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Iowa All Over: Grinnell's jewel box bank shines bright

Bank one of eight Midwestern banks designed by Louis Sullivan

A tile mosaic surrounds a clock as sunlight filters through the skylight and stained glass windows at the Merchants Nati
A tile mosaic surrounds a clock as sunlight filters through the skylight and stained glass windows at the Merchants National Bank building also known as the Jewell Box Bank, 833 Fourth Avenue, was designed by Louis Sullivan. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. The building houses the Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce and the Grinnell Convention & Visitors Bureau. Photographed in Grinnell, Iowa, on Thursday, March 26, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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For the past 100 years, the Merchants National Bank Building in Grinnell has allowed visitors to “step inside a jewel box.”

The Merchants National Bank Building, on Fourth Avenue in downtown Grinnell, is one of eight Midwestern jewel box banks designed by Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), the Boston-born architect known as the father of modernism. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the grand opening of the building.

The Sullivan Bank Building is now home to the Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce and the Grinnell Convention and Visitors Bureau. In 1974, an addition was constructed, which now houses a Wells Fargo Bank.

Wells Fargo purchased the building in 2000.

The grand entrance to the building is guarded on both sides by huge, golden lions.

Inside the building, just above the main door, is a detailed mosaic around a clock. Above the clock, the sun shines brightly through a circular stained-glass window.

On one side of the “jewel box” are two more stained-glass windows. The dazzling windows are a blend of purple, gold and teal.

The lobby also boasts a hand-carved wooden check desk and marble floors.

According to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the term jewel box was “coined by Sullivan himself to convey the simplicity of the brick structure, which created the impression of a jewelry box while underscoring the security of those items stored inside.”

“Sullivan had a knack for incorporating a lot of color and bringing a lot of natural elements into his work, so you’ll see that throughout the building,” said Emily Counts, tourism director of the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

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“The bank owners, when they commissioned Sullivan to build this, really wanted to build a new, modern bank that looked like a great place to house your money,” she said. “It was a jewel box, so they wanted something a bit extravagant.”

The design around the entrance to the building is now replicated throughout all of Grinnell’s branding, Counts said.

“The theme, the Jewel of the Prairie, is partially tied to the community’s connection and really rooted history with this building,” she noted. “It’s become a staple of our downtown and really an anchor here.”

The design is seen on flower planters downtown and in the brick work of Grinnell’s downtown streetscapes, Counts said. Thousands of visitors, she added, come to see the jewel box every year.

Grinnell also offers other gems. Just steps away from the Merchants Bank is the Prairie Canary restaurant. The restaurant offers a menu of salads, sandwiches and side dishes. An inventive dish called grilled cheese and jam combines three cheeses and strawberry rhubarb jam.

Within walking distance is a smoothie bar called the Purple Cucumber, which features locally raised organic produce and smoothies.

Not far from downtown is Grinnell College, a private liberal-arts college with 1,600 students. Campus offers a variety of activities and also brings students downtown.

Meanwhile, Grinnell — with a population of about 9,000 — is experiencing a few challenges, Counts said.

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“Grinnell has been really fortunate,” she said. “We’ve got more people here than we can possibly house. We’ve got a housing shortage.”

To meet the demand, construction has begun on a project to convert a historic warehouse building into 77 apartments, Counts said.

The community also is experiencing a need for a larger work force, Counts said.

More on Grinnell

Grinnell, in Poweshiek County, was founded in 1876. Its population is about 9,200.

Some of the larger employers in town are Grinnell College, Grinnell Mutual and the Grinnell Regional Medical Center, according to Emily Counts, tourism director.

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