Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Old Downtown Bank

When I was in Davenport, IA last week, I took these photos of the entrance to the old US Bank, because I think the artwork there tells us a lot about bankers' attitudes in the early 20th century.

The arched entry is lavishly decorated with cast bronze and carved stone. The bronze sculpture in the entry's tympanum appears to depict (top, from left) workers at a forge, a workshop scene, a place of business, and an agricultural tableau in which farmers are supplicating Mercury (god of trade).

Beneath these, on either side of the clock, appear (I think) Triptolemus and Ceres, both associated in ancient Greek mythology with agriculture. This seem appropriate for a bank in Iowa. (Click images to enlarge.)

In the jambs are relief sculptures of various idealized figures. There's Labor with a large hammer and anvil,

Agriculture with a sheaf of grain,

Industry, for some reason holding an Ionic temple and some papers (but note the smokestacks in the upper left),

Commerce holding a ship in his left hand and a caduceus in his right. Although the caduceus is now typically associated with medicine, it is also appropriate here because it belongs to Mercury (Hermes in Greek) who is the patron god of commerce.

Next comes Law, looking a bit like Princess Leia, holding the Ten Commandments and a sword and scales of Justice.

Then there's Philosophy, holding a book, with a skull at his feet. He's looking pretty grim.

Here's Security, with an eagle at his feet (or maybe a griffin). He looks like a mixture of a Roman centurion and a WWI dough boy.

And let's not forget Banking, with a cornucopia leaking coins (I love that!) and a big key. I think that's a treasure chest at his feet.

Even though I got there after closing, a bank worker coming out was nice enough to let me in to photograph the ceiling inside the main lobby. Exquisite.

Anyone who's been to Europe will recognize immediately what the architects here were up to on the exterior. The entry of the bank is obviously modeled after that of a Gothic cathedral like Chartres (below), where entrants are greeted by sculptures of the saints:

The builders of this bank clearly wanted to communicate to passers-by their view of how banking fits into the bigger scheme of civic, moral, and intellectual life, and they cared enough about this to lavish considerable expense on public art that we can enjoy decades later.

The neo-marxists among you will probably say that this is just capitalist self-promotion and propaganda. Whatever. At least these bankers spent some of their high profit margins on art that the public can enjoy and discuss.

Do you know of a modern bank building that displays this degree of knowledge about the mythological and artistic traditions of antiquity and the middle ages?


Joe Guarino said...

David, yet another great post that helps us to understand and appreciate the visual aesthetics that surround us in our public spaces. Thanks for this extraordinary gift you provide for all of us.

David Wharton said...

Thank you, Joe, for your kind words. They are very much appreciated.