Monday, August 9, 2010

Then and Now: Winona, Minnesota. (Highly recommended as a destination for an end-of-summer road trip.)

"Then and Now" is a monthlong series by Alan K. Lathrop, curator of the Manuscripts Division at the University of Minnesota Libraries from 1970 to 2008. He is author of Minnesota Architects and Churches of Minnesota.

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Winona County Courthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.















Without question: Winona, that beautiful little city on the Mississippi flood plain in the southeastern part of the state, holds some of the finest architecture in all of Minnesota. Between the early 1870s and the first decade of the twentieth century there was a virtual explosion of extraordinary buildings going up in the city. Concentrated within its confines are several unique and elegant churches, two spectacular banks (one of which was nearly lost in the early 1970s), a magnificent court house (which also came perilously close to demolition in the same era), and several residences of notable style and grace.

The ecclesiastical contributions range from the large and impressive St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church (1894-5), with its tall, graceful drum and dome, to the much smaller but equally impressive St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, erected two decades earlier of locally quarried stone. Each was designed by resident Winona architects Charles Maybury and Ananias Langdon, respectively. In between are such gems as First Congregational Church (1880-82), designed in the Romanesque Revival style by William Willcox of Chicago (later St. Paul), and First Baptist Church (1888-93), in the same genre, by the brothers George and A.S. Bullard of Springfield, Illinois.

There are also two banks of special note, built at roughly the same time: The Merchants National Bank, a product of the genius of William Purcell and George Elmslie of Minneapolis (1912-13), and the Winona Savings Bank (which also housed the Winona National Bank) designed by George Maher of Chicago and erected in 1914-15. Both are exquisite creations. The Merchants National Bank embodies all the theory and practice of the Prairie School style, which owed its genesis to Louis H. Sullivan and his most famous pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright. This brilliant gem of a building was almost lost in the early 1970s, before the bank's president was persuaded, by an avalanche of letters and phone calls of protest from alarmed and angry citizens far and wide, to change his mind and undertake a restoration. His name was Gordon Espy and when I talked to him at the grand opening of the restored structure in 1972, he was still grumbling at the expense incurred and wondered if it was all worth it. Rest easy, Mr. Espy, I told him; you can be assured it is.

The Winona Savings Bank/Winona National Bank is equally as magnificent, but in a different way. It is solidly constructed of marble and limestone instead of brick, as was employed at the Merchants National Bank, giving it a heavier quality. Its design incorporates Prairie School elements, especially in the treatment of the fenestration and characteristic opulent stained glass, with the result bearing a strange resemblance that some think hearken back to Egyptian antecedents. For this reason the building has mistakenly been called Egyptian Revival, but it is not. The architect, George Maher (who also was responsible for the masterful J.R. Watkins office building in 1911), simply sought to create an edifice in which the “plan and general design follow no precedent either in this country or abroad and are therefore original and American in spirit ... The architecture was to express the idea of service and of beauty ... [and] the exterior design directly reflects the general aspect of the interior plan; that is to say, the interior purpose of the edifice is clearly portrayed on the facades."

The Winona County Court House (pictured at top) is an exemplary exponent of Midwestern Richardsonian Romanesque. Its architect was hometown boy Charles Maybury. The court house was erected in 1888 and came close to being razed during a period of enthusiastic, if misguided, attempts to spruce up the downtown area. Fortunately, again, citizen activism blocked the effort and the building still stands.

Finally, the city seems to have more than its share of impressive residences, several of which are among the finest examples of Italianate architecture in the state: The Huff house (1857), the Sinclair residence (1870s) and the Keyes house are perhaps the best. The Schmitz house (1890) epitomizes the disfunctionality of the Queen Ann style, and the Gallagher residence (1913) by Purcell and Elmslie is among their best Prairie School houses.

Unfortunately, as is also the case with many American towns and cities, much noteworthy architecture in Winona has fallen victim to accidental loss, but far more has gone to landfills through insensitivity and failure to recognize the contribution that older buildings make to everyday sociological currents. Yet, the city still has much to offer and should be on everyone’s list of obligatory exploration.

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Alan K. Lathrop is author of Minnesota Architects (2010) and Churches of Minnesota (2003).

Also in the Then and Now series:
-Art deco treasures in the Twin Cities.
-The Guthrie Theater(s).
-The Metropolitan Building.
-The Hollywood, Uptown, and Varsity theaters in Minneapolis.

Want to know the architectural history of your favorite Minnesota building? E-mail suggestions about content you would like to see here to sattl014@umn.edu.

Images in this post are from Creative Commons.

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