An African leopard is on display at the animal exhibit within WNB Financial.
by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Imagine lion cubs roaming the courtyard of a mansion in Homer during a party in the 1930s. What brought this about? At WNB Financial, history on this topic and many others, from architecture and design to prominent Winona residents, abounds. While touring the bank, one can learn all about it.
The bank is home to a lion, a leopard and antique guns with ties to Annie Oakley, and it houses the stories that go with them.
Marketing Coordinator Ben Knuesel said the giant vault that is visible when walking through the main entrance to the bank is the original vault in which all of the money was kept when the bank initially opened. Tellers used to lock their drawers in it at night and take them out in the morning, he explained.
The large size of the vault, in addition to the tall ceilings of the historic building, are meant to inspire a sense of trust in the bank among its customers, Knuesel shared.
Technology and security have changed, so the vault is now mainly used for safe deposit boxes, he said. Some of the boxes are original, and some were installed in 1952.
A mosaic of tiles that were individually hand placed comprises the floor of the vault, Knuesel said. The tile mosaic is also present on the third floor of the bank, where exotic animals and antique guns are kept in the museum-like space.
The interior white marble is from the Carrara district of Italy, and the green marble is from the Greek island of Tinos, he said.
The building originally housed two separate banks, the Winona National Bank and the Winona Savings Bank, Knuesel explained. One bank was for businesses, and one bank was for private citizens. The arrangement lasted for about 12 years before the banks became Winona National and Savings Bank.
George Maher, a contemporary of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was the architect of the building, and some similarities between their designs can be observed, Knuesel stated. The Egyptian Revival style is present in the temple-like lobby of the bank and the two large columns outside its entrance, he said. The rectangles of the Prairie School style for which Wright was more known are evident throughout the bank, from the backs of chairs to the light fixtures, he said.
The bank is home to many of the guns of Grace Watkins King, the daughter of J.R. Watkins, Knuesel noted. At a time in which women did not yet have the right to vote, Watkins King was not able to take over the family business. Watkins King married E.L. King Sr., a banker, and Watkins moved his accounts to King’s bank at Watkins King’s request, providing it with a substantial amount of money, Knuesel said.
Watkins King and King decided to build the building that is home to WNB Financial today, Knuesel explained. They moved King’s bank from its Second Street location, which was where Winona 7 theatre is today, to where the WA Group is today, and waited for two years while the building that now houses WNB was completed. Once construction was finished in 1916, Watkins King brought her gun collection into the building.
Watkins King was the first woman inducted into the Minnesota Trapshooting Hall of Fame, and she trained with Annie Oakley, Knuesel said.
The animal exhibit at the bank, which includes a preserved hippo, African leopard, lion and Marabou stork, among other animals, is tied to Watkins King as well, Knuesel said. In a different era in which trophy hunting and illegal poaching were not considered to be as great of a concern, Watkins King and her family went on two safaris in Africa in 1924 and 1926 and collected animals with the goal of helping to educate the people of Winona and the surrounding area about parts of the world to which they may not otherwise be exposed, he shared.
A taxidermist from New York came with them and prepared the animals, as refrigeration and preservation techniques were a bit different in the 1920s, Knuesel stated.
While in Africa, Watkins King did not just hunt, Knuesel said. She also wrote books about the people, land and weather there. The books were then published and placed in the community rooms at the bank in Winona so people could check them out and learn from them.
Tours of the exhibit have been given for over 100 years, Knuesel explained.
Buddy King, Watkins King’s son for whom the Bud King Ice Rink was named, went to Africa in 1924 when he was 10.
In 1926, the Kings came across two abandoned lion cubs and decided to bring them back to their mansion in Homer, Knuesel noted. They raised the cubs for 12 years, releasing them in their courtyard during parties, before donating them to the Milwaukee Zoo.
The majority of the animals were collected in 1924, and they were touched up once in 2008, Knuesel said. In 2008, a discrepancy with the ostrich’s leg color was discovered, he said. Ostriches have pink legs, and the ostrich in the exhibit had black legs.
Knuesel said he feels the discrepancy demonstrates that the animals in the exhibit were so unknown to people in the U.S. in the 1920s that even the taxidermist preparing them on the spot in Africa could not keep every single detail straight.
An elephant skull, as well as elephant ears and elephant tusks, are part of the exhibit. The skull was carefully cut in half to give people insight into elephants, Knuesel explained.
The stained-glass windows at the bank came from Tiffany Studios of New York. The Mississippi River is represented in the windows by a blue rectangular border, lily pads and lotus flowers. There are more lily pads and lotus flowers in the molding of the ceiling. Below the molding, there are lions.
The bank cost $139,378 to build in the 1910s, Knuesel stated. Today, he said it is considered “priceless,” as there is no more marble left in the quarries from which the marble came, Tiffany Studios does not produce stained glass windows and the worth of the mosaic tiling and other craftsmanship is “astronomical.”
For the 100th anniversary of the building in 2016, the bank worked with Willet Hauser in Winona to create a stained-glass inset that is reminiscent of the stained-glass windows, Knuesel said. The inset, like the windows, has a blue border, lotus flowers and lily pads.