Sullivan’s jewel box bank in downtown Grinnell a piece of history

KCRG TV9's Jay Greene shows one building the makes Grinnell a jewel of the Midwest.
Published: Jul. 28, 2020 at 7:13 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

GRINNELL, Iowa (KCRG) - At the corner of Broad Street and Fourth Avenue is one of Grinnell’s most iconic landmarks: the Merchant’s National Bank.

“When he got to town, he scoped out which was going to be the best location for this building and he decided on this lot and specifically because it was one of the first you saw when you got to town when you left the train station,” Kendra Vincent, with the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce, said.

In 1913, Louis Sullivan commissioned it for a group of farmers who wanted a distinct building for their bank. It opened on New Year’s Day in 1914.

“It only sat empty for a couple of years during the Great Depression, like many banks around the country did,” Vincent said.

Throughout the years, the bank has seen many changes. Over the last 20 years, Wells Fargo added a new addition, and the original bank portion now houses the town’s Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to another bank in Algona, Sullivan also designed the Peoples Savings Bank along 3rd Avenue SW in Cedar Rapids. It opened in 1912. It now houses Popoli Ristorante. Sullivan’s designs were very particular for his time.

“He was, of course, kinda the father of prairie style, Frank Lloyd Wright worked under him for a number of years. [Sullivan] brought the prairie style to life around the country and around the world. He was kind of the first leg of that,” Vincent said.

Even the bricks were a specific style.

“They’re a little bit thinner, a little bit longer and they’re different colored compared to regular red brick, you would have seen during that time,” Vincent said. “He wanted the longer lines, the clean, elongated lines that you see in a lot of prairie architecture.”

It’s been dubbed the jewel box bank, and it’s easy to see why it got that name. There are several incredible pieces of stained glass including a glass wall that faces the east, the front rose view window as well as the glass skylight.

All of the buildings Sullivan designed show these elements in some shape or form.

“Where some may have stained glass in the blue, it’s not on the ceiling like ours is, it’s on the upper part of the wall... it’s in a big circle window or some things like that,” Vincent said.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan designed everything that went inside the building, as well.

“We have a hand-carved check stand here that he had commissioned to be specific to this building... the furniture would have been original... the cabinetry... all of that would have been designed to specifically fit this building,” Vincent said.

Just like the stained glass, the building remains a vibrant part of the Grinnell community.

“We’re very fortunate that it was an operating institution for nearly all of its life which enabled them to keep original aspects of the building... to keep things updated and working... and to just keep the integrity of the building alive,” Vincent said.

It also serves as a trip down memory lane for many who have lived here.

“So we’ve got the college here, of course. We have a lot of college students who have graduated and since moved all around the world and they come back and say ‘oh, I opened my first banking account here’,” Vincent said.

Copyright 2020 KCRG. All rights reserved.