EVERYTHING ABOUT THE CONSTRUCTION of Winona National Bank invokes trust, strength and power.
Granite entry columns.
A 22 ½ ton vault door 22 inches thick.
Iron window gates.
And then, the king of the jungle—the lion—standing atop signage, sculpted and encased in glass. A symbol of strength for a bank that stands as a powerful visual presence in the heart of this Mississippi River town.
On the Friday in September when I toured this 1916 Egyptian Revival style building with Prairie School influences, the bank seemed more museum than business. The atmosphere was quiet, almost shrine-like with few customers. (The bank also has two branch offices.) I felt a sense of reverent awe in the midst of such opulence, such an overwhelming display of wealth.
It is difficult for me to comprehend anyone having this much money—to erect this massive building with Tiffany stained glass windows, white marble imported from Italy and mahogany railings. Chicago architect George Maher, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the building.
The bank formed in 1874 as Winona Savings Bank, later merging with Winona National Bank. J.R. Watkins, founder of The J.R. Watkins Medical Company, still a stalwart business today simply known as J.R. Watkins, is also linked to the bank. In the early 1900s, J.R. acquired Winona Savings Bank as a banking concern connected to Watkins products.
When J.R. died in 1911, his son-in-law, Ernest L. King, Sr., then the vice president of Watkins, assumed the bank presidency. Eventually his son, Ernest L. King, Jr., would serve on the board of directors.
So there’s a lot of local business history in this formidable bank building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Watkins connection is highlighted in upper level displays. Inside the boardroom, designed in Prairie School style, sleek chairs pull up to hefty, gleaming tables next to a gun collection. Just down the hallway, trophy animals shot by Grace Watkins King (J.R.’s only child) and her husband, Ernest L. King, Sr., are showcased.
I couldn’t help but think of Cecil the lion (killed in Zimbabwe) as I photographed the lion mount inside the bank. I understand, though, that it was a different mindset when this lion and other wildlife were shot in Africa. Yet, in a building of such grand splendor, this taxidermy collection left me feeling uncomfortable and sad.
That aside, I delighted in the opportunity to tour this remarkable Minnesota treasure.
FYI: Free self-guided tours of the bank are available during regular business hours from 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The bank is located at 204 Main Street in downtown Winona. Check back next week as I continue with my series from Winona.
© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling