National Farmers’ Bank in Owatonna: We finally met.

I had an appointment to do a video shoot for MinnPost last week in Owatonna, Minnesota, about an hour’s drive south of Minneapolis. My daughter Emily drove over from Rochester to have lunch with me and help me with the video. We had a little extra time after we ate, so we stopped downtown to see the beautiful bank designed by prairie school architect Louis Sullivan (with an amazing decorative scheme by George Grant Elmslie).

National Farmers' Bank (now Wells Fargo) in Owatonna, Minnesota (all photos by Steve Date)

Elmslie, along with William Gray Purcell and George Feick, designed the house we used to own (see previous post) and I became more and more interested in prairie school architecture during the years we lived there. The National Farmers’ Bank in Owatonna has long been on my bucket list of architectural sites, but for some reason I’ve never gotten around to stopping in.

(Serendipity note: I started writing this a few days ago. Then I went out of town for a couple of days and awoke yesterday morning to see a photo of the interior of the bank in a Minneapolis StarTribune feature story about Adam Young of Owatonna and his music group called Owl City.)

I’ve had a range of experiences with visiting and photographic historic sites, and those still open for business are not always very welcoming to gawkers and photographers. But as soon as Emily and I entered the grand lobby and started looking around, a bank worker hopped up from her office cubicle, gave us a friendly greeting, and suggested we climb up on the little balcony behind the clock for good photos. She was right. The view was magnificent.

The lobby stuns.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s website says this about Sullivan and the bank, “One of the first American architects to break free from the influence of classical revival styles, Louis Sullivan completed a series of eight banks in small Midwest towns during the last years of his career. The National Farmers’ Bank of Owatonna is arguably the best. Sullivan, known for a “form follows function” philosophy . . . designed the bank to resemble a jeweled strongbox, giving depositors a sense of security.”

Exterior detail by George Grant Elmslie

It is indeed a “jeweled strongbox” — a surprisingly beautiful presence in a small, midwestern town such as this. One can only imagine the impact it must have had on area farmers and town residents when it was built 103 years ago. It’s been well cared for and stands as one of the best surviving example of prairie school architecture anywhere.

I wonder how often the people who work in the bank and do business there regularly take a minute to stop to look around and appreciate it. I hope they do it every day.

What a great place to work, huh?

One of the huge stained glass windows comes alive when viewed from inside.

A visual feast wherever you look

Clock above the teller windows

We could only visit for a few minutes and then had to be on our way. Since National Farmers Bank folded many years ago, the building is now a Well Fargo branch. Before we left, Emily took some time to do a little banking. What a great historic monument — a century-old art masterpiece that still does the business for which it was built.

Function and form walk hand in hand here. Louis Sullivan and George Grant Elmslie would be happy with the way their ideas have endured and continue to have an emotional impact.

It was a thrill to experience this place. Next time I’ll visit when I have a little more time.

(to see more photos — and larger versions of these — go to my Flickr set here)

Emily (center) does a little banking

Prairie School gem turns 100 — and we used to own it.

Ever have a tour bus pull up in front of your house with people gawking out the windows at you? This happened occasionally during the 10 years we owned what is known as the Hineline House on Dupont Ave. So. in Minneapolis. Having curious onlookers is an odd, but usually not unpleasant experience. When you find your house listed and pictured in architecture books, it starts to be kind of fun.

I still don’t quite understand how a family like ours ended up as the caretakers of this significant piece of history, art and architecture, but I’m glad it happened.

Page about our house from an article in The Western Architect in 1913. Note the detail of stained glass windows and bookcase doors.

In 1983, after owning a small house for 4 years, my wife, Sandy and I decided to move up to something a little larger. Our daughter, Emily was 2 at the time and we had hopes of having another youngster at some point (Lauren obliged by arriving two years later). Like many home buyers, we started looking within a certain price range, rejected all those possibilities and decided to move up in price and out of the comfort zone.

When we looked at the house at 4920 Dupont Avenue South in Minneapolis for the first time, I remember my initial reaction was that it was run-down and kind of dingy and dirty — ugly and old wallpaper and carpet, the yard was a mess, etc. — why were they asking so much for it? But after a minute or two inside, I started to notice the clean lines, the stained glass and architectural detail and realized this place was something special — and actually priced low, for what it was. But, as one architecture book put it, it had been “unsympathetically maintained”.

