The National Farmers' Bank (now Wells Fargo Bank), 1907-8
Louis H. Sullivan, architect; George Grant Elmslie, designer
101 Cedar Street North, Owatonna
Boston-born architect Louis Sullivan is generally considered the father of the Prairie School movement. Sullivan, who believed a building should reflect its time, place, and function, conceived the idea of an authentic American architecture suited to the needs of people living in the modern age. He decorated his buildings with stylized plant motifs derived from the American prairie to create the sense of a unified whole. Sullivan inspired a younger generation of Chicago architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, George Washington Maher, and George Grant Elmslie, to apply his principles to all types of buildings. This movement would later be known as the Prairie School.
The National Farmers' Bank was the first and perhaps the finest of Sullivan's bank projects. The simple, square brick exterior conveys a sense of solid permanence desirable in a bank, while its organic terra-cotta ornament subtly hints at the elaborate decoration within. Inside, the large, open-plan banking room features incredibly ornate stenciling alongside terra-cotta and plaster ornament, all using Sullivan's trademark stylized plant motifs. Four monumental cast-iron electric chandeliers, called electroliers, are a spectacular expression of organic ornament. The color scheme favored earthen tones in green, gold, brown, and red. Two art-glass arches and a skylight in the same autumnal colors allow natural light to wash over the whole, adding their glow to what Sullivan referred to as a "color symphony." George Grant Elmslie, Sullivan's chief draftsman from 1889 to 1909, was a master of organic ornament, and was largely responsible for the bank's decorative scheme.
The National Farmers' Bank failed in 1926. Subsequent owners of the building made only minor changes to the interior until 1940, when the entire main floor was remodeled; the seven elaborate cast-iron tellers' wickets were sold as scrap metal, and some of the original terra cotta was discarded. In 1958, architect Harwell Hamilton Harris remodeled the bank, this time more carefully, avoiding further damage to the original design. In 1976, architect David Bowers, of the St. Paul firm Val Michelson & Associates, undertook a six-year project to restore as much of the original interior as possible while maintaining its function as a working bank. Bowers restored the original president's office and remodeled the tellers' windows under the balcony. Recent modifications have further improved the bank's interior appearance.
related building of interest:
Federated Insurance Companies Building, 1923
Jacobson and Jacobson
129 Broadway Street East, Owatonna
C.I. Buxton was secretary of the Minnesota Mutual Fire Insurance Company (later the Federated Insurance Companies Building) when its main office moved from Minneapolis to his hometown of Owatonna in 1910. Buxton rented office space in the recently completed National Farmers Bank and became so enamored of Sullivan's progressive style of architecture that he commissioned the firm of Purcell, Feick, and Elmslie to build a bungalow for him and his wife (see Buxton Bungalow on the Greater Minnesota Tour). By 1919 Buxton's growing company needed a new building. Unfortunately, by this time few Prairie School buildings were being built. Purcell had moved to Philadelphia and he and Elmslie’s partnership had virtually dissolved. Sullivan had lost his Chicago architectural practice and was in ill health. Buxton turned to two young brothers, David and Nels Jacobson, who had recently returned home to Owatonna from their architectural studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Completed in 1922 at a cost of $200,000, the building is one of the latest examples of Prairie School architecture built in the Midwest. At the dedication ceremony the Jacobsons recognized their debt to Sullivan's principles of design. The two-story exterior is finished in brick and Indiana Bedford stone and originally had a low pitched, hipped roof of Spanish tile with overhanging eaves. Polychrome terra-cotta ornament from the American Terra Cotta Company completes the Prairie School ornamentation. Additions to the building were made in 1929, 1949 (the roof was removed and a third floor was created), 1967, and 1978.
next stop >