The Wright Block and Gartner’s Department Store

The First National Bank building at the corner of Quincy and Reservation was not the first home of the financial institution, as it had already been operating in Hancock since nearly the village’s conception. Back then one of the bank’s tellers was an American by the name of Charles Augustus Wright, who began working at the institution in 1874. He was only 20 years old at the time, but quickly excelled in his new job. In 1880 Mr. Wright took a position at the newly formed Mineral Range Railroad, serving first as its treasure before moving his way up the ranks to General Manager just five years later. In 1890 – at the ripe old age of 36 – Mr. Wright embarked on yet another stage of his career as he helped establish Hancock’s Superior Savings Bank.

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This new bank would set up shop in the old Cardell Building at the head of Hancock’s main commercial street, just across the way from the newly erected home of Mr. Wright’s former employer. As it had previously housed a hardware store the Cardell building would need a facelift for its new financial tenant resulting in its old brick facade being augmented by something a bit more stately and bank-like. The reformed Cardell building would be a rather stately building featuring an arcade of sandstone arches along its first floor facade along with an oversized pediment with the words “bank” etched across it. The building also featured a unique decorative corner turret.

Wright’s little venture proved quite successful, and its success allowed Charles to expand his interests into other industries and practices. He would earn a law degree and be admitted to the state bar in 1894. He would also have a hand in the establishment and construction of the Copper Range Railroad, the Keweenaw Central Railroad, and become president of several other mine related entities including the Phoenix and the Keweenaw Copper company. His wide reaching investments would give Mr. Wright a great deal of wealth, money he would use to finally provide his growing bank with the grand and stately edifice it deserved – a structure that would put his competitor and former employer across the street to shame. In 1900 his vision would become reality with the completion of the massive masonry and sandstone masterpiece known as the Wright Block. As its center was the Superior Savings Bank, who occupied the building’s main floor.

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The Wright Block can be seen on the left in this 1915 era shot of Hancock’s main thoroughfare. As it appears here the structure had actually become two buildings in one. The back half fronted with the large plate glass windows was a later addition, added to the structure by the Wright Block’s other tenant of note. That tenant would be Gartner’s Department Store, whose own growth and success would end up adopting the old bank’s home as its own and transforming it into the structure we know today. But that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. In the beginning the Wright Block was very much about the Superior Savings Bank and the grandeur and prestige required for its public face.

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Towards that end Wright insured that his building would outshine all other bank buildings in the village, most notably of which would be his old employer found across the street. Architecturally the Wright Block takes everything that the First National Bank did and did it bigger and better. The Wright Block saw the First National Bank building’s two stories and raised it with three of its own. The Wright Block saw the First National Bank building’s oversized cornice and capped itself with an even more substantial cornice. The Wright Block saw the First National Bank building’s baroque level of terra cotta flare and out shined it with an incredible amount of carved sandstone elements splashed all across its facade. It was a game of one-upmanship that the First National Bank building would later play as well, as it would add a third story of its own in the years to follow. In the end the result of this competition was an intersection that shines with some of the grandest buildings to be found in all of the village.

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In the end the Wright Block would become the clear winner, as exemplified by its incredible Reservation Street facade which continues to grace the old wagon road a century since the building’s construction. Behind this long arcade of sandstone columns was the bank lobby itself, while the sandstone framed windows and protruding oriels on the upper floors provided space for a collection of professional offices.

While impressive in the aggregate, the building’s sandstone elements are even more incredible when viewed up close and in detail….

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While incredible in design, the shortcomings of sandstone as a building material are also glaringly evident when one takes such a closer look. The same factors that make the rich stone so easy to carve – its sedimentary nature – also make it highly susceptible to water and pollution damage. After a century of harsh Copper Country weather a great deal of the Wright Block’s architectural details have been worn away or damaged. Yet even damaged and worn those elements are still almost just as impressive.

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Leaving the Reservation facade behind we turn to look up the neighboring Quincy Street facade to discover something a bit more … modern… in our view.  From here it looks as if we are looking at two separate buildings, the Victorian masterpiece we already admired on the left and a starkingly modern building harshly juxtaposed on its right. But while they may look like two different buildings, they are in fact both the Wright Block. Turns out the building is quite literally two-faced – a century old building suffering from an incurable case of split personality. While bank owner Charles Wright may have been responsible for the old-school Wright Block half of that personality, its modern half is the responsibility of the  building’s other major tenant – Gartner’s Department Store.

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Gartner’s Department Store is named after its patriarch – German immigrant Jacob Gartner. Mr Gartner first arrived to the Copper Country around 1884 and for several years peddled goods door to door across the region with nothing but his feet to carry him. Over the next two years the traveling businessman developed quite the reputation with many of Hancock’s early residents and by 1886 had acquired enough success to open his own brick-and-mortar store, renting out space at the corner of Quincy and Tezcuco Streets. Business would only improve for Mr. Gartner and by 1900 was looking once again for additional space for his ever-growing enterprise. That new space would end up being Wright’s brand new bank building, a structure that happened to sit at the ideal commercial location right at the gateway to Hancock’s downtown. While Wright’s bank would occupy the massive building’s corner storefront Gartner’s store would occupy its west storefront – all three stories of it.

