Most Grinnellians have probably seen the square brick building with gold-plated columns and stained glass windows on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Broad Street while walking downtown, but few probably know what it is, or that it’s a national landmark.
This is the Merchants’ National Bank Building, which now houses the Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, but for most of its life, it was an operating bank.
Much of its historical legacy is due to the architect that designed the building, Louis Sullivan. Sullivan was a hugely influential figure in American architecture—famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright even worked under him. In the early 20th century, Sullivan designed this and a handful more so-called “Jewel Box Banks” across the Midwest.
As Sheryl Parmley, the building’s Event Coordinator and knowledgeable guide, explained, the Merchants’ National building is representative of this style. Above the front door is a stone diamond that frames stained glass.
“It looks like a key and a jewel, if you use your imagination,” Parmley said.
Sullivan wanted to show that the building would be a safe place to keep money and valuables. For extra protection, bronze griffins stand guard outside the entryway.
The bank opened on New Year’s Day, 1915. From then on, different bank companies have taken over the building. In the 1970s, an addition was built on the north side that would become today’s Wells Fargo. In that same decade, the building was recognized as a national historical landmark. In 1999, right before the bank entered its second century of use, the Chamber of Commerce took over the building and banking activity stopped.
Today, the Merchants’ National Bank Building serves both a ceremonial and practical role for the town of Grinnell.
“It’s the front door to Grinnell,” Parmley said.
To that end, the building serves as a tourist destination–a surprisingly popular destination. According to Parmley, 200 visitors a month come during the summer, and 87 came this March.
Much of the building’s popularity is due to its aesthetic appeal. The main room has a high ceiling and a wall of stained glass. Underneath, there are floors of Tennessee pink marble. Towards the back of the building, there is a display showing photographs of the bank at its opening, and it looks identical to the building of today in many ways.
“Not much has changed here,” Parmley said.
The building has faced some challenges, though. Last December, a front window was found shattered, presumably by a blunt object, according to Parmley. Some years before that, a vandal smashed one of the original griffins. That destroyed griffin now sits in a display case and is a popular exhibit.
The Merchants’ National building is surely the most interesting piece of architecture in downtown Grinnell. It’s a historical landmark that is still important to the town of Grinnell today. And it’s easy to visit—it’s open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.