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Road Trippin' Grinnell's Jewel Box Bank

Merchant's National Bank building in Grinnell.

Grinnell is known as the Jewel of the Prairie, and one of the reasons behind the name is its architecture.

The Merchants Bank building in downtown Grinnell is an unexpected treasure fir this small town.

“Just coming inside the space, with the way the stained windows reflect the light, it really is a space where you think to yourself ‘this is not a bank,’” says Bill Menner, a local businessman.

This “jewel box bank” is the work of famed architect Louie Sullivan, mentor to other architectural greats like Frank Loyd Wright.

It is one of 8 jewel box buildings designed by Sullivan, another can be found in Cedar Rapids that is now home to Popoli Ristorante and Sullivan’s Bar.

Menner interest in the banks history even led him to write a book on its history.

“Sullivan's approach to architecture was one where he wanted there to be truly American feel, he didn't want Americans to borrow from European styles, he wanted a truly American architectural style,” Says Menner.

The style captured in this old bank still draws the interest of visitors far and wide.

“Chevy Chase Maryland, New Orleans, Vietnam,” reads Menner from the guestbook. “I would see people with their faces pressed up against the front windows trying to see inside wishing they could get in but they could because the bank was closed,” he adds.

It now serves as a visitor’s center where the stained glass and terracotta ornaments are still a sight to behold.

“I think the biggest thing that surprises me is just the amount of detail and you really don't think that something you see in a lot of modern architecture,” says Kendra Tucker, Marketing and Events Coordinator for Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce.

Now more than 100 years after its construction in 1914 it continues to stand the test of time.

“The entire downtown has significance, the buildings are all built between the 1880’s and 1920’s but this is the centerpiece,” says Menner.

Another architectural attraction is the Rock Island Depot, built in 1893.

Following the end of passenger service, the building feel into disrepair but it now serves as the Peppertree restaurant.

“I’m very glad that it got preserved, its part of the fabric of Grinnell,” says Mayor Gordon Canfield.

It stands as a reminder of when rails ruled.

“It's nostalgia for the old people and thrilling for younger people because you don't get this close to trains quite often,” says Canfield.

Grinnell, a place where the lines of architecture and history cross.

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