Temple to banking: Louis Kaufman’s First National Bank, part 1

The completed First National Bank Building, circa 1927.

Marvelously beautiful it stands;

And exquisite in design:

A dream, a vision realized

In figured bronze and marble fine

All honor to the builder;

Louis G. Kaufman

For he’s given you and me

A mighty inspiration

Through all the years that be.

This poem, by Marquette resident A. J. Richardson, a teacher at Howard Junior High School, appeared on the front page of The Mining Journal on October 14, 1927. Fourteen pages of admiring articles and congratulatory ads followed. It was a small part of the huge celebration accompanying the opening of the new First National Bank Building at the corner of Front and Washington Streets in downtown Marquette. As the local Verida Group begins the process of renovating this historic building, which they have recently acquired, it’s worth taking a look back at what makes the building so special.

By the time the bank was built, Louis Kaufman had moved on from Marquette to become a prominent banker in New York City, where he was president of the Chatham and Phoenix National Bank (eventually Manufacturers Hanovers) and lived in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. But Marquette, and especially his “camp” at Granot Loma, was still home and he was still president of the First National Bank here, which had been located in a sandstone building at Front and Spring Streets since 1873. Kaufman believed it was time for a new building for First National and was determined that it should be a showplace.

Unlike most of the other prominent buildings in Marquette, Kaufman did not turn to local architect D. Fred Charlton, but instead called on the New York firm of Uffinger, Foster, and Bookwalter. And instead of local sandstone, the exterior was built of Indiana limestone, and all the extensive wooden paneling (and even the wastebaskets!) was walnut. Curtains were made of English casement cloth and Italian silk. The most extravagant furnishings, however, were surely the marble floors and walls and the bronze doors.

The bronze doors were the personal gift of Kaufman. They were designed in Italy for the Polachek Company of New York and the hand-carving took more than a year. The Mining Journal quotes the firm manager, John Polachek, as saying the bronze work was the finest his company had ever produced and he was surprised the doors were going to a place like Marquette instead of somewhere in New York City where millions of people would see them. He added that Kaufman had told him he wanted the Marquette bank to be second to none.

Although the marble contractor was a firm in Minneapolis, the marble itself came from Italy, after a search of quarries in New York State did not find any that was up to the architect’s specifications. The black and gold “Portoro” marble came from the Gulf of Spezia on the Ligurian Sea. The bank pointed out that the travertine quarried from along the ancient Roman road to Rivoli was the same used in the Vatican and St. Peter’s cathedral. Other stones came from elsewhere in Italy.

Perhaps sensitive to criticism that local suppliers were not being used enough, the bank reiterated its policy of using local suppliers and laborers “as much as possible,” and the Mining Journal printed a lengthy list of local suppliers of everything from “plumbing and heating” to “hauling and draying.” Many of the suppliers took out congratulatory ads in the paper as well, such as the one from Spear and Sons noting that they had supplied 2,500 tons of “cement, lime, building tile, plaster, white cement, and Champion gravel” and one from Marquette Building Supply touting that they had supplied the Mello-Gloss wall paint once it had proven its superiority in “exhaustive tests.”

Come back next week for a look at the interior of the bank, including the 20-ton door to the vault and the special silk-curtained room for women to do their banking, “as secluded and private as milady’s boudoir.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today