Merchants' Bank
by Louis Sullivan

Located in Grinnell, Iowa

Detail of Bank Front

Designed in 1914 by Louis Sullivan and originally known as the Merchants' Bank, it has long been called the "Jewel Box" of Sullivans small midwestern bank designs.

It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. It is owned Brenton National Bank Poweshiek County.

About Louis Sullivan (1856-1924)

Closeup of Lion in front of Bank

One of America's most innovative Victorian architects, Louis Sullivan was born in Boston and practiced architecture in Chicago from 1875 to the early 1920's. His formal training took place in Boston at MIT and in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and he worked briefly in the Philadelphia firm of Frank Furness and the Chicago firm of William Le Baron Jenney. In the late 1870's he joined the firm of Dankmar Adler which was refashioned as Alder & Sullivan in 1883. Sullivan was influential in founding the Prairie School of architecture, with his draftsman George Elmslie developing the style independently after the firm dissolved, and with Frank Lloyd Wright as his most important pupil.

Side of bank with gold bars

Sullivan's work strongly reflects the importance of organic ornament to 1870's Gothic Revivalists who he studied with, and the honest expression of structure and materials that was a fundamental theory of Reform Gothic architects. His own work departs from historicism, emphasizing the structure of the building and the properties of steel, brick and terra cotta cladding, and ornamental metals used in the development of skyscrapers and fireproof buildings. Major technological advancements the new architecture of Chicago, as it rebuilt from the Chicago Fire and grew quickly to become the major commercial center of the Midwest, enabled Sullivan to produce buildings of modern design, but intricate surface ornament both exterior and exterior was always integral to his work.

Front of Bbank

At the great Columbian Exposition of 1893, Sullivan's non-historical designs were overshadowed by the Neo-Classical architecture that characterized the fair, and which represented the ideas of Eastern architects and the increased influence in America of the Neo-Classical styles taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. At the peak of his career, his determination to forge a new architecture suitable for America undermined his practice. American architecture changed course and favored Neo-Classicism. In his later years, Sullivan worked intermittently on designs for commercial buildings in small Midwestern towns, and he died impoverished. The legacy of his later years were a group of richly detailed banks built for clients who had been inspired by his progressive landmarks in Chicago, including the Grinnell bank that is known as the "jewel box" design, named for its square shape and the keyhole motif of the entrance.

Louis Sullivan's masterpiece, the trading room from the Chicago Stock Exchange, is preserved at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Auditorium Building in Chicago, Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri and the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York are his most celebrated skyscrapers, and the Carson Pirie Scott Department Store in Chicago is known as one of the great achievements of American commercial architecture.

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