Finding Jewels Along the Way

On our recent travels to the Southwest, we spent two days driving west from Wisconsin to our first destination, and then two days driving east from our last destination back to the Midwest. We had much ground to cover–over 2200 miles–on those four days, and we were traveling on Interstates, something that neither of us particularly enjoy.

We didn’t want to squander four days of our two week vacation doing nothing but driving, so I researched our route before we left our home. Perhaps Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas don’t have a lot of well-known places to visit, but there is always something interesting to see if you are willing to look. And I found quite a few treasures that gave us an hour’s diversion from the monotony of the road.

Jewel Box Bank

Jewel Box Bank © 2008 Bo Mackison

Our first treasure literally was a jewel. We stopped at Grinnell, Iowa, which was just a few miles off I-80, to see the Merchant’s Bank, one in a series of architect Louis Sullivan’s Jewel Box Banks. Though Sullivan is most famously known as the “Father of skyscrapers”, he also left a legacy of these small banks, eight in all, dotting the Midwest.

Drat that car, but I wanted a photo of the front exterior showcasing the rose window medallion, and the car came with the exterior shot.

The window is designed with overlapping circles and squares that are in encased in terracotta ornamentation.

Terracotta Griffin

Terracotta Griffin © 2008 Bo Mackison

Griffins originally flanked both sides of the bank’s entrance, built vandals destroyed the East Griffin in 2006.  The terracotta and stained glass were a significant part of Sullivan’s designs.

Terracotta Griffin

Terracotta Griffin © 2008 Bo Mackison

When the bank opened on January 1, 1915, the townspeople of Grinnell were nearly unanimous in their approval. One citizen observed, “It sure looks nothing like Grinnell.”

Although that’s not entirely true. Grinnell, a small farming community, has an astounding number of buildings designed by well-known architects.

I think the building is best summed up by a newspaper journalist who wrote for the Grinnell Herald and was allowed a sneak preview prior to the grand opening for his article. He wrote:

“Go back to the north end and turn around to the south.  Raise the eyes above the partitions and brickwork and catch the massive simplicity of the long beams along the ceiling: study the windowed colored by Millet and its mosaic replica below which surrounds the clock with face of gold.  Raise the eyes still higher to the skylight…  If you are in just the right mood in time you can hear the dash of the waters over Niagara Falls, listen to the winds that sweep across the prairies of the West, see the blue that hovers over the land of the azure sky and understand something of what Sullivan meant when he talked about the genius of America.”

About Bo Mackison

I’m a photographer, book-artist, traveler, naturalist, and creator of the Contemplative Creatives Journey, An Online Workshop and Community and Desert Wisdom Cards and Workshops. Though often not well known, I find the desert a welcoming place – a healing space. Its mysteries and gifts transformed me several years ago. Since that first encounter, I return again and again to fill my well in what most people think of as a desolate region. I’d love to share my desert discoveries and wisdom with you. Please subscribe to receive my five part mini email course The Gifts of the Desert. It’s my gift to you.


  1. What a great building, Bo. And yes, drat the car! I love the line about a citizen observing, “It sure looks nothing like Grinnell.” And how does a small farming community end up having such architectural gems? Was there one visionary—a mayor or town council member or bank owner—who knew to make it happen? I always wonder about things like that when I see ’em.

  2. ybonesy – A citizen married an Oak Park, Illinois girl, became acquainted with Wright’s work, and hooked up with a friend of a friend of a friend.

    The story is in the link under Merchant’s Bank. It’s an interesting history if you like architectural kinds of things.

  3. suehenryphotography says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your photos and the links to further information. I have spent some time this rainy Saturday morning reading about Jewelbox Banks! Fun! And, inspiring. I should do a little more research before I head out on road trips and discover some hidden treasures. Thanks for the information and inspiration.

  4. Excellent, Bo! Your research paid off for all of us! Thank you!

  5. WOW! Thanks for this. I only associate Louis Sullivan with his Chicago skyscrapers. This is great!!!

  6. Cool name for a set of banks.

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