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Scandinavian American State Bank, alterations project
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Minneapolis, Minnesota  1911

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1911

Job Date (in Parabiographies): December 5, 1910 [1911]

Scandinavian Bank

An ancient red sandstone bank building of Egyptian architecture with gigantic columns, and portholes for windows, stood on the south side of Marquette between Fifth and Sixth. I met one of the officers, probably through Theodore Wold of Winona, and had a talk with him about what appeared to me a handicap to their business due to it being so shut away from public view. A prospective customer felt as if he were going into a tomb. The officer in a dim sort of way saw the force of my argument, although his banker's grandeur complex, reinforced by the great red columns, was hard to overcome. The directors had some hazy notions for reconstructing their banking rooms, and I made some drawings showing how salesmanship could be built into a business office in such a way as to secure more customers

This was bad sales psychology on my part because bankers as a group do not like [annotation by WGP in margin: "did not then"] to even think of themselves as business men. I did not then realize that even the language of "selling" and "advertising," of "producing more business for the bank," and so on, sounded at that time almost like Socialism.

Even today bankers continually picture themselves as really parts of the United States Government. They choose names for their businesses that sound as if a bank were actually a department of government, they use the names and pictures of United States Presidents and historic characters as if these men were a part of the heritage of the bank as an institution. One cashier said to us, "Don't forget to put the eagle in a prominent place on the front of our building where the depositors will see it. They will get the idea that the bank is solid like the old U.S.A." The city banker's social deportment was that of local financial ministers. and any view of their activities showed a conventional world wholly insulated from the channels of trade. Their contact with business was handled through a system or ritual which acted as a sort of shock absorber, preventing them from being contaminated by "trade." Since they pictured themselves as both the origin and foundation of industry and prosperity in every community, any banker would indignantly dismiss the above analysis, but despite the banks advertising of "friendly service" the business man approached his banker with a special class of deference. With 7% to 10% interest on loan issued as discounts (interest subtracted in advance) general business prospered in spite of the banks and not because of them.

[Annotation on draft by WGP: My father and uncle owned a string of country banks in Iowa and Nebraska from 1890 to 1914 - perhaps a dozen - which paid 10% net year after year, and no one questioned or even thought of questioning this procedure and return on capital - a big subject - economic history...all this greatly affected by architecture.]

Bank presidents in the large city banks who come more closely in contact with the public tend to become contaminated so that prestige is restored to the group by appointing one of them as "chairman of the board" and many minor working executives are then labeled Vice-Presidents. These men and the cashiers rather than the directors are the policy makers and actual operators of the business.

The entire structure is essentially a "no" system which is completely insulated from outside conditions and reaction is frozen on the basis of the last economic cataclysm. Banking operates on the basis of explosion and reconstruction. The officer group making up a sort of cyclone cellar for self-protection.

Bank directorates are a sort of air conditioned chamber where business men who are sufficiently important are slowly decontaminated and given a status of nobility. In the larger banks directors have very little force in determining general policy, operating more or less as window dressing. Their analysis and advice on business is always "ex cathedra," and yet any successful business man will tell you that the banker who was "raised a banker" has almost no clear view of either industry or economics. Indeed, the debacle of 1930-1940 showed that no one knew less about "money" than the bankers, and it became necessary to call in the despised "professor" to tell them what to do. Just as soon as the professor had shoveled out the wreckage and got the wheels going again, there was a yelp from every banker and a roar from all the newspapers to throw out the "brain trust"--a naive admission that the banking business was best run (for the bankers) without brains. If engineers and architects knew as little about their business as the so-called financial experts, no on would dare ride on a train or use the elevator to reach his office.

Our effort, therefore to help them do something that would improve the financial statement of the Scandinavian Bank was not welcomed and nothing ever came of the matter.

An amusing story went the rounds of the first post-war depression of 1919. A banker refused an additional loan to a grocer who was very hard hit. As he despondently left the building realizing that he had lost his business, a thought occurred to him and he returned to this assistant First Vice-President's desk--"Have you ever been a grocer?"

"No, I have not."

"Well, you're one now!"

There was a very interesting conclusion to the Scandinavian Bank matter. About 1913 the bank decided to buy a nearby corner and erect a skyscraper. Hewitt and Brown were selected as the architects.

Our friend, John Jager, was employed at that time by Hewitt and Brown. His duties were divided between some of the more important and more experienced detail designing and the office of technical librarian. Hewitt, through contact with both Jager and myself, had begun to see the light with respect to the general "form and function" idea but his views were restrained by his Ecole de Beaux Arts diploma and his natural social timidity, and it appeared that he was somewhat uncertain about the design character he was to give the Scandinavian Bank.

