firm active: 1907-1921

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First National Bank, project
Purcell and Feick
Winona, Minnesota   1907

Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1907
Text by William Gray Purcell

Job Date (in Parabiographies): September 12, 1907

First National Bank, Winona, Minn.

My father's old friend, Mr. H. C. Garvin, wanted me to have this job, and did his best to swing it my way. It was an enthusiastic attempt on our part to produce an indigenous building of creative spirit for a small town committee who wanted a Roman temple.

The National Farmers' Bank at Owatonna - Louis H. Sullivan, Architect - designed largely by George G. Elmslie, was just nearing completion at the time. We urged the committee to see this Owatonna building. But such a work was over their heads in all particulars. Even the beautiful color disturbed them. Bank buildings at that time were all of oyster white Indiana limestone, with exterior woodwork painted to look like weathered bronze, and the interiors decorated in ivory paint with various kinds of marble.

"Model Hurdle"

We made a plaster model which showed a carefully worked out color scheme. The gorgeous color of the Owatonna project, so welcome after returning to bleak America from my Italian journey of two years before, made me enthusiastic to get joy of color into our buildings. This model didn't seem to help our cause at all, and we first realized what few architects realize today, how much imagination it takes to visualize a model into a full size building. To inexperienced minds, the model is just a sort of toy - its smallness is all they see. Architects' sketches and plans are accepted because everyone is used to seeing pictures. Many can even make working drawings stand forth as a building. Working drawings are a convention -- something like "drawing a house" in childhood. In 1908 a model was outside of ordinary experience. Today public school art training helps somewhat in this, but it really takes a cultivated imagination to truly visualize the ultimate building from any pre-representation. Standing around the model, the bank committee was visibly embarrassed. They felt taken in, like men who had paid admission to a boxing match and then were asked to enjoy aesthetic dancing.


Coming back to view this model after a quarter of a century, we find a good practical building - less costly than the one they built, which was a witless temple by a Chicago "bank architect." Our design is surprising undated in 1938. A bit fussy in spots, it is; a bit small in scale, and tight.

Pressure as an Architectural Function

This tightness in building after building was seen while we were planning them, but the constant pressure to secure more building than the funds could possibly cover kept us in constant fear - indeed in terror. Job after job was spoiled by cutting down the working drawings and specifications when the bids were in. This was not due to the architect's large ideas or extravagance, but to the constant demand for more space, for more "return" and for lower costs. Just plain business greediness.

The "Success" Complex

Business braggadocio was also responsible, because owners of new buildings, to demonstrate their business prowess, would turn from abusing the architect and contractor for high costs, to boasting to their business friends at how low a figure they had secured that very same building, usually quoting the general contract figure, without completion of equipment items, thus constantly creating a false measure of building costs in the public mind.

On My Own at Last

This Winona First National Bank design bears no relation in plan or detail to any other building for that purpose up to that time. It grew, as Louis Sullivan had outlined in his philosophy, from the germinal idea within its living use, expressing honestly such materials as seemed best available, and finding forms which could rejoice in the building methods which were best suited to all the circumstances. The interior as devised would have been impressive. Even at this early date, we recommended to the committee the abandonment of all the heavy grille work and jail-like protection for officers and tellers then in vogue, which in fact, protected nobody and set up barriers to friendly business intercourse.

We developed designs for the interior and decorative detail, and designed the electric fixtures. The formal lamps at the entrance were the simple mass form of the bank developed in glass and bronze.

The People Have their Say

The building has a certain ingenious charm which not only was in character with the small city, but would have been fresh and acceptable to succeeding generations. Pompous buildings not only grow stale because the aristocracy of power or wealth must always be kept blown up with new exclusives, but when the powerful sell out the people to save themselves, the forms by which they expressed themselves become hateful. Indigenous, organic forms are democratic because they recognize the value of every force and factor from the least to the largest. Dynamic forms receive their power from that with which the idea is saturated - they do not dominate with borrowed pressure.

Everyone a Loser

"The first principle of Architecture is to land the job." In this we failed, and a keen disappointment it was. This little building of ours - very honest, very simple, happy with color and pleasant with patterns of exfoliating decoration, would have come to relate itself to the community of the future - to the people and what they have come to like in this future of 1938 - and it would have moved with them and served their spirits toward that future of 1988, now to us again seeming so distant. The building they built was soon entirely outclassed by the unbelievably pompous and expensively grand Winona Savings Bank, built in 1914, just around the corner - George Maher, architect. And today, beside the vigorous, glowing Merchants' Bank, which we built in 1912, on another corner another couple of blocks away, this First National Bank Building which they built in 1908 now looks depressed and stale.

We exhibited this model at the annual Chicago Architectural Club Exhibition at the Art Institute a year or so later. Whether the ripple this created in the minds of the thousands who saw it reached any far shore of present-day creative architecture, who can say? Whether, with more experience in selling, we could have sold our idea is hard to say - probably not in 1907. The year 1930 and "modern" were just too far in the future. Our idealism had cost us our first good opportunity.

   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d4.1]
research courtesy mark hammons