Saturday, July 30, 2011

National Farmers’ Bank of Owatonna, Minnesota

photographs by versluis ©2011
Note: the mural of milk cows in a pasture is by Chicago based artist Oskar Gross (1871-1963).

The 1908 National Farmers’ Bank (now Wells Fargo) of Owatonna, Minnesota
Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924), principal architect

According to Jennifer Komar Olivarez, “Sullivan thought that a building should evolve organically, ‘germinating’ like a seed into a whole plant.” And, “He also felt that every structure needed a consistent, unifying ‘system of ornament.’”[1] Ornament was essential to Sullivan’s architectural design strategy, which was quintessentially inspired by the flora and fauna indigenous to the United States Midwestern prairie landscape. This importance is also characterized by the colors and textures of tapestry brick a preferred material that was used in Sullivan’s Midwestern “Jewel Box” bank buildings of the early twentieth century.

The following text is from the historical marker near the site:

Banker Carl Bennett wanted more than a prominent new building to house his family’s business. He wanted a work of art. Bennett’s search for an architect led him in 1906 to Louis Sullivan, one of the country’s most inventive designers. Together they created a magnificent home for the National Farmer’s Bank in the heart of downtown Owatonna. This brilliant collaboration of the patron and architect produced what many consider the finest small-town bank in America.

After helping to make Chicago the country’s architectural capital in the 1890s, Sullivan came through with a bank design for Owatonna unlike any other. Believing that function and form of a building should complement one another, he conceived a structure resembling a treasure chest, a fitting image for a bank that housed people’s savings.

Sullivan chose for his bank a theme he used often—an arch within a square—then attached to it a rectangular office building. He combined those simple, monumental shapes with complex ornamental details that bring the building to life. Set in sandstone-and-brick walls are two huge stained-glass windows, each framed by a wide band of terracotta—a hard, molded clay-accented by a narrow band of glass mosaic.

The architect did not create this masterpiece alone. His sketches were completed by his draftsman, George Elmslie, who designed much of the ornamentation and went on to become a noted Minnesota architect. Joining them were a team of skilled craftsmen who created the ornate interior—a “color symphony” of painted plaster, stained glass, and huge cast-iron chandeliers. The finished bank was dedicated in 1908.

Remodelings have altered some of the interior features. But much of the original splendor of Louis Sullivan’s bank remains. In 1976 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.[2]
  1. Olivarez, Jennifer Komar. Progressive Design in the Midwest: The Purcell-Cutts House and the Prairie School Collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2000. 20. Print.
  2. Historical marker: Minnesota Historical Society.

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