Landmarks: The First National Bank building’s place in history
The First National Bank building on the corner of Davenport and Stevens Street has a place not only in Rhinelander’s history, but in the history of American architecture.
Rhinelander was a bustling place in 1910, filled with the wealth of the timber industry and a desire for civic improvement. The directors of the First National Bank decided that it was time to replace its plain wooden Victorian storefront with a more imposing and fireproof structure, built in the latest “modern” style. They selected the firm of Purcell, Feick and Elmslie of Minneapolis as their architects. The plans were finalized in 1911, and the building was completed that same year.
As William Gray Purcell later recalled, “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. …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.”
Purcell and George Grant Elmslie, along with Frank Lloyd Wright and a number of other young architects, wanted to create an “American” architecture not based on recycled styles of the past. Inspired by Louis Sullivan’s dictum, “Form ever follows function,” the architects created a new style of “organic” and “progressive” building, which later came to be called the Prairie School of architecture. The Prairie style typically featured open plans, balanced geometric forms, clean lines and linear decoration enlivened with ornamental flourishes.
These characteristics are subtly demonstrated in the First National Bank building, the first completed commercial project for the firm. Instead of the temple in marble or limestone customary at that time, the building contrasts “seven or eight” different colors of rough wire-cut brick with “last of the Lake Superior sandstone” and Elmslie’s distinctive “self-colored terra cotta with some accents in polychrome.”
Inside, the building was even more radical. The board of directors wanted a plan similar to the original building, with the bank facing the street corner and a separate retail space backing to the alley. Purcell felt that the proposed commercial space was too large to be rented for what it was worth. In a flash of inspiration, Elmslie created a plan with two small shops facing Davenport Street, and set the bank in the back, adjacent to the alley. A deeply recessed archway drew patrons inside into a central “glass enclosed hallway” with interior access to the shops and the bank, thus creating “a busy little metropolitan center of activity.”
As Purcell relates, one director was so angered by the plan that he resigned his post and threatened to sell his stock, but in the end, “our unusual solution to the problem worked out exactly as planned.”
Sadly, this radical “embryo arcade” was demolished long ago. Some of the structure’s original doors and woodwork survive upstairs, and the skylight that once illuminated the bank lobby like a stage set behind glass remains, but is robbed of its original drama. The bank counters faced with a smooth version of the exterior brick, the almost Art-Deco like banking cages, most of the light fixtures, and simple stenciling highlighted the architectural elements fell victim to changing tastes. The interior hall and two of the exterior doorways were eliminated as bank offices took over the shops.
Decades later, the original First National Bank sign and clock was relocated to the corner, and then replaced with an internally-illuminated sign. Later renovations joined the interior spaces to adjacent buildings, relocated stairwells and closed up the airshaft to create more leasable space.
The beauty of the exterior remains, and is one of the six banks still standing out of the 10 designed by Purcell and Elmslie. In 1973, the bank became the first building in Rhinelander to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is currently occupied by Associated Bank and a number of accounting and law firms.
Landmarks is prepared by members of the City of Rhinelander Historic Preservation Committee.