From a small bank to a big vault

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 9, 2006

By Ed Shannon, staff writer

Some people can still identify the four-story building at the corner of South Broadway Avenue and East William Street now being renovated with two names. One is the Freeborn National Bank. The second is The Vault.

However, there are three other names once legitimately used for this large building.

One is Medical Arts which applied in part to the tenants on the top three floors. Another is Associated Insurance Brokers, once located on the first floor. And the fifth now nearly forgotten name is based on the financial institution that had this outstanding structure built &8212; the Albert Lea State Bank.

This bank opened for business on May 16, 1902, and was the first one in Albert Lea to be organized under state banking laws. Local banks prior to this time were either private banks or chartered under federal regulations.

One organizer of this bank was David R.P. Hibbs, former president of the Albert Lea National Bank, who became its president. Vice presidents were Victor Gillrup, former city mayor and postmaster, and F.W. Barlow, a local druggist. D.C. Armstrong, former banker and grain elevator executive, was the cashier. He became the new bank&8217;s president in 1909.

The bank&8217;s original location was in what was then called the Blackmer store building. Then a move was made into the building

once used by the First National Bank at 119 S. Broadway Ave. a few months later.

On Jan. 21, 1914, a short news item in a local newspaper said the interior of this bank would be remodeled. As a result, a temporary wooden building was constructed partly on the sidewalk and out into the street. This served as the bank&8217;s center of operations until the new remodeling project was completed by the end of April 1914. During the time of the &8220;sidewalk bank,&8221; the premises were guarded on a 24/7 basis by special police.

By the early 1920s the business for the Albert Lea State Bank was expanding and a decision would have to be made regarding an enlargement at its site or moving to a new location. It was decided to build a new bank and office building about a half-block to the south.

A ceremony for the laying of a cornerstone for the new building at 201-203

S. Broadway Ave. was held in early March 1923. On Nov. 23, 1923, a dedication was held at the completion of the big construction project.

An article in the Nov. 26, 1923, issue of the Tribune reported:

&8220;Saturday was a gala day in Albert Lea, the &8216;City of New Buildings.&8217; The Albert Lea State Bank was keeping &8216;open house&8217; and crowds of people all day filled the street outside getting &8216;stiff necks&8217; gazing at the magnificence of the building, which was especially attractive in the evening, with big searchlights playing upon it from across the street, bringing out in bold and beautiful relief the many sculptured figures, and making the structure with its glistening windows look like a giant onyx jewel box.

&8220;From half past two until five o&8217;clock the public had been entertained in the bank itself, and had full opportunity to admire the handsome interior. Huge vases of chrysanthemums and roses were placed everywhere.

&8220;The children were made happy with caps and the older people received some very nice aluminum Eversharp pencils.

&8220;Al Olson&8217;s Orchestra furnished some very peppy music, and the bank&8217;s officials from president (A.C.) Erickson down, were genial hosts to everyone.

&8220;The marble floor was practically hidden from view, so great was the crowd of people passing to and fro, through the various parts of the bank. Exclamations of wonder and approbation were heard on all sides.

&8220;They swarmed into the big vault, with its wealth of safety deposit boxes, some 542 of them we believe, past the mammoth round door that laughs defiance to the most enterprising burglar. And what burglar would care to tackle this 20-ton barrier, higher than a man and nearly a foot through?&8221;

By early 1929 this particular intersection at South Broadway Avenue and William Street had banks at three of its four corners.

To the north of the Albert Lea State Bank and across William Street was the First National Bank (now Shoff Chiropractic). Across Broadway and to the west was the Freeborn County State Bank in what was then called the Wiegand Building (now the location of Fisher&8217;s Jewelers).

Some time later in 1929 what was called the &8220;Great Depression&8221; started to raise havoc with the American banking system. Thus, serious financial problems resulted in Albert Lea State Bank ceasing operations.

In 1930 the Freeborn County State Bank, organized in 1907, moved across Broadway into the ground floor of the four-story building. Later that same year this financial firm became part of First Bank Stock Corporation of Minneapolis and the name was changed to Freeborn County National Bank and Trust Co.

Two years later the city&8217;s Northside State Bank was merged with the bank in the big building on Broadway to create the Freeborn National Bank.

This bank with its big vault and two historic Herfindahl murals on the south wall of the lobby moved two blocks to the south into a new building at the corner of South Broadway Avenue and East College Street in 1975. (This financial institution is now known as US Bank.)

The former bank portion of the building sometimes called Medical Arts was occupied by Associated Insurance Brokers and later by an antique and second-hand store called The Vault.

And since the end of the banking days, the heavy door of the big vault has likely remained open for the last 31 years.