Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Greyhounding after Louis Sullivan

Philadelphia: It was a family scandal. Thirty years ago, driving my son Michael off to Carleton College, I secretly detoured for over 400 miles so I could savor Louis Sullivan's Norwest Bank in Owatonna, Minnesota. When my three teens realized the deception that Sunday morning, there was a flaming revolt in the rear of our Toyota station wagon.

Happily, Michael soon shared my passion for the architect Frank Lloyd Wright called his "dear Master". And soon we were fantasizing about doing a film about the eight banks Sullivan called his "jewel boxes". (Michael is a filmmaker now, having down a dozen videos on Minnesota writers and thinkers). They give a certain glory to the small towns and cities they embellish--Columbus, Wisconsin; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Grinnel, Iowa; Sidney, Ohio; Newark, Ohio. Places most people would never had heard of, were it not for Sullivan's creativity.

So when I flew in from Germany to spend Easter with his family, I was puzzled that he hadn't met me at the airport in Minneapolis. U. S. Airways had bumped me onto Northwest, but he's used to handling such stuff. When I called, he explained: "I'll be there in fifteen minutes with Sonia (my granddaughter). We're going to shoot the Owatonna bank." Finally. I was elated, anticipating.

It's about an hour drive to the little O. I had been there once, about ten years ago, since that fateful September Sunday morning in l969. Then, those careful custodians of "their" Jewel Box, had displayed memorabilia about Sullivan and his patron, banker's son David Bennett, in old fashioned glass cases. Now they were mounted on museum quality wall boards. As a former literature professor, I believe deeply in the way you test a masterpiece: the more you attend to it, the more you see; the more you see, the more pleasure it gives.

I couldn't believe I had missed so much on my first two visits! The incredibly lovely red sandstone with striations that meant that each tough Minnesota winter left the outside of the bank with a "new" facade, the weather gradually abrading the soft material to reveal new colors and patterns underneath. And the ceramic decorations on the facade. What wonders to the eye. And the deeply brown bricks. And that's just the outside.

Inside, there are the humongous ceramic lighting standards, the amazing Frank Lloyd Wright-like , geometrically patterned stained glass windows, the glorious skylight, the banking desks, the offices, the great clock on the balcony, the furniture on the balcony (in the old days--1908, there was a separate place for wives and children to rest while their men did the business), the huge Holstein murals by Oskar Gross--the only thing I don't relish about the building and its decorations. Heh, nothing's perfect.

And by the front door, a little historical archive, with take away copies of the Owatonna newspaper the day the latest (of four) renewals formally opened. The international world of architects regards the bank as a masterpiece that must be visited. The locals regard it as their treasure which must be protected against the ravages of time and carelessness.

Michael has just mailed me a dub of the two hours of footage he shot of me poking my nose into all the corners of the bank. It's superb stuff, even if I do say so myself, and even, seeing it, realizing what an old man I've become--stooped shoulders, hesitant gait. Boy, is that an epiphany!

And for the first time I took a good gander at other buildings around the square. The best is the insurance building (1924, by two proteges of Sullivan) across the street. Close in quality is the 1893 County Court House. And not far behind that is the former Opera House, 1905.

What a lovely town, with its New England type village green--which was being occupied at the moment by tykes playing fiercely around the central ornamental pool.

So, finally, we're fulfilling our fantasy. I wrote Michael that when I come home between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we should Greyhound around to film the other seven jewel boxes. That's how I had first visited all of them fifteen years ago. I'll never forget seeing the Sidney, Ohio bank, with THRIFT emblazoned across its facade in delicious Art Nouveau script.

I had crashed with my graduate school roommate who taught history at the University of Dayton, and had taken the first bus, arriving in Sidney at 6:30 a.m., the only customer on the bus. I asked the driver if I could take a few minutes to get a good look. He said sure he wanted to take a smoke break. When I climbed back on the bus, he said something I've never forgotten: "You know, mister, I've driven by that bank a hundred times but I never noticed until now how beautiful it was." Just an ordinary guy, the scales falling off his eyes, seeing part of his heritage for the first time.

And I'll never forget my first visit to the Pawshiek County Bank in Grinnel, Iowa. I got there at night, fearful it might be closed at 8:00 p.m. But no, it was a Friday night, and that's when the local farmers do their banking business. But as I walked down the dark street from the bus station, I saw what appeared to be a gutted building. Getting closer I realized it was an addition to the original bank so respectful of the original that I had mistaken it for the jewel box itself.

I was on my way to Chicago so I didn't want to be carrying around a lot of cash so I asked the teller if I could make a symbolic Visa withdrawal for $5. "No sir, but how would you like a souvenir Sullivan brick from the basement where we just put in a new safety vault." A BRICK OF LOUIE'S!!! Zowie. And that's why on the fireplace mantel in my home in Philadelphia guests are puzzled to see a reddish brown brick in a place of honor. "It's a Sullivan," I say cryptically, unless they happen to be an architectural groupie like me. Then I tell them what I've just told you.

You may never luck out with a brick, but you can get a kick from Greyhounding around after the sites where Louie left us his jewel boxes. Try an Ameripass.

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