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Design Icon: Sullivan’s National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna

by Maxwell Tielman


Design: National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna

Architect: Louis Sullivan (American, 1856-1924)

Ornamentation: George Grant Elmslie (American, 1869-1952)

Date: 1908

Location: Owatonna, Minnesota

Construction: red brick, green terra cotta, stained glass

Background: Known as the father of modernism and attributed with the conceptualization of the modern skyscraper, Louis Sullivan’s influence on architectural history and the American urban landscape is incalculable. The originator of the term “form follows function,” Sullivan’s numerous buildings blazed trails both in terms of technological innovation and decorative ornamentation. Unlike later architects like Adolf Loos and Walter Gropius, Sullivan didn’t completely disavow the use of decorative elements, but believed that they should be informed by a building’s underlying structure. Built to live harmoniously with human needs and the urban fabric, many of Sullivan’s structures responded to the environment in which they were held. His skyscrapers, for example, featured a three-tiered design—a large, street-level floor for entryways and commercial use, smaller upper floors, and a decorative cornice that held the building’s mechanical workings (elevator cables, etc.). This particular building, one of a series of “Jewel Box” banks designed in the later portion of Sullivan’s career, enjoys a prominent place within the small Minnesota town, Owatonna. On a smaller scale than his skyscrapers, The National Farmer’s bank is no less grand. Decorative elements by Prairie School architect George Grant Elmslie add touches of naturalism that compliment Sullivan’s overall design. Oversized arch-shaped windows cover two sides of the building’s central structure, providing ample light and lending a sense of dignity to the business that takes place within. A beautiful focal point to Owatonna’s main public square, the building provided a modern interpretation of the opulent, important bank building.

Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg.

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