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Winona National Bank
In 1885, J. R. Watkins, a man who sold liniment as a remedy “good for man or beast,” moved to the Mississippi river town of Winona because its river and rail connections opened up the possibility of a wider market for his wares. Winona had been settled by European-Americans in 1851, shortly before the U.S. government and the Mdewakanton Dakota signed the Treaty of Mendota, which opened up the west bank of the Mississippi River for settlement. It quickly grew into a commercial center for the upper Midwest, especially in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when it flourished as a timber processing center. Watkins found success in Winona, and soon built a network of salesmen carrying seasonings and home remedies door-to-door.
The rapid growth of his company required new buildings. Watkins turned to George W. Maher, a Chicago architect associated with the Prairie School, who eventually designed three impressive buildings for the Watkins family in Winona, of which the Winona National Bank was the third. Like most wealthy entrepreneurs of the era, J. R. Watkins found it useful to invest some of his capital in banking. In 1900, he took a controlling interest in the Winona Savings Bank, a thriving institution founded in 1874. After his death, E. L. King became the bank’s president and Paul Watkins the vice-president. In 1914, they hired Maher to design a building that would house both the Winona Savings Bank and the Winona National Bank, a new institution that they had just incorporated. At that time, most bankers favored neoclassical architecture, believing that the Greek and Roman forms made their banks appear strong and stable. With the active involvement of Grace Watkins King, E. L. King and Paul Watkins decided to give Maher a free hand. Their decision was likely influenced by the fact that Merchants Bank, a competitor, had just built a successful Prairie Style bank designed by Purcell, Feick and Elmslie just two blocks away.
The building he delivered was imposing, unusual, and difficult to fit into common stylistic categories. Sheathed in gray granite, the flat-roofed structure sits on the northeast corner of Fourth and Main streets in Winona’s commercial district. The principal facade faces Main Street and stretches 135 feet. Two low wings are joined by a towering pylon constructed of massive piers that support an architrave topped by a projecting cavetto cornice. Between the piers and flanking the entranceway are two 37-foot-high granite columns topped by capitals carved to represent American lotus flowers and leaves. Within the pylon is the entrance to the bank. Above the doors is a large art glass window created by Tiffany Studios, which supplied all the windows as well as the bronze fittings throughout the building. The north and south facades of the two wings feature second-floor columned porches.
The interior of the pylon serves as the main atrium and lobby for the two wings that originally functioned as separate banking halls for the two banks. The ceiling of the pylon rises 50 feet above the floor and receives natural light from a large stained glass skylight. Opposite the entry is the massive Diebold vault with its large circular door weighing over 22 tons. The walls and floors are of white Italian marble. The pylon also encloses two sets of marble stairways that lead to the mezzanine just below the large art glass window on the front facade, and then to the second floor, which originally housed men’s and women’s lounges as well as offices. Open balconies on this level provide a view of the atrium, the mezzanine, and the vault. E. L. and Grace Watkins King, who were big game hunters, decorated the upper levels with display cases featuring rifles and African hunting trophies.
The interior of the two banking wings are similar in plan and decor. Each has a central open area with a writing desk. As in the atrium, the walls are sheathed in white marble. The wainscoting and teller’s counters are made of green marble from the Greek island of Tinos. Each of the wings has large, three-part Tiffany art glass windows. The central portion is clear glass, flanked by panels of blue and white art glass. The art glass, as well as the marble and plaster decoration, continue the lotus motif.
Maher is generally grouped with the Prairie School architects and aspects of the Winona National Bank, especially its horizontal lines, unifying motif based on indigenous flora, and its ample use of stained glass, reflect a Prairie aesthetic. At the same time, the building displays characteristics of the Egyptian Revival, even though it was built many years after that style was popular (1830s and 1840s) and before the style made a small comeback in the 1920s. In an article written to explain his building in the local newspaper, Maher wrote that “the plan and general design follow no precedent either in this country or abroad and are therefore original and American in spirit.” Nevertheless, the monumental pylon with its strong cornice and massive flared columns, the flat roof, the columned porches at the end of the wings, and the lotus motif itself, are all references to Egyptian architecture. Very likely, Maher saw that the massive pylon ensemble could project strength and stability as least as well as Greek and Roman forms.
The bank continues to flourish and its directors have been good stewards of their historic building. The two banks eventually merged to become the Winona National and Savings Bank. In 2001, the bank merged with another bank and renamed itself the Winona National Bank. Nevertheless, the architrave still bears the inscribed name “Winona Savings Bank.” Changes to the exterior include an unobtrusive addition to the rear and an auto bank in the adjacent parking lot.
Brooks, H. Allen. The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972, reissued 1996.
Cummings, Kathleen. “‘A New and American Idea’ in Banking: George W. Maher’s Design for the Winona Savings Bank.” Chicago Architectural Club Journal9 (2000): 75-77.
Maher, George W. “The Architect’s Ideas (Architect Maher Writes Description of Bank He Designed).” Winona Republican-Herald, June 28, 1916.
Nelson, Charles, “Winona Savings Bank,” Winona County, Minnesota. National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form, 1977. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
River Town Winona: Its History and Architecture. 2nd ed. Winona: Winona County Historical Society, 2006.
Wight, Peter B. “The Winona Savings Bank and the Winona National Bank Building, Winona, Minn.” Architectural Record41 (January 1917): 37-38, 48, 50.
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