Guarding Treasure in Louis Sullivan’s Banks

With their winged lions, tapestry brick, interior murals, and stained glass windows, Sullivan’s banks instantly draw the eye.

Entrance, People’s Federal Savings and Loan Association, Sidney, OH (all photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the lonely and chaotic twilight of his career, mercurial Chicago architect Louis H. Sullivan (1876–1924) was reduced to taking whatever commissions came his way. Here was the man whose pencil and imagination gave the skyscraper color, form and style while other architects were “piling one thing on top of another, as Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan’s one-time draftsman and occasional collaborator, noted.

A few years after fellow Chicago architect William LeBaron Jenney developed the first tall, steel-framed building in 1884, Sullivan devised a tripartite composition for a tall building, comprised of base, body (or shaft) and capital, that other architects could work from. But after the completion of the Guaranty Building in Buffalo in 1895, his partnership with engineer Dankmar Adler ended and there would be no more skyscraper commissions for Sullivan. Spurned as a “notoriously grandiose and difficult” architect with an unfashionable (that is, non-Beaux Arts) style, he resorted to designing small commercial buildings in rural towns, most famously the series of eight banks he created in five Midwestern states between 1907 and 1919.

Even with small budgets, the bank buildings Sullivan created stood in startling contrast with the Greco-Roman temple style banks that were popular in the period. Scattered through Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, Sullivan’s banks have met various fates, for better or worse. Owatonna, Minnesota, Columbus, Wisconsin, and Grinnell, Iowa showcase their Sullivan banks. Others have been debased in the course of careless remodels or stripped of signature elements. With their winged lions guarding the treasure inside, their walls of tapestry brick, terra cotta cladding and accents, their interior murals connecting the building to its function and place in the community, and their geometric stained glass windows, Sullivan’s banks instantly draw the eye. And then there’s the location: the banks are in the last places you’d ever expect to find them. Which is one good reason why they’re still around.

Windows, People’s Federal Savings and Loan Association, Sidney, OH

The best of the banks, in Owatonna, and Sidney, Ohio, convey the aesthetic philosophy of their creator at least as successfully as his well-known large-scale buildings, as in the Auditorium Building (now Roosevelt University) on Michigan Avenue, in Chicago and the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, the latter a stunning sun-red structure currently housing state offices. Many Sullivan buildings are around today only because of heroic efforts, beginning in the 1970s, to preserve them. But preservationists can’t halt or prevent what the insurance industry calls an “act of God.” In 2005 Hurricane Katrina blew away a pair of 1890 bungalows the master had co-designed with Wright on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In 2006 fire destroyed three Adler & Sullivan buildings in Chicago, including Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv, a 10,500-square-foot synagogue built in 1891 on the city’s South Side, later repurposed as a Baptist church.

More than a century later, the eight banks remain — which is not to say they haven’t faced challenges. The earliest and largest, the 4,600-square-foot National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, was restored to something much like the original after several ill-conceived remodels. A working bank owned by Wells Fargo, the building draws architecture fans from around the world to the central Minnesota town an hour south of the Twin Cities. On weekends, half of those who walk in the door are tourists; tellers are cross-trained as docents.

Entrance, Home Building Association Bank, Newark, OH

Up to now, The Old Home, in Newark, Ohio, provides us with an example of the other extreme, that is, building owners oblivious to the historical and architectural significance of their property. Occupying a corner site across from Courthouse Square in Licking County, the bank was designed by Sullivan in 1914 as the Home Building Association and opened on August 24, 1915. A two-story rectangular box clad in terra cotta, its exterior features, among other things, pale green and blue mosaic tile. Sullivan’s famous foliated ornament, in terra cotta, sprouts above entrances. A single winged lion guards the south wall. Its listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 didn’t save The Old Home from humiliation. Vacant for the past decade, its last tenant (from 1984-2007) was Tiffany’s Ice Cream Parlor. Other incarnations have included a butcher shop, an architect’s office, an apartment and a jewelry store.

About two and a half hours west of The Old Home, in Sidney, Ohio, the People’s Savings and Loan Association looks much like it did when it opened in 1917. The bank is locally owned and has never changed hands. And, as a brochure titled “A Shelby County Masterpiece,” handed to visitors on entering, attests, Sidney has long been aware that it’s lucky to have the building, which, as in Newark, sits across from the county courthouse where Sullivan, in the initial planning stages, confounded the bank board by spending two days smoking cigarettes and staring at the vacant lot, well before a line had been set on paper.

“Where are the plans?” a bank board member demanded.

“The plans are in here,” Sullivan is reported to have said, tapping his forehead.

In Newark, a peek inside The Old Home this past July shows that the space has been gutted, revealing the original black marble floors and walls, with faded stenciled geometric murals visible above the marble and on the ceiling. In 2014, the building’s then-owner, Newark native Stephen Jones, gifted the site to the Licking County Foundation. Soon after, its director, Connie Hawk, initiated a fundraising campaign to restore the buildingand hired the Columbus architectural firm Rogers Krajnak — seasoned restorationists specializing in adaptive reuse of historic buildings — to prepare a comprehensive development plan. The plan includes preserving extant materials and finishes from the original structure, replacing materials lost to remodels (for example, the antique verde serpentine stone flooring and wainscot in the former banking hall), and, Peter Krajnak relates by email, “returning the exterior to its original form and appearance from 1915.” The finished project, he says, will “tell the story of what the building has been through and the process of restoration.”

When complete, the Louis Sullivan Building of Newark, as it will be called, will include an Event/Welcome Center, a retail area, display areas and, on the upper floor, office space for Explore Licking County, the area’s visitors and convention bureau. Two other Sullivan banks — in Grinnell and Algona, Iowa — have been put to similar use as offices for the local Chamber of Commerce.

Currently, visitors to Chicago can take a two-hour tour called “Louis Sullivan: Lost and Found,” which “explores his work in the Loop — what’s still standing and what’s fallen.” Outside Chicago, there is talk of organizing a similar tour of the architect’s banks. A year from today, the Newark bank may be transformed into one of the best Sullivan buildings standing.

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