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Feature Article on Lafayette M. Studevant. Topic: PEOPLE
Written by Rich Wallace in December, 1996

PEOPLE'S BUILDING PRODUCT OF CITY MAN'S VISION

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Only the most observant reader of the Sidney Journal on October 22, 1886, would have noticed the short announcement. The Peoples Savings and Loan Association would open its doors the next day for business. From that inauspicious beginning, through the completion of its Louis Sullivan-designed building (shown above) in 1918, to its 110th birthday this week, the institution now known as the Peoples Federal Savings and Loan Association has occupied a unique place in our history.

At the time that Sullivan was commissioned to create the design, Peoples occupied a relatively new and perfectly suitable building at the same location. The proposal to demolish it and construct a daring new edifice created quite a controversy in Sidney. One leader had the foresight and determination to forge ahead despite the protests. He was practiced in the arts of leadership and innovation. This is his story.

Lafayette Merrick Studevant was born the son of a Whitley County, Indiana cabinetmaker in 1858. His palafayettemstudevant.gif (54130 bytes)rents had five children, but as was unfortunately somewhat typical of the times, only Lafayette lived past the age of five. Little is known concerning his childhood. After some earlier schooling, he attended a commercial college. By the age of 21, Studevant had found his way to Sidney. He landed his first job as a printer for Trego and Binkley at the Sidney Journal.

After saving a modest sum of money, he journeyed to Columbus Grove, Ohio, where he worked as editor of the local newspaper, the Columbus Grove News. Apparently, things did not go well. Studevant returned to Sidney after two years. He returned to school and this time concentrated on accounting.

It was now 1881. Studevant was ready to try again. He worked as an assistant cashier at the Allen County Bank in Lima. Not finding that position to his liking, he moved to Ridgeville, Ohio, where he worked for a short time as a bookkeeper for a local bank. Again, things did not work out. Within a year, Studevant was back in Sidney. His parents must have wondered whether or not their 23 year old son would ever make a living for himself.

Philip Smith was in need of a bookkeeper, and Studevant landed the job. Smith, Sidney's leading industrialist at the time, was a master businessman, and Lafayette was an eager pupil. He had found a lifelong mentor and friend.   Using the business savvy he had learned under the tutelage of Philip Smith, Studevant moved into the insurance business. He founded the Peoples Insurance Agency on January 1, 1886, specializing in fire insurance. His partner in the venture was William Kingseed.  Kingseed was the eldest son of Christian Kingseed, the blacksmith who forged the leg irons used to manacle Alfred Artis in 1855. Artis was the only person ever to be executed in Sidney. Their agency was the predecessor of the present day Ruese Insurance Agency.

In the Fall of 1886, he conceived the idea of forming a savings and loan institution. With his business partner Kingseed and local businessmen D. W. Pampel, S. W. Maxwell, John Loughlin, and others, he organized the Peoples Savings and Loan Association. The men opened for business on October 23, 1886. The men rented office space at two locations on North Ohio Avenue for seven years.

As the business grew, Studevant searched for another location. Joseph Altenbach had just been commissioned to build a new office building on the southwest corner of Court Street and Ohio Avenue. It was to be called the 'Robertson Block.'

Previously, that corner had been the site of some rather fascinating history. The existing buildings were constructed around 1830. In the mid 1840's, Christian Kingseed started his blacksmith shop there. A business formed to polish marble gravestones occupied another building on the site.

When the gravestone polishing enterprise moved to another location, the grain firm of Fogt, Cartright and McGrew moved in. One of the partners, Michael Fogt, attempted to hang himself in the basement of the structure. His near lifeless body was discovered by his daughter. Fogt was revived after half an hour. A year later, his body was found dangling from a fencepost on his farm in Franklin Township.

In an eerie coincidence 100 years later, another man, Dick Denmark, succeeded in committing suicide by hanging himself at the same spot in the basement of the new Peoples building one hundred years later. It was at this location that Studevant and the board rented space in 1893 for Peoples. Fortunately, twenty-three years of prosperity followed.

His substantial contributions at Peoples would have satisfied most men. Studevant, however, seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the business community at every turn. Along with other Sidney businessmen, he founded the First National Exchange Bank in September of 1899. After serving as cashier, and then vice president for 29 years, he assumed the title of president in 1928. He would later serve as chairman of the board from 1935 until death a few years later.

