European-Americans first settled the land that became the City of Winona 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. The river settlement quickly grew into a commercial center for the upper Midwest. Early growth was based on steamboats and grain trading, but ultimately timber processing and railroads were the most important factor in Winona’s commercial development. The lumber boom began to wane after 1900, but the city was able to diversify its economic base and eventually plateaued at a population of about 27,000.
Winona’s vibrant economy led to a competitive banking sector. Several banks organized during the lumber boom survive, including Merchants National Bank. Founded in 1879, it merged with the German American Bank in 1896 and continued to grow and prosper. In 1911, the bank directors decided that they had outgrown their Richardsonian Romanesque bank building (still extant at 129 East Third Street). Most bankers in those years favored Greek and Roman architectural forms but the Merchants Bank directors chose a different path. Possibly impressed by the National Farmers’ Bank, which Louis Sullivan had recently built in the southern Minnesota town of Owatonna, they hired the Minneapolis firm of Purcell, Feick and Elmslie.
Grounded in Sullivan’s ideas of “organic” architecture, Purcell, Feick and Elmslie (Purcell and Elmslie after Feick left in 1912) were the leaders of the Prairie School in Minnesota. William Gray Purcell and George Feick Jr., opened a Minneapolis firm in 1907 to specialize in what they called Progressive design. George Grant Elmslie, who had worked for Sullivan for almost two decades, joined them in 1910. Merchants Bank echoed the “jewel box” massing of the Owatonna bank, a project to which Elmslie had contributed while working for Sullivan. However, the structure and decoration of the Winona bank convey a very different feeling.
The cube-shaped bank fits snugly into a corner lot at the intersection of Third and Lafayette streets. The two primary facades are identical except for the highly ornate copper arch over the entrance door on Third Street. A steel frame allowed for stained glass curtain walls on the primary facades; the glass is enclosed in piers and lintels sheathed in reddish brown brick. The massive corner pier where the two primary facades join is decorated with richly detailed “Sullivanesque” terra-cotta, as are the piers at the opposite ends of the two facades. The central pier is flanked by two freestanding smaller piers, each of which is capped by a complex terra-cotta capital. “It is a dynamic design, springing from the earth,” wrote Prairie School historian Allen Brooks, “and thus radically different from Sullivan’s bank in Owatonna with its static, cohesive, shell of brick resting high upon a pedestal.”
The interior is a unified space dominated by the two enormous stained glass walls and a skylight created by E. L. Sharretts, a glass artist who frequently partnered with the firm. The other two facades were decorated with murals by Albert Fleury, a Chicago artist who also worked for Sullivan. A mosaic by Louis J. Millett, who had collaborated with Sullivan and Elmslie on the Owatonna Bank, surrounds the bank vault. The low walls, which separated the tellers from the center of the banking hall, were made of the same brick as the exterior. These walls ended in piers that held starkly vertical light fixtures, each topped by a glass globe. Purcell and Elmslie also designed the furniture, including the cube-like chairs, several of which are on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Winona County History Center.
The bank directors were pleased with their distinctive building, which won national attention for its new approach to bank architecture. The period just before World War I, however, turned out to be the zenith of the Prairie School. When the bank needed more space in 1927, it built a typical commercial-style addition to the rear (north) of the original building; there were also later additions along Third Street to the east. The bank, however, kept growing, and in 1968 the management hired an architect to design a building to replace the Purcell, Feick and Elmslie structure. Publication of the modernist design for the new bank in the local newspaper provoked a public outcry among local citizens and the architectural community.
Surprised by the depth of the discontent, the bank directors decided to restore those characteristics of the original building that had been lost over the years and build a new addition to the east along Third Street. Unfortunately, the new addition required the destruction of one of Fluery’s murals as the east wall was opened up to expand the banking room. On the other hand, the original skylight was exposed and the brick teller cages, with their globe-topped light fixtures, were restored. When completed in 1972, the expansion and restoration project was praised by preservationists.
The original building is now part of a larger banking complex but the primary facades facing Third and Lafayette streets are essentially unchanged and the additions to the north and east are clearly differentiated from the original structure and compatible in massing and materials. Merchants Bank now has branches throughout the region but it continues to celebrate the history of its original building.
Brooks, H. Allen. The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972, reissued 1996.
Gebhard, David. Purcell & Elmslie: Progressive Prairie Architects.Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2006.
Lutz, Thomas, “Merchants National Bank,” Winona County, Minnesota. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1974. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Olivarez, Jennifer Komar. Progressive Design in the Midwest: The Purcell-Cutts House and the Prairie School Collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
River Town Winona: Its History and Architecture.2nd ed. Winona, MN: Winona County Historical Society, 2006.