Horace Greely famously told Josiah B. Grinnell to “Go west, young man, go west”. The Congregational minister did and ended up in the middle of Iowa and a town here now bears his name. It is a wonderful place with much to see and do. Grinnell College is there and its campus is magnificent. Make sure to visit the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, a neat building designed by Cesar Pelli. North facing light catchers bathe the stuff on display in its Faulconer Gallery with slightly blue toned light.
But another building is even more interesting and alone worth the short trip north from I-80. It is Louis Sullivan’s Merchant National Bank. It is the finest example of the several “Jewel Box” banks that he designed in second half of his career.
Sullivan is famous for his “form ever follows function” which is often misinterpreted it seems to me. Sullivan didn’t mean minimalism or the absence of adornment. One look at the entrance to the bank and its explosion of terra-cotta should put any such though to rest.
A reporter wrote at opening on January 1, 1915 that something “must have worked like hashish” on the architect to induce such a vision. Such a thought would not grace any review of, say, David Chipperfield’s Figge Art Museum.
Sullivan meant that a building’s ultimate form should be the organic emanation of the spirit of the place and its people. This bank was built as a repository for the fruits of the labor of area farmers with reverence for the hard work signaled thereby.
The entrance faces south and thus for most of the year and most of each day sun pours through the beautiful stained glass window. There is also stained glass on the east which fills with light till noon or so and sky blue glass on the ceiling***.
The effect of the glass and light is beautiful, but perfectly not profound. No “metaphysics of light” here****. A lesser hand would have combined the same elements to a more clerical effect which would have not only been disrespectful to Fr Grinnell’s gothic church (which used to be just across the street to the east) but also to the local common consciousness.
The ceiling height is about twenty feet creating a spatial experience which (without too much of a stretch) could be said to allude to one in a barn or in a field looking toward the sky. Or, indeed, like being a gem in a jewel box – but one with some of the dividers missing.
The interior was changed and a touch diminished by the removal of the cages over the teller areas which originally served more of a purpose of tradition and proportion than security. The effect is as if an element had been removed from a piece of abstract sculpture. You would feel the absence of something even if you had no way to know what was missing.
That extirpation would seem to have been unnecessary because a functioning bank was appended on the north and Sullivan’s jewel appropriately repurposed to house the chamber of commerce. The commission for the addition must have been intimidating, but was done with respect and rhythm by Davenport firm Stewart-Robison-Laffan.
Finally, this may be hard to believe, but the building was more comfortable in context in 1915 than now. It was then of similar size and proportion to that of its immediate neighbors. Roof lines met. Now to the west is a low slung bit of impermanence and the aforementioned addition obvious in its respectfulness.
Sullivan has been called the “father of the skyscraper”, yet the grand part of his career had been long over at the time of this commission. Perhaps sensitized by intervening vicissitudes he found himself able to channel the essence of Grinnell and show what he “meant when he talked about the genius of America.*****
*Words of a reporter in the 1,1,15 Grinnell Herald.
** The glass was done by Louis Millet who was related to Jean-Francois Millet, the French painter know for his paintings of peasant farmers such as The Gleaners
***Term coined by Abbot Suger in the early stages of Gothic Architecture
**** January 1, 1915 Grinnell Herald
***** Some of the above came from the book by Bill Menner which is well represented in this website: