Minnesota Architecture: National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna

Today’s nomination for the Celebrating Minnesota Architecture series takes us to Owatonna, and comes from one of the world’s leading architects.


National Farmers’ Bank of Owatonna

Image courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Not long after I started this series, I recalled an interview I did with architect Cesar Pelli on Midmorning back in 2006. He was in town for the opening of the Minneapolis Central Library, which he designed. But while we were on the air he raved about another architect’s work – the National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, designed by Louis Sullivan:

Louis Sullivan’s bank in Owatonna is one of the great buildings in the world. It’s a great jewel – the proportions, the forms, the materials are all so exquisitely well used. It’s a joy to see it, to be in its space.

Well, that sounds like a nomination to me! Here’s what the Minnesota Historical Society has to say about the building:

Location: 101 N. Cedar St., Owatonna, Steele County

Built: 1908

Architect: Louis Sullivan and George Elmslie

Listed on NRHP: August 26, 1971

One of the first American architects to break free from the influence of classical revival styles, Louis Sullivan completed a series of eight banks in small Midwest towns during the last years of his career. The National Farmers’ Bank of Owatonna is arguably the best. Sullivan, known for a “form follows function” philosophy epitomized in his prototype skyscraper designs, applied those principles to the smaller scale of the Prairie School bank’s still-monumental form.

Sullivan designed the bank to resemble a jeweled strongbox, giving depositors a sense of security. The building is bathed in a symphony of color, as Sullivan described it. Green and brown terra cotta panels and blue and gold glass mosaic bands contrast with the reddish brick walls and the red sandstone base that anchors the bank to its site. Elegantly arched stained-glass windows are mirrored on the interior by murals of dairy and harvest scenes painted by Chicago artist Oskar Gross. The lavish organic ornamentation, designed largely by Sullivan’s partner George Elmslie, carries through all interior elements, from 18-foot-tall light fixtures down to the tellers’ window grills.


National Farmers’ Bank of Owatonna interior cast iron electrolier, 2001

Image courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

You can find out more about the bank and see more images here, here and here.

Have a building you’d like to nominate to the Celebrating Minnesota Architecture series? Send a photo or two, along with your explanation of why you like the building, to mcombs@mpr.org.