Then-reporter, now-Mayor of Minneapolis R.T. Rybak did an article about 3 families buying houses in the summer of 1983. We were one of them. The wide-angle camera lens made the house look a lot bigger than it is. (and it's "Sandra", R.T. -- not "Saundra")

William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie (photo from Minneapolis Institute of Arts - Unified Vision: Architecture and Design of the Prairie School)

William Gray Purcell grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. He worked for a time in Louis Sullivan’s studio, where the Prairie School of architecture – Frank Lloyd Wright being its most notable progeny– began. George Feick, Jr., Purcell’s classmate at Cornell Architecture School also worked for Sullivan. In 1907, Purcell and Feick decided to leave Sullivan and opened a design office in Minneapolis. In 1909, they talked George Grant Elmslie — Sullivan’s chief designer — into coming to Minneapolis to join them.

Purcell, Elmslie & Feick Studio (photo from Minneapolis Institute of Arts Collection)

Various permutations of the Purcell, Feick & Elmslie team did hundreds of house, churches, banks and other commercial buildings all over the midwest, and eventually, the country. Some of their more well-known buildings are the Merchants Bank in Winona, Minnesota, the Purcell-Cutts House and the E.L. Powers Residence in Minneapolis. For a time, they were the most successful Prairie School architecture firm outside of Chicago.

According to the book, At Home on the Prairie: The Houses of Purcell & Elmslie, by Dixie Legler and Christian Korab (Chronicle Books, 2006) a man named Burr, who was an associate of a company that had commissioned Purcell, Elmslie & Feick for a commercial project, wanted them to design a house for his daughter and her soon-to-be husband, Harold E. Hineline. “Burr wanted us to do a nice little house for the young couple”, said Purcell.

Legler and Korab write, “The Hinelines’ two-story home was based on a 1908 Purcell and Feick remodeling of a barn into a house for Arthur Jones, ‘a very simple project [that] had a great influence on all my later work’, Purcell said. ‘In this little house I made my first detailed examination of the relation of a building to the size of people and the geography of movements.”

Detail of door, bookcase and dining room cabinet stained glass patterns (photo from University of Minnesota Libraries)

Photo of door depicted in above drawing

This photo of the door sketched in the drawing above is from a great website called Prairie School Traveler , which has quite a few very nice photos of the the interior of the house.

Even though the asking price for this house was clearly out of our comfort zone, its allure was grew on us as we imagined ourselves living in it and cleaning it up. There was another bidder, but somehow our offer of $104,000 won out and we got the house.

The place really did need a lot of work. An elderly couple had lived there for over 40 years. When they died, their daughter lived there for a time and obviously did not have the means or desire to keep it up. We certainly weren’t the most knowledgeable of owners and we couldn’t afford large-scale restoration, but we did our best to study up on Prairie School architecture and at least stabilize the deterioration, clean it up and improve the decor.

The dining room. One of few photos I can find of the house that doesn't have people in it.

I’ve been going through old photos looking for pictures of architectural detail and realize that I didn’t take many photos of the house itself. The house was just a backdrop for pictures of the family. While we enjoyed living there very much, we often didn’t think about it as a work of art — it was just home.

The leaded glass bookcase is visible, but not the focus of this Christmas photo from the late '80s.

Even though it was a great house in many ways, its limitations and flaws began to become more noticeable as the years went by. One bathroom is fine for a couple with one small child, but as the girls got older, we wanted another one. The kids’ bedrooms were very small and lacked closet space. In 1983 when we moved in, our daughter, Emily, was 2 years old. Ten years later, Emily was 12 and Lauren 8.

By the winter of ’92 – ’93 we were starting to think about looking for a new house. We had mentioned that to a few friends and neighbors, but weren’t all that serious. Then one day in the spring of ’93, a young couple, Beth and Steve rang our doorbell and asked if we’d be interested in selling. We started seriously looking for a new house, worked out a good price with them and that was that.

Lauren flushes away the old house and gets ready for the new as we prepared to move in October of 1993

Beth and Steve lived there for several years and put a lot of time and effort into restoration. They had quite a few stained glass windows replicated, had the sawed-wood ornaments on the front entry recreated and did many other period decorating and style improvements. They invited us over a few years back and it made me happy that they had put so much into it — more than we were able to do during our tenure.

It’s been 17 years now since we moved. I drive by it every few weeks or so. Sure brings back a lot of memories — most are good ones. Our family went through some unhappy times there, but fortunately we came out on the positive side. I liked living there a lot, but the move to our present house was a good one. It was the right time to pass this important house on to others. I’m just glad we had 10 years there and I feel lucky to be a small part of its history.

As for the date of the 100th birthday? Not exactly sure. The blueprints and most books say 1910, but some sources say 1911. Most likely it was designed in one year and construction completed the next. Whatever the day — Happy Birthday to the Hineline House and thank you to Mr. Purcell, Mr. Elmslie and Mr. Feick — wherever you are. Your beautiful designs live on and enrich the lives of everyone who occupies those spaces. I’m a big fan of you guys.