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Yet Gartner’s was only getting started. As this advertisement shows Mr. Gartner had lofty goals for his business, as he apparently hoped to occupy the entire Wright Block in the near future. Unfortunately that would never be the case, as the State Savings Bank had not intentions of moving out of its home. Even so Gartner packed as much as he could in the space until no more room was left. Luckily by that point Gartner had garnered enough success to be able to finance his own expansion, an endeavor he embarked upon in 1907. The expansion took the form of a 50 foot long addition added to the Wright Block’s western end, expanding the store’s size to well over 24,000 square feet.  The move would propel Gartner’s into the upper echelon of Copper Country retail outlets, referred to for a time as “the largest department store north of Milwaukee”.

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Here we can see that addition in all its original glory (to the right), faced by three levels of floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows. Though not nearly as impressive as the rest of the Wright Block the addition did mimic a few of the original building’s architectural quirks including an oversized sandstone pediment and carved capital marking its corner. For the next half century Gartner’s would continue to grow and succeed, easily becoming the region’s premiere shopping establishment. By the time the modern age had arrived, however, the old store was beginning to show its age. Complicating matters was new ownership, as the store had fallen under the control of Gartner’s grandson-in-law Norbert Kahn. Faced with a faltering Copper Empire the store would be given a modern makeover to insure its continued relevance in a changing world. Essential to this makeover was a new look – one not born from the 19th century but instead the 20th. The facelift would invoke the newest style of the time – mid century modern.

Mid century modern was a design aesthetic obsessed with simplicity and cleanliness. It was the antithesis to all things Victorian, as it was a design absent of almost all architectural excess or ornamentation . It was also an aesthetic that shunned such “prehistoric” materials as stone and brick in favor of the futuristic materials of aluminum and glass. At Gartner’s these tenements were taken to their obscene limit when in 1952 the Wright Block’s old Victorian facade was washed away and replaced by nothing more then a sprawling skin of pigmented glass panels known as Vitrolite. In one fail swoop Gartner’s had left its dusty old-world beginnings behind and had almost instantly rocketed straight into the nuclear age.

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The result was something to behold. Gone were the soot stained sandstone and fading brick. Gone was the ornate cornice and decorative frieze. In their place was a building that almost glowed; its Vitrolite panels glimmering in the bright sun while polished chrome and aluminum accents gleamed under the street lights. Though dated today, the look was highly sought at the time – especially along a downtown like Hancock’s which after nearly a century of time had become dated and aged to its residents. In contrast the “new” Gartner’s was a breath of fresh air with a clean and simple facade that looked like something one might find on a building of the future.

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This new futuristic facade also did away with those massive floor-to-ceiling windows originally gracing the store, those openings now reduced to just a line of far smaller square windows peeking out through the blue Vitrolite skin.

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Down at ground level the storefront windows are framed with space-age aluminum and chrome. No frills or excess to be found here, just simple lines arranged in a clean antiseptic geometry.

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Not to be outdone, the old Superior Savings Bank – now known as Superior National Bank – would apply a similar mid-century modern look to its first floor facade as well – complete with even more Vitrolite panels.

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Up top, however, at least one portion of the Wright Block’s original Victorian facade remained. Unfortunately its presence only exemplified the building’ stark two-faced character. Most notable is how one of the building’ ornate carved capitals (seen to the right) has had a third of its bulk sliced right off the building and replaced with the antiseptic lines of the Vitrolite.

The modern facelift did the trick, however, as Gartner’s continued to find success even in an environment influenced by a faltering Copper Empire. Even the old bank found itself growing too large for its childhood home, forcing it to build itself a brand new bank building down the street at the former site of St. Patrick’s Church in 1960. After having occupied the building for over 60 years the old Superior Savings Bank would sell its founder’s architectural legacy to the Finnish Mutual Fire Insurance Company. The insurance company would end up occupying the Wright Block’s western end, while Gartner’s continued to sell its clothes and house goods to the city’s residents next door.

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The great Copper Empire would officially come to an end in 1967 when the last of the great mines – C&H – closed its doors for good. In the decades to follow the region – inducing Hancock – underwent a mass exodus of people headed for greener pastures elsewhere. The region’s great department stores began to loose business, and one by one began to close there doors. Yet through it all Gartner’s managed to survive. In fact the company would be the region’s only department store to make it into the 20th century, outliving all its rivals by several decades. Yet the writing was on the wall, and in 2008 the century old store was forced to close its Wright Block’s doors. The company still remains – Gartner’s name continuing to grace a furniture store which moved into the old Red Owl Store along Hancock Street. The old department store, however, is nothing more.

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Though Gartner’s may be gone, the old Wright Block remains. Its towering bulk continues to mark Hancock’s main commercial district, though its interior is largely vacant. Rebranding as the “Gartner Center”, the old building is hoping to become an incubator for new businesses in the city, awaiting a time when it will once again be home to successful businesses as it had been for over a century.

Information for this series was partially obtained from the book “Images of America – Hancock” by John S. Haeussler – local Hancock historian extraordinaire,  fellow copper country enthusiast and good friend to CCE. 

Discuss…

  1. Great article. elsewhere on your page you document the sandstone quarries. These buildings use the well known portage entry stone you write about. Can you describe how the intricate details were made in the stone? How were the columns made? local craftsmen? Were there local companies that specialized in this work? Was there any local shops that made these details to ship out?

    Thanks

    Chris gleason

  2. Great article. Please add me to the email list so that I can enjoy more reads about the wonderful copper country.

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