The grand architectures of this country vary by the region they were developed in, either adapting a much older style to the unique characteristics of the area or developed anew in response to an American vision of how space should be limited and defined. Although we think of houses as being models for architectural adventurism, much of the evolution in building styles has been with commercial property.
Prior to modernism, Bauhaus, Art Deco and all the styles we see coming out of the times after the two world wars, there was an architecture being developed in the middle part of the country. It evoked the openness of the sky, the solidness of the land and portrayed the features characteristic to the region. The Prairie style is so associated with Frank Lloyd Wright we believe he created it and was the sole purveyor of it, but this is not true. Several people had a hand in the original design and development of this so-American architecture, not the least of who was Louis Sullivan.
If you wander around the western part of the midwest or into the eastern part of the Great Plains states, you’ll find the Jewel Box Banks of Louis Sullivan. There are eight of them, scattered in small towns in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota and Iowa. Each displayed a common theme with elements visible even now in Prairie homes, yet each was uniquely suited for its location. Surrounded as we are by glass and steel boxes it’s a pleasure to stumble upon one of these buildings and see how craftsman ship once existed in architecture.
There’s a sign on Interstate 80 outside Grinnell, Iowa that says “See Louis Sullivan’s Jewel Box Bank” and gives an exit number. By this time on my 14 hour drive from Ann Arbor to Omaha I was stopping pretty frequently to break the monotony of the road and escape the crazed Sunday drivers. Knowing Wright once worked for Sullivan in Chicago I thought I’d see what the teacher had created.
As you see from these images there is a wonderful combination of structural simplicity and ornate delicateness about the bank. Using a mixture of brick, marble, stained glass and terra cotta Sullivan accurately captured the economic optimism of the decade or so before the Great Depression. Money was a religion then – making it, investing it, spending it, displaying it – and banks like this reflected religious motifs as accurately as their more sacred cousins down the block. You can learn more about the Grinnell bank and Louis Sullivan here.
Can you imagine explaining to a building contractor that you want construction like this? Artisans to make the terra cotta reliefs, tile setters to craft the mosaics, glass experts to create the stained glass patterns and stonemasons to build the counters and floors. Not to mention the woodcarvers to create the intricate designs in furniture and wall coverings. They would think you were crazy, and yet the building has a comfortingly modern feel to it. Except for the clutter resulting from multiple municipal agencies using the facility you’d believe the bank staff had stepped out for a bit and would be returning soon to continue business. A solid reminder that not all of the country was eroded by the Depression or subsequent boom/bust financial situations. And a glimmer of optimism for our own future. What can possible keep down a country where such vision exists?