American Exchange Bank

American Exchange Bank
Photo by Eric Tadsen

The American Exchange Bank building at 1 N. Pinckney Street in Madison is one of the few remaining buildings serving as a reminder of much of the architecture that once surrounded the Capitol. Made of Madison sandstone in the Renaissance Revival style, this three-story building was designed by architect Stephen V. Shipman, one of the best of Madison’s pioneer architects. He also designed the dome and rotunda of the second Capitol building, built in 1859, when the first became inadequate for the growing state. Another Shipman building that can be seen facing the Capitol Square is the Willett S. Main building currently housing Teddywedgers at the top of State Street.

The cornice of the American Exchange Bank building, the horizontal area that protrudes just below the roof line, is massive. The rusticated first floor shows off masonry that has been achieved by cutting back the edges of the stones while leaving the central portion of the face rough to provide a rich, bold surface for the exterior wall.

The original structure on the site of the bank building was the pioneer American House hotel, built in 1838. The Wisconsin territorial legislature convened there in November that year—the third time since Wisconsin was deemed a territory in 1836. The first Capitol building was still under construction at that time. The hotel burned down in 1868, and the current structure was built in 1871.

The Madison Landmarks Commission designated the American Exchange Bank building a local landmark in 1975, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. According to the National Register nomination, the architecture of the American Exchange Bank is “significant as a fine example of the Italian Renaissance Revival, displaying excellent craftsmanship in sandstone, a local material used frequently for the highest quality 19th century Madison buildings.”

In 1911, major alterations took place when the southeast facade facing East Washington Avenue was extended. The addition was identical to the original building, making it impossible to detect where the existing building and addition met. The main building entrance was relocated to the west corner of the building facing Pinckney Street, where it still exists.

Urban Land Interests (ULI), a local real estate development and management firm operating in downtown Madison for nearly 40 years, purchased the American Exchange Bank building in 1994. ULI restored the facade and the window grading to match the original. A new elevator was installed to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Floor plates on the second and third floors were expanded by extending the building east over the city alleyway. A new first floor suite was created east of the alley.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

While today’s tenants in the American Exchange Bank building have modern mechanical systems, efficient office suites, and access to parking, they also have high ceilings and historic details. “What sets [ULI] apart when it comes to restoration is that we spend a little more to get the right finishes so the restoration speaks to the original character of the building,” states Emily Mehl, ULI brand manager and member of the commercial development team.

From the time of its construction in 1871 to the present, the American Exchange Bank building has housed a number of banks. The original occupant was the Park Savings Bank until 1881, when the building was purchased by the First National Bank. The American Exchange Bank then bought the building and took over in December of 1921. Today, the building accommodates American Family Insurance’s DreamBank, the company’s flagship retail store with space for consumers to explore their passions, pursue their dreams, and celebrate with others.

The American Exchange Bank started out as the German Bank, founded by John J. Suhr Sr., in September of 1871. Suhr Sr. was born in Bremen, Germany, in 1836. He came to Madison 20 years later and began working as a bookkeeper at the State Bank. Soon, Suhr Sr. recognized a need for banking services for Madison’s large German community and opened the German Bank on King Street.

Suhr Sr. was concerned with community affairs, and he; his wife, Louise Heicke; and five children made many contributions to the cultural and economic life of Madison in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Suhr Sr. was president of the Madison Turners Society, a German athletic club. He also served on the Madison School Board, was president of the Madison Free Library, and raised funds for Civil War veterans, widows, and orphans with his wife. Suhr Sr. died at his Langdon Street residence in 1901. After his death, two of his sons continued to manage the bank until the death of John J. Suhr Jr., in 1957.

The Suhr family’s integration into the community was represented by subsequent changes in the name of the bank. First, a blend of German and American business reflected in the German-American Bank in 1885, then fully American with the American Exchange Bank in 1918. Most likely this name change was a result of anti-German sentiment in the country at the time of World War I. The bank helped the city remain stable during economic downturns, such as the Great Depression. The first home loan in Wisconsin under the Federal Housing Administration is credited to have been made by the American Exchange Bank.

The American Exchange Bank itself underwent several transitions in its latter years. In 1986 the bank was renamed to American Exchange Bank of Madison. Then in 1988 it became Valley Bank. In 1990 Valley Bank moved to 222 W. Washington Avenue and occupied the same building that had housed the corporate headquarters of Wisconsin Power and Light for many decades. M&I Madison Bank acquired Valley Bank in 1994 and subsequently closed the W. Washington Avenue location.

The American Exchange Bank building stands as a testament to the influential people in early Madison who made the city what it is today.

Photograph by M.O.D. Media Productions

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.