistic. Sullivan made sure they fit into the town’s landscape and were not too big. The completed buildings stood out on the ordinary Main Streets of these farming communities because of their beauty and design rather than their size.
A few years ago I decided to visit and photograph each of the eight banks. It was interesting to see how the buildings had fared over the years. Four are still operating as banks; two are Chamber of Commerce headquarters; one is a restaurant; and one is being restored. Most of the communities are embracing their famous work of architecture and using it to promote their town.
Here’s what I found:
National Farmers’ Bank, Owatonna, Minnesota (1908)
This was the first of the jewel box banks and the largest at 4,600 square feet. It’s still used as a bank and owned by Wells Fargo.
The interior features murals and ornamentation using over 240 shades of yellow, red-orange, and green. The murals pay homage to Owatonna’s dairy industry.
Other highlights include the four electroliers (electric chandeliers). They weigh 5,500 pounds each and were designed to resemble a blooming flower. The 1908 grand opening of the bank was held at night to showcase these fixtures.
Peoples Saving Bank, Cedar Rapids, Iowa (1909)
This bank came under budget issues so it lacks Sullivan’s trademark ornamentation on the exterior, but there are still plenty of stained glass windows to enjoy. Formerly a Wells Fargo bank, today it’s a popular restaurant called Popoli.
The interior murals and other details are still in place. The present owners have done a good job of respecting the history of the building. Besides leaving many of the architectural elements intact, they created an attractive wall exhibit on Louis Sullivan and the building’s past.
Henry C. Adams Building, Algona, Iowa (1913)
The building was originally designed as a bank but failed to get a charter, so it opened as a real estate office in 1913. Over the years it suffered from neglect and remodeling, but a serious restoration in the early 2000s has the building looking fine again. Today you’ll find Algona’s Chamber of Commerce here.
Sullivan preferred tapestry brick and used it in all but one of the banks (Newark, Ohio was the exception). It’s produced by raking the individual brick surface so each is different in texture, hue, and color saturation. In this small building, tapestry bricks make the exterior more interesting.
Merchants National Bank, Grinell, Iowa (1915)
The entrance to this bank definitely has you thinking “jewel box.” Two golden winged lions stand guard at the front door while the elaborate terra cotta medallion and rose window dominate the facade. It’s not a typical building one sees on a rural American Main Street.
Like the Henry Adams building in Algona, this bank is now home for the Chamber of Commerce.
Purdue State Bank, West Lafayette, Indiana (1915)
Sullivan was required to fit the Purdue State Bank into a triangle-shaped lot. It’s the smallest of the jewel box banks, but still features handsome brick work and terra cotta ornament.
I liked this charming little building, but regretfully, present owner Chase Bank doesn’t seem too interested in their historic bank. An ATM machine has been shoved into the original front door, and the inside is devoid of Sullivan detail.
Home Building Association, Newark, Ohio (1915)
Sullivan stepped away from his usual m.o. when he designed “the Old Home” in Newark, Ohio. It is a two-story building (the only one of the eight with two floors), and covered with gray terra cotta instead of the usual reddish-brown tapestry brick.
The building is currently owned by the Licking County Foundation and is undergoing extensive restoration. When completed in 2019, it will be the location of Explore Licking County, a convention and visitors’ bureau.
Peoples Savings & Loan Association, Sidney, Ohio (1918)
It still operates under the same name as when it was built in 1918. The building has been wonderfully preserved, and employees are proud to show it off.
The grand front showcases a mosaic arch, elaborate terra cotta trim, and a pair of winged lions below the word, “thrift.” Towering stained glass windows on the west side add to the overall striking appearance. The community has labeled their bank “a Shelby County masterpiece.”
Even the drinking fountain has Sullivan-style ornamentation.
Farmers & Merchants Union Bank, Columbus, Wisconsin (1920)
Sullivan’s final bank has an impressive entrance and lots of detail. The band of stained glass windows on the side have rounded tops rather that the usual rectangles seen in Sullivan’s other banks.
There’s a museum on the balcony level with old photos, artifacts, and documents about the bank.
Business-wise, the Farmers & Merchants Union Bank is still just that, serving the community in its original purpose and name.
If you’re traveling near any of these Midwest towns that have a jewel box bank, be sure to stop and take a look. The buildings are memorable for their grand design and use of materials. Louis Sullivan is rightly honored for his contribution to America’s architecture.