Now that we’ve got a new governor, why not make an office visit? An afternoon at the Minnesota State Capitol will renew your appreciation for the power of art and architecture — as well as politics.
Minnesota became a state in 1858. By 1895 our government was in its second building in downtown St. Paul and in desperate need of a worthy home to contain its three branches: the House, Senate and Supreme Court. A national competition was held and then won by 35-year-old local architect named Cass Gilbert.
Born in Ohio but raised in St. Paul, Cass Gilbert (1859–1934) studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology then apprenticed at renowned New York firm McKim, Mead, and White. He began his architectural practice in his home town and designed several residences and churches in the Twin Cities. You can hardly drive through St. Paul or on Summit Avenue without seeing one his distinctive homes or buildings. Visit the Cass Gilbert Society’s website for more information (cassgilbertsociety.org).
Construction began on the Minnesota State Capitol in 1896. Gov. Alexander Ramsey, our first Territorial governor and second state governor, laid the cornerstone. The building cost $4.5 million. The stairs and first floor exterior are made of St. Cloud granite. Interior walls are made of tan limestone quarried in Mankato. While Gilbert preferred local materials, he wanted white stone on the exterior’s upper floors and dome. He convinced the state that using marble from Georgia would make the capitol look regal and show a growing nation that Minnesota did business all over the country.
On Jan. 2, 1905 the Minnesota State Capitol opened to the public. The capitol commission finally gave Gilbert the national reputation he deserved. He went on to design many of the country’s prominent buildings, including the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, DC (1935), and New York City’s Woolworth Building (1913) and U.S. Customs House (1907).
Minnesota prides itself on the arts and art in public places, and our state Capitol is no exception. From the 24-karat gold leaf horses looking over the grounds to the hand-stenciled mottoes in the basement, the Capitol is full of art. Interlocking designs of Minnesota corn, wheat and pinecones cover the first floor’s domed ceilings in a luscious blend of muted greens, terra cottas and ocre. Aged bronze busts and large statues fill niches and gaze out over pedestals. Portraits of governors hang the walls. Eight large historical paintings cover the Governor’s Reception Room. Ornate corinthian columns are topped with capitals featuring the typical rows of carved acanthus leaves — but ours also have a Minnesota twist — a showy ladyslipper!
Where is the bronze bust of Cass Gilbert located in the building? The first person to correctly answer wins a set of state capitol postcards! Write to [email protected]
Go see it
Free tours and guides to the building are available at the Minnesota Historical Society’s booth near the entrance. The capitol is open seven days a week. Tours begin on the hour Monday–Saturday, 10–2; and Sunday, 1–3. Minnesota State Capitol 75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Saint Paul