Laurium’s burgeoning populace attracted many new businesses to the young village by the end of the 20th century, businesses eager to serve the hundreds of new customers the village promised. As usual banks would be one of those eager to pillage the virgin market – resulting in the formation of the State Savings Bank within the village in 1897. Business was good and in 1901 the bank was able to finance a grand business block of its own at the head of Laurium’s main thoroughfare.
The success of the State Savings Bank would draw the interest of Laurium native Michael O’Brian, a Sacred Heart school graduate who worked his way up the corporate ladder to become the district manager of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. Mr. O’Brian would take advantage of such success to organize the Calumet State Bank in 1906 and a year later a second bank next door in Laurium – the First National Bank of Laurium. But with a well established competitor having already taken up residence at the head of Laurium’s commercial district O’Brian’s new bank faced a steep hill to climb. In response the First National Bank of Laurium would go almost literally head to head with its established rival, buying up its own high-profile corner lot right across the street and putting up a grand bank building of its own.
Yet this wouldn’t be no normal bank building. O’Brian would insure that his bank was the grandest of them all, a structure of such opulence and prestige that it would rival not just any other building in Laurium but any building built throughout the entire region. It would be the bank building to end all bank buildings. 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, from its gleaming cream terra cotta highlights right down to its maroon brick face brick. In the end the First National was a particularly jarring juxtaposition to the buildings surrounding it – and especially contrasted with the more traditional Romanesque elements and sandstone highlights of the State Savings bank across the street. It utterly owned the block both then and today – attracting the interest of every passerby that happens 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. On the left is the Third Street entrance to the bank, an entrance which 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.
On the right is the Hecla Street entrance to the building’s second floor. While the bank lobby occupied the majority of the first floor, its offices could also be found up on the second. Also found up on the second floor were offices for several other area businesses as well, including a travel agency and a lawyer firm.
Found atop that second-floor entrance is this impressive terra-cotta medallion with the words “office entrance” protruding from its face while a wreath of cream leaves circle around it.
While both these entrances are impressive, they both are just plain doors compared to the entrance to the bank lobby itself – a grand terra cotta opus that is easily the most ornate thing to be found in all the Copper Country.
That entrance sits at the building’s focal point – the corner overlooking the Hecla and Third Street intersection at its doorstep. That entrance is beautifully shrouded in this massive terra cotta alcove embellished with sweeping archways, soaring columns, intricately carved capitals, gracefully arched awnings, and gobs and gobs of terra cotta tiling. Up top the words “FIRST NATIONAL BANK” are spelled out in raised letters along the frieze. For any casual soul walking into town at the turn of the century such a grand entrance would certainly draw them into the bank found within.
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 while the south half was rented out to other businesses. For most of the building’s life that business was the Superior Pharmacy, a drug store owned and operated by Anton Sibilsky along with Dr. Donald MacQueen – who also operated a private practice upstairs. The drug store would survive into the late 20th century, outliving the bank next door by several decades. Most recently the space was home to 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 to the bank building’s exterior, the terra cotta embellishments are painfully missing. 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 before moving across the street into its present home in the First National’s competitor – the State Savings Bank.
The First National Bank would serve Laurium for some time, surviving the Great Depression and lasting in some capacity at least up into the 1940s – the last Sanborn maps I have access to. The building would later house the Keweenaw Printing Company in the 1970s. Since the 1990s it has served as the home to the Yard Sale – a local collectible and antique shop.
The First National Bank Building is a beautiful building, easily in the region’s top ten. The grand monument to prosperity that Mr. O’Brian and his fellow investors built is still that yet today even a century since its construction. It’s eye-catching design has not tarnished, and the image it projects is as strong as ever. 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. While the Copper Country remains it is but a mere shadow of its former self – its monuments of prosperity now only shells large empty and vacant of life.