Random Notes - A Blog


26 July 2008
My Independence weekend trip took me to Whiting, Indiana, a town in northwestern Indiana that has not torn down its Prairie School school. Whiting High School (“Home of the Oilers”—BP has a large refinery in that city) was built by prolific educational architects Perkins & Hamilton in 1909. It appears well-maintained by a district that has been recognized for student achievement—Whiting High School gets the highest possible grade, Exemplary Progress, from the Indiana Dept. of Eduction. It may, or may not, be coincidental that nearby Hammond, which razed three George Elmslie-designed schools, receives the lowest possible rating: Academic Probation.

The teardown mania that has affected residential real estate has also struck schools. Substantial historic buildings in residential neighborhoods are being abandoned at an alarming rate for mega-campuses outside the city limits. Residential preservation is generally small-scale work undertaken by architects and contractors familiar with the special needs of older buildings. Schools, on the other hand, are generally evaluated by big firms more comfortable with the blank slate of a field on the edge of town, and who—surprise—almost always conclude it will be cheaper to build there. Rarely factored in are the increased busing and transportation costs (and consequent impact on student health through less exercise), expenses for infrastructure and extension of police & fire services, and the escalating maintenance costs that will be required by present-day construction, which almost never equals the quality or permanance of historic buildings. And this doesn’t begin to address architectural intangibles.

To learn more about saving historic schools, visit the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

5 July 2008
Ah, progress. It’s what made America great. And what better time to celebrate it than the Fourth of July weekend?


Who could doubt the improvement of this bank building in Louisville, Ohio? Swept away are the large windows and annoyingly permanent brick in favor of machine-like precision and sleek surfaces. The security of your money is now expressed with the modern imagery of the bank as a jail, or at least a walk-in cooler. Sadly, as of this writing, we don’t know whom to thank for this textbook example of architectural evolution.

4 July 2008
Your wandering correspondent spent a brief part of his Independence Day walking around the Home Building Association Bank building by Louis H. Sullivan, in the struggling city of Newark, Ohio. The structure is emblematic of the many other non-residential buildings of the city: ambitiously built by a prospering business, then vacated by the original owner, and now subsequent occupants as well. It bears mute but eloquent witness to the impact of Newark’s rust-belt travails.

While there have been a frightening number of recent tragedies involving older Adler & Sullivan buildings, remarkably, every bank Sullivan ever built is still standing, and still being used for its original purpose…except the one in Newark*. The Home Building Association moved out only thirteen years after the building’s completion, and subsequent occupants included other banks, a butcher shop, jewelry stores and, since 1984, an ice cream parlor. Although the layer of grime on the windows makes the condition of this building appear grim, I suspect that it is fundamentally sound, and could be brought back to life without heroic effort.

So, apparently, does Stephen Jones, who graduated from Newark High School in 1983. He paid $225,000 for the building last August, and is working to stabilize it.

There is good reason to hope for better care for the Newark Bank. WIth its unusual exterior (entirely clad in terra cotta—unique among Sullivan’s banks) and the remains of the exuberant banking room paint scheme still to be seen above the false ceiling (see Lauren S. Weingarden’s book, Louis H. Sullivan: The Banks), the Home Association Bank building is unlike any other Sullivan bank. The contrast between the terra cotta, which now has the aspect of dirty limestone, and the undimmed polychromatic vigor of the east mosaic is truly striking. This building is as worthy of preservation as any other work from Sullivan’s pencil. Best wishes to Stephen Jones as he undertakes this worthwhile task.

* Merchants National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa, is technically no longer used for banking business, that having been moved to the 1976 addition at the rear of Sullivan’s “jewel box”.

• • •

While the Newark bank may be sad, an Iowa Sullivan bank is definitely unhappy. The People’s Savings Bank building, now home to a branch of Wells Fargo, was filled with water during the unprecedented flooding of Cedar Rapids. I have received no definitive reports, but it is clear that damage could be substantial if water rose to the level of the murals in the upper part of the banking room.


As always, I welcome your comments about this site or any Prairie School building.

John A. Panning, Lake City, Iowa


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