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Why a Minnesota bank building ranks among the nation's most significant architecture


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: It turns out that the National Farmer's Bank Owatonna, Minnesota, is one of the most significant architectural works in the nation, part of the Prairie School of design.

Kaomi Lee of Twin Cities PBS went to see why this 1908 building on the National Register of Historic Places continues to attract tourists from around the nation and the world.

It's part of our arts and culture theories, Canvas.

Kaomi Lee: There is a building in Owatonna that looks like a jewel box, arched windows, warm, terra-cotta flourishes, not afraid of color. It's now a Wells Fargo Bank, but it started out under a different name.

Richard Kronick, Architectural Historian: There is no more significant building in the United States. This is one of probably the top 10 most important buildings in the whole country. And that is because of Louis Sullivan.

Kaomi Lee: Sullivan was a brash architect in Chicago who was all about anti-establishment architecture. He had some successes and also problems with money and drinking.

But Sullivan's ideas found a fan in an Owatonna a banker named Carl Kent Bennett.

Richard Kronick: He came up with. It is form follows function. In other words, the shape of the building, the form of the building, should grow out of the function of the building.

And we have a perfect example of it right here. What is the function? It is a bank for farmers.

Kaomi Lee: Bennett wanted it to be a place farmers would feel at home, not a Greco-Roman stately building with columns, and that was right up Sullivan's alley.

Richard Kronick: This is all about the people. It comes up from the bottom, not down from the top. This was very successful. And it always has been a bank that people loved to bring their money to.

Kaomi Lee: Sullivan's drinking left much of the work to chief draftsman George Grant Elmslie. And Elmslie's optimism and artistry is everywhere, like in this beautiful art glass.

Richard Kronick: There are two design elements that I think are most interesting in the bank. And one of them is this form, which I see about 20 of in the -- each of the windows. And there are dozens more in the electroliers.

They look like this. They have four lobes sticking out. And they actually represent humankind .I think of them as a representation of the human soul. And so what is Elmslie doing? He is putting these representations of humanity inside of a growing thing, inside of a plant.

So he's showing us the relationship between humans and nature.

Kaomi Lee: The electroliers are made of terra-cotta. An ode to plant life, they almost grow from the ceiling. And there's another theme at play.

Richard Kronick: All over the place, you see little boxes inside of other boxes. They're in the windows, in the president's office. We have very complicated boxes within boxes within boxes within boxes. There's like four layers of it.

This all grows from an idea called the fourth dimension.

Kaomi Lee: Dimensions of length, width and height were known. But, at the time, a fourth dimension of space was an exciting theory. It was a metaphor for an expanding consciousness, and it's clear it was on Elmslie's mind.

Though Elmslie carried most of the weight, Sullivan is not entirely absent. An arched window is reminiscent of Sullivan's Transportation Building in Chicago. The bank cost $125,000, a huge sum in 1908. What's extraordinary is that much of the original works remain today. Some beautiful original features are gone. This is a reproduction of one of the iron teller cages, possibly the most revered design element in the entire bank.

It would be nearly the last hurrah for Sullivan and Elmslie together. Sullivan fired Elmslie the following year in a bitter parting. The bank itself went belly up 18 years later. But even with this disastrous backstory, the building has remained beloved by the community.

Richard Kronick: People have been proud of this bank in Owatonna ever since, and they love it. They think of it as their town symbol. It's the most important thing to the world that exists in Owatonna.

Kaomi Lee: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Kaomi Lee in St. Paul.

Judy Woodruff: And my apologies. It's Owatonna. I mispronounced it when I introduced that story.

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