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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Sullivan's Jewel Box - Farmers and Merchants Union Bank in Columbus

The Farmers and Merchants Union Bank in Columbus, Wisconsin is eyecatching, but it was the words "Louis K. Sullivan Architect" that really caught my attention when I was in town back in April.

A terra cotta eagle perches at the top of the building

The bank was named to pay homage to Abraham Lincoln and his efforts to preserve the Union when it was opened in 1861.  In 1884 the name was expanded to Farmers & Merchants Union Bank.  When a new bank building was needed Mr. and Mrs. J. Russell Wheeler chose Louis Sullivan to build it.  If you're not familiar with the name, he was the mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright and was among the first to reject re-using classical architectural style and set the path for a new "American" style of architecture.

Bank founded in 1861 - current building finished in 1919

As I mentioned in my last post about Columbus, most of the buildings and homes built there were made of cream city brick so Sullivan purposely chose a red brick with shades of blue mixed in.  The terra cotta ornamentation is pale green mixed with specks of brown, and the archways over the door provide a frame for stained glass window.  Don't worry, we'll get to that!

The marble lintel flanked by lions is what caught my attention.  Pretty fancy stuff for a country bank!

Inside I was just as delighted to discover that they had hung on to a variety of office equipment over the years.  Typewriters and Dictaphones?  Heck yeah!  Every once in a while someone's hoarding tendencies pay off.

Below is an early dictaphone that recorded to a wax cylinder. The rounded shelving on the bottom of the stand was for storing either blank or already recorded wax cylinders. To "erase" a cylinder already used, you had a little peeling unit that simply shaved the wax off the outside of the unit. Eventually, the cylinder wasn't any good because too much wax had to be peeled of it. State of the art for the time, but very expensive and one wonders why the executive wouldn't just dictate the letter directly to his secretary at a much lower cost?  An object of status, perhaps? It was most likely an addition to the bank right before or right after the Sullivan building was built.

Of course the main vault was on display, and when I inquired about information on the bank's construction I was even given over to my own personal tour guide.

And look at this "automatic cashier".  Old equipment wasn't just functional, it was beautiful!  And this particular piece was invented in the 1890's by Edward J. Brandt, a cashier at the Bank of Watertown in Watertown, Wisconsin. In those days a machine that could dispense change automatically was needed because most employees were paid in cash.

Brandt Automatic Cashier
This nickel plated model was built in the 1920's.

Another Dictaphone was tucked into a corner, perhaps Mr. Russell was a fan of new office technology and just couldn't help but buy the newest thing to come on the market, much like we do with our smartphones. The one below still used wax cylinders but was probably added to the bank in the 1930's.

The stained glass was breath taking.  Honestly I've seen windows in downtown Chicago that didn't even compare. I was taken to the second floor veranda by my guide for this stunning view.

This bank is the last one of 8 "Jewel Box" banks designed by Louis Sullivan. Oddly enough he fell on hard times and these were the works he was able to get during his later years. He died bankrupt in 1924, which leads one to wonder what was the story there?  The other buildings are:
  1. National Farmers Bank in Owatonna, MN - opened 1908
  2. Peoples Savings Bank in Cedar Rapids, IA - opened 1911(now a restaurant)
  3. Land & Loan Office in Algona, IA - opened 1913 (now the Chamber of Commerce)
  4. Purdue State Bank in West Lafayette, IN 
  5. Merchants National Bank in Grinnell, IA - opened 1915 (now the Chamber of Commerce)
  6. Home Building Association in Newark, OH - opened 1915
  7. Peoples Savings & Loan in Sydney, OH - opened 1918

I don't know about the other banks, but this one has done an amazing job at preserving its history, right down to pieces of terra cotta in the bank's second floor museum.

Most of the museum information is related directly to the bank and its history, which would mean more if you were a local...or into banks in particular and not just an architecture groupie like myself.  I did enjoy the little banks that were probably giveaways at some point in their career.  Simpler times!

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