Although busy with his career, Lafayette finally found time for romance and marriage at the age of 33. In 1891, he married Abbie Benjamin, the daughter of Charles R. Benjamin, the owner of a local spoke and handle factory. Together they had two children, Mary and John.

L. M. Studevant was also intensely interested in the betterment of community life through the development of local industry. Throughout his career, he played a major role in the operation and subsequent expansion of virtually all of the significant local businesses. To assist his old mentor Philip Smith, he became president of Philip Smith Manufacturing Company. He also was the vice president of the Monarch Machine Tool Company.

Studevant played a major role in leading the boards of The Whipp Machine Tool Company, the Sidney Mfg. Company, the Tucker Wood Work Company, the Bimel Buggy Company and the Eclipse Machine Company over a period of several decades. Studevant also played a leading role in the operation of the Sidney Telephone Company, Sidney's first experiment with telephones. He invested money in Bimel Buggy Company and R. Given Sons Tannery as well.

Studevant almost single-handedly crafted Sidney's financial community into one of the most respected and progressive in the state. Along the way, he made his imprint on the state, national and international scene as well.  Beginning in 1888, Studevant was instrumental in founding the Ohio Building Association League. For an astounding 50 consecutive years, he held statewide leadership positions in the League. He personally drafted much of the legislation that fostered an era of growth of the savings and loan associations across the state.

His influence was felt across the nation as well. In March of 1896, the Comptroller of the Currency for the Grover Cleveland appointed Studevant as a national bank examiner. At that time, before the age of technology, bank examiners personally checked thousands of records while conducting an audit. Studevant had the reputation of being one of the best. In May of 1897, the Sidney Journal reported that Studevant uncovered an embezzlement plot by the head bookkeeper, a Mr. Damzell, at the National Bank of Columbus that all of the other examiners had failed to find. President Cleveland rewarded Studevant by expanding his territory. Studevant also represented Ohio on the United States Building and Loan League, serving on the executive committee for 15 years. His vision and leadership propelled him to yet another level.

In 1914, he attended the International Congress of Building and Loan Associations in Europe as the representative of the United States. The commencement of World War I brought a premature end to his trip.

Perhaps as a prelude to the controversy that would develop later with the destruction of the Robertson Block and the building of the new Peoples structure, Studevant led the effort in 1913 to completely remodel the Methodist Church. The structure was originally built in the Gothic style in 1876. Studevant, as head of the building committee, helped conceive and carry out the redesign of the church building in its current Spanish Mission style. After the needed $45,000 had been raised, the congregation auctioned off all the church furniture. After the last service was held on April 6, 1913, the church was torn down and the new one resurrected on the same spot. Services were held at various locations around town every Sunday until the new building was opened to the public on March 29, 1914.

By the spring of 1916, Studevant had been an officer of Peoples for 30 consecutive years. His leadership and vision had successfully guided the institution to prominence as the largest financial institution in the county. Just three years before, A.B.C. Hitchcock, Sidney's most famous biographer, noted that Peoples had $196 on deposit for every citizen in Sidney - the largest average for any savings and loan association in Ohio.

One goal, however, remained. The Association never had a place to call "home." It had always rented space in buildings owned by others.

Studevant had been pushing the idea of designing and building a new home for Peoples. After two years of discussion, the Board authorized Studevant to bring noted architect Louis Sullivan from Chicago to Sidney. Studevant's dream was about to become a reality.

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First United Methodist Church prior to Studevant's redesign in 1913 to the current Spanish Mission style.

The November 1, 1916 minutes of the Association reflect that the Robertson sisters - then the owners of the building - agreed to sell it to Peoples for $30,000.

Sullivan did not arrive in Sidney until mid December of 1916. Shortly thereafter, he signed a contract to design a new building for 6% of the cost of construction and started to work. Sullivan sat across the street from the bank and began to sketch. Within a few days, he was ready to submit the design to the board. Local legend has it that Sullivan stipulated that the institution had to accept his plans exactly as he drew them, without any changes. The board minutes of December 21 show the sketches were approved five days after Sullivan submitted them - with no changes.

The pride and joy of Studevant was completed and the new building opened for business on May 31, 1918. Historians and architectural critics alike regard it as the best of Sullivan's so-called 'jewel banks.' It remains to this day one of the most famous landmarks in Sidney. Although the design represents the best work of noted architect Sullivan, the building itself will always stand as a tribute to the commitment and vision of L. M. Studevant.

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Original People's Savings & Loan Association bank building that was destroyed to make room for Sullivan's structure.

 

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