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First National Bank
Purcell, Feick and Elmslie
Rhinelander, Wisconsin   1910

Text by William Gray Purcell
Parabiographies entry, Volume for 1910

Job Date (in Parabiographies): November 10, 1910

FIRST NATIONAL BANK, Rhinelander, Wisconsin

Working drawings, December 1, 1910 Details, April 3, 1911 and October 10, 1911

D. F. Recker, vice-president, was our patron saint in securing this commission. How he heard of us, we do not know, but he believed in our stuff and worked to have us retained.

When I looked over their location, it appeared that their idea was to build the banking room on the corner half of the lot, and a store on the inner half. But the corner half was a larger area than was required for the bank, at that time, and the inner half was more than twice the area occupied by any but one or two of the largest merchants in the city. To whom could such an area be rented? The bank would be obliged to rent to any possible tenant three times the space he could use at one-third the price which such space should command.

I went bank to Minneapolis and discussed the problem with Mr. Elmslie. He made a no-scale diagram of an idea he says seemed to jump in his head from nowhere and showed roughly the two-shop idea that was simmering. Then we got to work on it. It seemed to me the front door was too far from the bank door and suggested a fine deep vestibule which was vital as well as suggesting deep door. Office history only, and not of outside importance. [Note: this was originally annotated on the draft by Elmslie, and edited by WGP into the third person for typing by Miss Phillips--MH]

We therefore recommended two small shop-like stores in front, with the bank occupying the rear of the lot, approached by a very carefully handled vestibule and corridor between the two stores.

Short-Circuiting the "Committee"

The Board of Directors looked dubious, but Recker was ready to O.K. anything we proposed. When I returned to Rhinelander to present the beautiful studies which Mr. Elmslie had made for this building, we were able to show them how, by recessing the front door about four feet from the lot line, and then making an extra liberal inner vestibule leading to a glass enclose general hallway, we could draw the bank's customers from the street sidewalk to within three steps of the door to the banking offices without their realizing that they had done more than pass through a very comfortable and agreeable entranceway. Further than this, the principal residence district was situated so that people coming downtown reached the side entrance first, and we made a feature of this, so that they could reach the inner bank door quickly from the side and pass out the front way. These two entrances also provided the approach to a considerable number of offices on the second floor, so that the inner banking lobby became a busy little metropolitan center of activity. The plan was a sort of embryo "arcade" system.

Absentee Boss

The executive officers were sufficiently convinced of the soundness of our economic reasoning to go ahead. When the building was half up and the logic of this arrangement was not very obvious by reason of scaffolds, piles of building material and so on, one of the principal stockholders came up from Milwaukee. When the mysteries of the maze of rooms and corridors were explain[ed] to him and he really grasped the unbelievable and incomprehensible arrangement which had "located the banking room on the alley," he was so astonished and incensed that he was practically speechless. He recovered his speech, however, sufficiently to declare that the rest of the officers and directors were dunderheads, and turned in his resignation as an officer with the added intention of selling his stock in so poorly managed an institution.

Well, our unusual solution of this problem worked out exactly as planned. Everyone seemed satisfied with the result, and ten years later this building was enlarged and extended without any thought of making any alterations in the basic arrangement.

Client Cooperation Slips

The only place where our special arrangements failed to be taken advantage of was in connection with the inside store away from the corner. This was leased to a druggist who failed to understand the advertising and sales advantage of having his business approached from both the bank lobby and the street, and failed wholly to appreciate the advantages of having nearly twice the amount of show window in which to display goods, due to the display windows which faced the bank lobby. He simply bought so many feet of conventional drug store shelving, and backed it up against the beautiful plate glass show windows which had been provided for him. The corner offices were occupied for many years by the executive officers of the local lumber company.

Living Materials

In this building we used some of the last of the Lake Superior sandstone from the beautiful quarries where the "raindrop" variety was obtained. This is one of the hardest and most beautiful building stones in America, no longer available; first, because dark-colored stone is no longer popular; and second, because the quarries were worked in such a way that it would require an enormous expense for stripping in order to again expose the ledge of this beautiful material. These quarries were first opened up when, in 1870, the brownstone fronts of American cities made Lake Superior sandstone the popular building material selection. We combined this dark red-violet stone with a beautiful red variegated wire cut face "oriental brick" from Crawfordsville, Indiana, in seven or eight slightly varying shades, running from dark red violet to dusty yellow green. We combined this with self-colored terra cotta and some accents in polychrome. They set those terra cotta squares away too far out or in, I forget which, and ruined the effect we had in mind. George Feick, I think, didn't catch on to what they did. It shows misplaced even on small photos. Were we disappointed! A gem apart from that. [GGE added the above They...that." in annotation on the original draft, and WGP edited it in]

We designed special electrical fixtures for the banking room; used a clean, smooth brick for the working counters; did away with the heavy bronze cages of the day, and decorated the plaster surfaces with simple stencil patterns following the structural and finish lines of the room. The public space in the banking room was lighted from a large skylight from above, and the bookkeepers' working space by large windows facing the north.

Here, as in the little Grand Meadow Bank, we used a single center post supporting the upper part of the building. The unaesthetic small town business men were, however, unaware of the shock their building would give later to the sensitive Parisians of New York and Chicago.

   Collection: William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota [AR:B4d1.4]
research courtesy mark hammons