There was a time when a visit to downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul would often include a stop at a place that is now largely extinct: the grand bank lobby.
Before drive-through windows, ATMs and online banking, people went to their financial institution to make deposits or withdrawals. The lobby where these transactions took place was often a large, expensively detailed space adorned with marble columns, brass tellers’ grilles, massive oak desks and other handsome accoutrements.
Big, luxuriously outfitted banking halls (as they were called) first appeared in the Twin Cities in the 1880s. Most of the largest and finest bank lobbies in the Twin Cities were built between about 1900 and the early 1940s, with Classical Revival and Art Deco being the favored styles.
The Twin Cities didn’t have a monopoly on first-class bank architecture in Minnesota, however. The state’s most famous bank building — Louis Sullivan’s gorgeous National Farmers Bank of 1908 — is in Owatonna. Now operated by Wells Fargo, it still functions as a bank.
In the Twin Cities, perhaps the finest banking hall that remains in something close to its original condition is the lobby of the old Farmers and Mechanics Bank (now the Westin Hotel) at 6th Street and Marquette Avenue. Built in 1941, it remains one of the city’s great Art Deco showpieces.
Another, much older Farmers and Mechanics Bank building still stands at 115 S. 4th St. Built in 1893 and extensively remodeled in 1908, the former bank is now home to a club featuring topless dancers, a fact that would no doubt appall its original tenants. The building is significant because it’s the last surviving example in either downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul of what I like to call a temple bank.
At least a half-dozen such banks, typically one or two-story buildings with classical columns and other features derived from ancient Greek and Roman architecture by way of the Renaissance, could once be found in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Almost all of them were built between 1890 and 1920 and were razed many years ago.
The old Farmers and Mechanics bank on 4th Street displays a classic temple front, with paired Corinthian columns set beneath a pediment. The skylit banking hall within, where dancers now generate their own form of interest, was among the first of its kind in the Twin Cities.
One of the more ornate temple-style bank lobbies in Minneapolis was built in 1906 for the First National Bank. Located at 5th Street and Marquette Avenue, the bank offered a well appointed lobby illuminated in part by skylights. Alas, the building stood for only eight years before being replaced by the much larger Soo Line-First National Bank Building (now apartments and also home to an impressive lobby).
Although many of the mighty bank lobbies that once graced the Twin Cities have been demolished, others have been lost to remodeling. One of the more notable lobbies remodeled out of existence was located in the old Merchants National Bank of St. Paul, built in 1915 at 4th and Robert streets.
The lobby was an elegant affair featuring gigantic classical columns, an arched mezzanine and all the marble a banker could desire. But after the Merchants Bank was merged into the First National Bank of St. Paul, the lobby was remodeled into office space, and its original grandeur is now mostly hidden from view.
Among the prominent financial institutions that once operated out of a temple-style building was the Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis. Its banking temple, built in 1904 and razed in 1939, was on Marquette near 4th Street.
But Northwestern’s later and much larger bank building, which opened in 1930, contained perhaps the most imposing bank lobby ever built in the Twin Cities.
Designed by the Chicago firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, the lobby extended for an entire block on the second floor of the 16-story bank building, located on Marquette between 6th and 7th streets, where Wells Fargo Center now stands.
A pair of muscular Doric colonnades formed the central spine of the two-story lobby, which was beautifully detailed with inset bronze panels, marble floors and decorative plasterwork. Its restrained grandeur was in keeping with the image of sober prosperity that banks have always tried to convey.
Anyone who remembers the old Northwestern National building and its magnificent banking hall probably recalls its fate, as well. The building and its neighbor, the old Donaldsons department store, were destroyed by fire on Thanksgiving Day in 1982.
Some decorative elements from the lobby were preserved in Wells Fargo Center, which was known as Norwest Center when it opened in 1989. Architect Cesar Pelli designed a handsome rotunda bank lobby for Norwest Center, which will probably be among the last of its type.
The age of the great downtown bank lobby is over, done in by time and technology.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author of 14 nonfiction books and eight mystery novels. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.