Louis Kaufman’s First National Bank was financial temple, part 2

The First National Bank in Marquette is seen on opening day, Oct. 17, 1927. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Last week’s article talked about all of the expensive, and generally imported, materials that went into the new First National Bank building on the corner of Front and Washington Streets that opened in October 1927. Louis Kaufman, the bank president, asserted that, per square foot, it was the most expensive building built in America. This week we turn to the more practical, if still lavish, details meant to appeal to the bank’s customers.

The First National Bank was chartered in 1864 to conform to the new national banking laws. One of its first locations was in the Burt Block, which was destroyed in the great fire of 1868. Following several years in temporary quarters, a new “magnificent brownstone” building was opened in November 1873 on the corner of Front and Spring streets. But in February 1885 fire struck that building as well, destroying all the existing bank records.

Although the building at Front and Spring had been quickly rebuilt after the fire, it’s no surprise that when building the new bank on Front and Washington Kaufman and the architects made fire safety a top priority. The limestone and granite exterior was built over a steel skeleton and the floors and walls were all marble or tile with wood used only on interior office doors. The floor and roof beams and even the window frames and sashes were metal.

In addition to assuring investors that their savings would be safe from fire, the bank also assured them that the latest protections against theft were being employed. Tellers were in cages protected by bronze grilles and an electric burglar alarm system.

The huge vault, which would soon contain $5,000,000 in cash and securities moved from the old bank, was considered worthy of its own article in the Oct. 14, 1927 issue of The Mining Journal. The vault was built of reinforced concrete and steel and, though visible to everyone in the lobby, was secured behind heavy steel grilles and gates. The door itself weighed 25 tons, but balanced well enough that it could be moved with a fingertip. The door was locked with 24 steel bolts, each four inches in diameter. There was even a phone installed inside the vault, in case someone got trapped inside when the time lock was activated.

Although investors were no doubt impressed by the security offered by the new building, there was also an emphasis on privacy. There were private booths, for singles, couples, or families, in the area with the safe deposit boxes and people having business with the bank were assured that they would be able to transact it quickly.

Most intriguing was the emphasis on assuring the well-to-do women of Marquette that the bank had their concerns utmost in mind. There was a separate “ladies’ room” immediately to the right of the Front Street entrance. Reporter Manthei Howe’s extremely enthusiastic Mining Journal article about the provisions for women in the new bank noted that “women usually feel like a goldfish out of water when they go into a bank. There usually isn’t a single thing lovely about the place except the handsome gentlemen employed there.”

Howe went on to describe the women’s room “as secluded and private as milady’s boudoir.” Her article, which ran across eight columns, described the “delicately curved” lines of the desk, the “blue and gold satin-threaded” upholstery on the straight-backed chairs (not to be confused with the “striped blue and old gold velour” of the armchair) and the silk gauze “the color of warm sunshine” on the curtains covering the windows and doors that separated the room from the main part of the bank.

Even the marble-paneled women’s lavatory, she wrote, “Partakes in miniature of the luxury of a Roman bath.” She assured her readers that any woman who saw the room would hope that business would bring her into the bank often–which was surely the hope of Kaufman and his architects and designers as well.

At the open house on Oct. 15, 1927, the bank gave away 5,000 leather wallets, 5,000 souvenir pencils and 3,000 dime savings banks to the 9,000 men, women, and children who visited that day. No doubt many of them were persuaded to become customers. And although the bank no longer has a separate room for women customers, most of what makes the building so spectacular remains, including the marble, the bronze work, and that huge safe. We also recommend that you check out the Kaufman coin collection which remains on display in the building. Now that the building is again locally owned by the Verida Group, it should remain for many decades to come.


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