Visiting Louis Sullivan’s First Jewel Box Bank: Owatonna, MN

This Minne-RoadTrip series of posts is sponsored by Visit Owatonna, Visit Faribaultand Visiting Northfield

I used to think architecture was boring. This all changed during a North Iowa bloggers tour in Chicago. One of our scheduled actives was going on an architecture boat tour. I thought it was going to be really boring but it wasn’t.

Just like how food’s never really just about the food, architecture isn’t just about the buildings. Architecture is art. The stories of buildings are the stories of people and their eras.

Located minutes from I-35 traveling north and south between Minnesota and Iowa is architect Louis Sullivan’s first and well-preserved Jewel Box Banks built in 1908.

Bank president Carl Bennett hired Louis Sullivan, famous architect, father of skyscrapers, mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, to design this bank.

1908 found Sullivan post Worlds Fair grandeur (he was chosen as one of 10 US architects) and economic Panic of 1983. He did build a series of eight Jewel Box Banks in small towns including Altona and Grinnell in Iowa. Owatonna’s jewel box bank is located in the downtown area across from the park. The turquoise tiling and windows reflect like jewels. It currently operates as a Wells Fargo.

Our tour guide Steve Jessop spoke with so much knowledge and passion on Bennett and Sullivan’s friendship and lives.

A part of the bank that houses administration offices was updated at some point to reflect typical office decor. These windows are located in an upstairs hallway connecting the office section of the bank to the main lobby.

Original blueprints hang in the hallway between the administrative section of the bank and the lobby. When everything seems to be created digitally, the meticulous detail of each hand-drawn line and letter is mesmerizing.

Sullivan carefully chose the color scheme. The soft green hues of the stained glass windows are intended to cast a tranquil glow.

At the time I visited during the late fall, renovations were underway. Scaffolding lined the walls and artists painstakingly touched-up the wall’s murals with paintbrushes. Still, the scaffolding didn’t take from the glow from the stained glass windows and grandeur of the lobby. Renovations are now complete. I will update this post with a photo from my Owatonna CVB contact soon.

Customers walked up the teller windows beneath the ornate clock and did their banking as usual.

Visitors are welcome to visit the building during normal business hours. Guided tours are available for groups of 10+ by contacting the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism at $5 per person. History-focused, day-long group tours that include the bank are also available between May-September.

After the tour, my CVB guide and I walked around downtown. One shop owner recommended the book Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. This truish crime, historical fiction book tells the stories of the architects as they built the 1983 Chicago World’s Fair and  serial killer H.H. Holmes. Louis Sullivan plays a prominent role in the book.

I bought the book at Little Professor Book Center an independent bookstore located a short walk from the bank.

Devil in the White City is not a book I would typically seek out. But after spending time at the bank learning about life during the start of the 1900s and how the bank came to be, I wanted to learn more.

This book is fascinating. I didn’t know anything about the world’s fair or Chicago’s rise to the metropolis it is today. Whenever I’ve encountered a reference to the World’s Fair, they’re mostly revolved around the introduction of foods such as shredded wheat or Jucy Fruit gum. Through this novel, I learned about what actually had to happen to Chicago’s land and shoreline to construct the massive fairgrounds in a short amount of time.

The Worlds Fair was driven by curiosity of the world, rapid technological advances, and thirst for recognition as a cosmopolitan power player of a city. This book seems to delve into the hubris and disregard for human life that also came into play. The World’s Fair buildings and structures cost massive amounts of money. The working conditions were brutal. The architects were so desperate to finish the campus by opening day, they worked people to death. Eventually the workers revolted, demanding higher pay and better working conditions (which they were given).

I learned more about architecture, the rise of Chicago, the 1983 World’s Fair and one of America’s first serial killers than I ever intended to.

This is all to say that my visit to the National Farmer’s Bank sparked a continued curiosity about Prairie Style Architecture. Before we lived in Mason City (2014-2015) I had no idea our corners of the upper Midwest contained so many architecture gems from Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries.

The next time you are traveling along I-35 around the Minnesota-Iowa border, consider visiting Sullivan’s first jewel box bank.

A special thank you to the Country Inn & Suites for hosting me for the evening! I enjoyed a very relaxing evening sipping wine and reading books. The hotel is conveniently located right off I-35.

The Places:

National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna (Wells Fargo)
101 N Cedar Ave
Owatonna, MN 55060
Hours of operation: Mon-Fri 9 AM-6:PM, Sat 9 AM-2 PM

Little Professor Book Center
110 W Park Square
Owatonna, MN 55060

Country Inn & Suites
130 Allan Avenue SW
Owatonna, MN 55060
(507) 455-9295

Additional Reading:


  1. Beth Ann Chiles

    That is fascinating! I had no idea the history of these buildings and now I want to know more. The book came and went through my LFL – a donation from my future daughter in law – but I did not take time to read it before putting it in . Now I hope it gets returned so I can! Thanks for a great post!

    • Jeni

      The story of the world’s fair is so fascinating. It was fun being able to go to the hotel in Mason City – wish I had taken the time to visit the other Frank Lloyd Wright inspired buildings. Maybe the book will find its way back:) There’s a lot of detail so it’s not a quick read, but very interesting.

  2. Feisty Eats

    Wow. I love the little bits of history. Very cool.

  3. Chris

    I know this post is old but for some reason it keeps mentioning the 1983 world’s fair instead of 1893 world’s fair. Other than that, a very interesting post.

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