Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sullivan’s the Farmers & Merchants Union Bank (1920), Columbus, Wisconsin: “a little bit of cathedral in it”

Interior view from just inside the entry doors of the Farmers and Merchants Union Bank.
Photograph by versluis, 2013

All of Louis Sullivan’s “Jewel Box” Bank buildings celebrate light with a wonderful sparkling emerald effect created with art glass. It seems that Sullivan  uses stained glass with a sprightly touch to create a spiritual clerestory wall of weightlessness. This metaphor of light contrasts beautifully with the solid masonry wall underneath.

Dordt College engineering professor Ethan Brue shares this quote from writer Samuel Florman with his students. The passage fits Sullivan very well:

Not only cathedrals, but every great engineering work is an expression of motivation and of purpose which cannot be divorced from religious implications. This truth provides the engineer with what many would assert to be the ultimate existential pleasure.
I do not want to get carried away with this point. The age of cathedral building is long past. And, as I have already said, less than one quarter of today’s engineers are engaged in construction activities of any sort. But every man-made structure, no matter how mundane has a little bit of cathedral in it, since man cannot help but transcend himself as soon as he begins to design and construct. (1)

This 1920s interior view is looking back towards the entry doors of the Farmers and Merchants Union Bank, which has the distinction of being one of Sullivan’s last architectural projects that was built.
Photograph by Clarance Fuerman (Fuermann, Henry, and Sons [Chicago])
Location: 159 W. James St., Columbus, Wisconsin
Image is from the Art Institute of Chicago, Archival Collection Name Historic Architecture and Landscape Image Collection. Image is copyrighted
  1. Florman, Samuel C. The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1996. 125. Print.

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