The arrival of the State Savings Bank at the turn of the century yo the heart of Laurium’s newly developed commercial district quickly drew the interest of other banking institutions, who began to look at the juvenile village as a new source of customers. Soon a competitor would emerge and established a bank of its own within the commercial center – locating itself right across the street from the newly built State Savings building. This new bank was the First National, and the new building would be Laurium’s grandest building to date – a structure never again rivaled in Laurium or even neighboring Red Jacket. It would be the bank building to end all bank buildings.
Before federal regulation and oversight, banking at the turn of the century was a bit more insecure then it is today. If a bank were to overextend itself, there was no government to bail it out and secure is survival. Bad banks simple closed their doors, the deposits of its customers sometimes disappearing overnight. Customers were well aware of this fact, and they key to attracting and keeping customers was to give the impression of stability, wealth, and intelligence. Banks had to look as if they would exist till the end of time, and their size and strength would keep them solvent through the hardest of times. The easiest way to provide this impression was by the erection of a particular grand and opulent bank building; the bigger and more opulent the better. No bank took was more committed to this concept then the First National of Laurium, who in 1907 built itself a building that would rival all others in the region. More importantly it would utterly humiliate the building erected by its chief competitor across the street.
The First National Bank building is a one of a kind structure, designed to resemble nothing else found in Laurium or in the region. Gone were the tired and aging Sandstone facades, romanesque elements, and Victorian sensibility applied ad nauseam to every other business block in the region. At this new building every detail was new and unique, right down to the brick coloring which was not red but instead a reddish brown. In the end the First National was a particularly jarring juxtaposition to the buildings surrounding it and easily succeeded in attracting the interest of every passerby that happened across it.
The building’s most impressive characteristic is by far its gushingly liberal use of white glazed terra cotta embellishment – an application that almost borders on the baroque. The white ceramic is used throughout the facade – on the cornice, surrounding the windows, atop pilasters, and even as belt courses laid across the facade. You can’t go five feet along the building’s facade without running into an example.
But what beautiful examples those are. High up top of the building terra cotta forms and oversized cornice embellished with equally oversized scrolled brackets complete with leave etchings. Compare this to the cornice seen across the street at the State Savings buildings and the difference is almost palatable.
Originally the building was suppose to be just two stories, but late in the design process a third was added. This upper floor was designed to be home to a large meeting hall, and in turn it received the most ornate decoration including a few old-fashioned round arched windows thrown in for good measure.
Back down on the first floor you’ll find even more terra cotta excess in the form of stylized frames surrounding the first floor entrances. Unfortunately this entrance was closed off at some point in the building’s history. Interestingly the door looks to have been simply bricked over, without any effort being done to remove the door itself. Up in the top right you can see the old alarm box for the bank, still intact though I doubt it works any longer. Fortunately this is not the only piece of the old bank to survive, as a stroll inside would reveal the bank’s original vault along with a few other fixtures from the buildings financial past.
Around the corner along the Hecla Street facade we find another gloriously decorated doorway, this one providing access to the second floor office space. We know this because its capped by an oversized medallion with the words “office entrance” carved into its face.
While both these entrances are impressive, they both are just plain doorways compared to the building’s grand terra cotta opus surrounding the entrance to the bank itself.
The bank’s entrance sits at the building’s corner, and is beautifully shrouded in this massively ornate alcove complete with sweeping archways, soaring columns topped with intricately carved capitals, gracefully arched awnings, terra cotta tiling, and the words “FIRST NATIONAL BANK” spelled out in raised letters along the frieze. For any casual soul walking into town at the turn of the century I’m almost certain that this grand entrance would certainly draw them into the bank found within. I’m almost equally confident that they would gladly hand over their money once inside assured that the First National Bank was a solid and lasting institution more then capable of protecting their assets.
Considering the building’s age this grand entranceway has held up over the years remarkably well, definitely better then an equivalent sandstone surround would have fared. The glazed ceramic pieces are almost in the same shape there were when the building was first built, save for a century’s worth of pollution staining the surface. Its an amazing example of architectural artistry, once that can easily be viewed even today from just about anyone on the street.
As icing on the cake you’ll find the floor of the alcove to be covered in customized tiling featuring the “First National Bank” name spelled out in green tiles. Once again, a century of time has done little to dampen the opulence on display here and the building continues to garner a level of reverence and respect you’re tough to muster for any other structure.
The bank took up the north half of the building’s first floor, the other half was leased out to other tenants. Originally the second store front housed Superior Pharmacy while most recently the space housed a gift shop.
At some point around 1917 the building was expanded to the west along 3rd Street, with the addition of a two story structure built with similar dark colored brick as the rest of the original structure. Unfortunately while the brick was roughly matched (not quite however), the terra cotta embellishments were not and as a result this section of the building looks incredibly plain and pedestrian. This portion of the building housed Laurium’s post office for many years, though I have no clue what resided here after the post office moved across the street to the State Savings Bank building.
The First National Bank Building is a beautiful building, easily in the region’s top ten. Its survival up to this point is amazing, and a great asset for both Laurium and the Copper Country as a whole. Yet its presence provides a stark reminder of just how far Laurium’s fortunes have fallen, and remains a symbol of the prosperity lost not just here in Laurium but throughout the peninsula. There was a time when this grand building was home to a prestigious financial institution with a bank full of cash and a $100,000 in assets on the books. Today the old building is home to a antique shop and the bags of money in its vault have been replaced with second-hand merchandise.