Mr. Vanderbilt, who was a leading factor in the design department of Hewitt and Brown Inc., at that time, wrote me in 1939 about the design of this first large building in Minneapolis which was to show ant "modern" influence. In general, Vanderbilt represents the building as the product of his own hand. It is quite possible that he lifted its design bodily from some German architectural magazine, for its immediate prototypes are to be found in "Moderne Bauformen," an architectural periodical of that day. But the question is, "what influenced this eclectic Vanderbilt to choose such a design, wholly outside his ordinary design continuity, and a type which he did not develop further in subsequent buildings?" [Annotation by John Jager on the draft: Still working in Minneapolis in 1952. JJ got a Christmas card from him in 1951. -- In response to Purcell's question, Jager also Notes: No! JJ knows the story exactly and correctly. To which Purcell notes back, "We should have it."]

There are, I believe, two explanations.

Although Vanderbilt--an extreme egotist--granted neither credit nor respect to John Jager, he subconsciously must have followed the usual psychological reactions of his type and under it all knew that John really had the answer. Vanderbilt's own procedure was not founded on any convictions. This is confirmed by his reply when I wrote him in 1938 complimenting him on a very interesting laminated rub truss Catholic church he had just completed in Minneapolis.

He denied that the building was functional, or that it was based on any particular convictions. He "used the laminated ribs because there were cheap and established the rest of the building's appearance, because he liked it that way and didn't think the building 'meant' anything by its design. The letter was characteristically cynical.

And additional explanation rests on the probability that Mr. Jager, with his characteristic wisdom and strategy in difficult personal relations, gradually here and there tempered the form of this design during the making of the working drawings until the building became what it appears today--the Metropolitan Bank Building.

Of course, Mr. Hewitt was exceedingly proud of the fact that he created a somewhat organic skyscraper of form and function appearance, so long before very few except Wright, Sullivan and ourselves had given buildings such expression, but Hewitt is hardly entitled to so very much credit as a pioneer in view of the fact that this is the sole example of such a building in all the large amount of designing he was doing at that time. Indeed, his last and most famous work, the Minneapolis Telephone Building, is not functional but is of the collapsed accordion variety of Beaux Arts design, that is to say applique forms lifted from contemporary organic designers and here applied after the Beaux Arts System of architectural "composition" as concealment rather than glorification of its steel structure.

[Annotation by John Jager on draft: The skyscraper architect Corbet [WGP: Harvey Wiley Corbet (died 1950?), N.Y., lecturing in Mpls [Minneapolis] gave this building a tremendous recognition for advanced spandrel ideas...stating that Mpls has done this before New York did... And Mr. Hewitt got excited--because this bank made him first earned glory on new architecture to which he was until meeting and hearing Corbet--antagonistic as a Beaux Arts man. WGP adds: Hewitt always wanted to be on the band wagon.

There is, however, another unbelievable episode within the atmosphere of the Hewitt and Brown menage possibly having some remote connection with the design of this building.

At the critical moment, when the design began to take form, there blew into Minneapolis one of the most remarkable creatures I have ever met. He was what we used to know during World War No. 1 as a "typical" German. He had a round bullet head, close shaven, a severe, brusque manner, loud, full-pressure voice with moist and sloshing German accent. As window dressing he carried two items which were to become fashionable in America during the Imperial 1920s, a "pince nez" with very large round lenses, black tortoise shell rims and a sort of engineered truss spring across the top, the whole tethered with a conspicuous fountain pen the size of a railroad spike, which wrote a line that looked like a coil of rope on the paper. His handwriting was so large that but four or five lines sufficed to fill a sheet. [Additional annotation on alternate draft by WGP: He seemed too well supplied with money to be simply a drafter in need of a job. We assumed him to be a [illegible word] Ph.D. seeling experience in American tall building design and construction.]

I had never met such an opinionated person, nor one who slbowed his way without apology into one's presence and one's thoughts. He was thoroughly indoctrinated with a specialized form and function philosophy which by that time had begun to develop in Germany, but his interpretation of it was of a steam hammer quality. He machine-gunned his steel jacketed words. All his architectural ideas were Big Berthas.

But it was not so much his then radical approach to architectural design as the dynamic force with which this creature proceeded to develop his theme. His drawings were literally explosions of architectural form, organic enough with respect to the structure and materials, but scarcely related to the more peaceful disposition of the American citizens on the street.

Curiously enough, Hewitt and Brown hired him [Annotation on the draft by Jager: His name I learned was Schneider. WGP: Right!], but he lasted only a month or two in their offices, when his personality and his work became so all-destroying a factor that he simply exploded himself out of the picture.

Now, Mr. Jager says that he did not work on the bank and that there was no actual impress of his patterns upon work in progress at the time. But with another type of egotist in the person of Vanderbilt at the head of Hewitt and Brown design, we winder just what marks were left by this Big Bertha in the soft mud of Vanderbilt's thinking during the German's brief blitz through the draughting room. [Jager: None. JJ never met this man becase absent from office H&B {Hewitt and Brown, architects} traveling in Europe].

He called on me several times to the great entertainment of our entire force, and we later heard of him in Duluth designing a school for some architect there.

[Annotations on the draft by Jager suggest to Purcell that this be left out of the Parabiographies, but Purcell says "I think it important.]


   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.5]
research courtesy mark hammons