When its white dome first swims into view there is a shock of surprise, then a rapidly growing delight in its pure beauty, and as one studies the building, inside and out, the surprise and delight increase. One leaves it with regret and with the hope of return.
-Kenyon Cox, Architectural Record, August 1905
On January 2, 1905, thousands of Minnesotans streamed through the richly decorated halls and chambers of their new state Capitol for the first time. The product of nearly 12 years of planning and construction, the Capitol was immediately hailed throughout the country as one of America's grandest and most beautiful public buildings, a reputation that has endured for more than a hundred years.
The 1905 building is the third to serve as Minnesota's seat of government. The first was built at 10th and Cedar Streets in 1854, during the territorial period. Destroyed by fire in 1881, it was replaced two years later on the same site by a red-brick Victorian structure with a distinctive tower. Complaints that the new building was cramped and stuffy began immediately, and led just 10 years later to a legislative committee calling for a new state Capitol. (The much unloved second Capitol remained in use as a public building until 1937, when it was demolished.)
The journey to a new capitol began in 1893, when the legislature made the first appropriation of funds. An architectural competition two years later attracted more than 40 entries, many of them inspired by the monumental buildings of the famed "White City," the Columbian Exposition in Chicago of 1893. The site for each design entry was the same-the rise of land called Wabasha Hill several blocks north of downtown. The winning design was the work of Cass Gilbert, an influential local architect who was just 35 years old.
Gilbert was born in 1859 in Ohio and raised in St. Paul. As a young architect, he was known for his elegant drawings and watercolors. By the 1890s, he had become a key player on the national architectural scene-an early start in the prestigious New York office of McKim, Mead & White; an architecture judge for the Chicago fair; and president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects. His experience and talent, along with his powers of persuasion and local connections, propelled him to the head of the field in the competition for the Minnesota Capitol.
Gilbert's managerial skills and political savvy served him well in the years he was involved in this hugely complex project. But a building of this scale and quality might never have been completed without the often overlooked work of the Board of State Capitol Commissioners. This distinguished group of civic leaders, ably led by the tough-minded St. Paul businessman, Channing Seabury, served without pay for than a decade, shepherding the Capitol project through six legislative sessions, five governors, and hundreds of contractors.
Still, the Commissioners played an essentially supporting role, remaining behind the scenes. Very much in forefront was the architect. It was Gilbert who insisted on one of the Capitol's most brilliant features-the dazzling white Georgia marble used for the upper walls and dome. Many had objected to using materials from a state that had been on the opposite side of Minnesota in the Civil War. But Gilbert believed that the darker color would make the building look "gloomy and forbidding" as it sat isolated on the top of a hill. He did call for Minnesota-quarried granite and sandstone for the lower levels, steps, and terraces, and local Kasota stone for much of the interior.
Gilbert's design is dominated by its extraordinary dome, with its conscious echoes of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and the most famous domed building in the world-the Basilica of St. Peter's in Rome, designed by Michelangelo more than 350 years earlier. The Minnesota dome is smaller, but like St. Peter's it has stone ribs, deeply pierced windows on its surface, and a drum with pairs of columns separated by window openings. An inner cone of brick and steel supports the exterior marble of Minnesota's dome, and below that is a painted plaster dome, which is what one sees inside the building looking up from the rotunda.
Gilbert was determined to bring a unified aesthetic vision to the Capitol. Writing about his role, he once said:
"We live in an age that has the fad to credit men with 'specialties.' . . . In art there should be no 'specialists.' . . . In the old days, the architect, painter and sculptor were frequently one and the same man. There is no reason why they should not be so now."
He carefully oversaw the work of sculptors, decorators and furniture designers responsible for nearly 1,600 pieces of furniture in 74 different styles of chairs, tables and desks, many of them designed by the architect himself. The Capitol's interior-with its richly colored stone, decorative metalwork, uplifting inscriptions and painted surfaces, including the restored Rathskeller café-is one of the grandest monuments of the "American Renaissance," that era of classical elegance at the turn of the 20th century. Artists whose works appear in the Capitol - among them Kenyon Cox, Edwin Blashfield, Frank D. Millet, Howard Pyle and John La Farge - may be unfamiliar names to most people today, but in their day they were among the country's most celebrated painters.
As in most public buildings at the turn of the 20th century, sculpture is an essential component of the Capitol design. At the base of the dome is the gleaming gold sculpture officially known as the Progress of the State, but usually referred to as the "Quadriga." Designed by Daniel Chester French and Edward C. Potter, the four-horse chariot and figures are made of sheets of gilded copper hammered around a steel frame. Below the Quadriga are six colossal figures representing "the Virtues" sculpted in white marble from designs by French (Actually, the statues in place today are replicas carved in 1975-79 to replace the deteriorating originals.) Twelve stone eagles stand guard around the dome, and the exterior is enlivened by classical wreaths, plaques, and a rich variety of carvings.
Although antiquarian in spirit, the Capitol was designed to be thoroughly modern. When it opened the building boasted all-electric lighting, a state-of-the-art heating plant and even telephones. The final bill, including the site, building materials, interior decorations and furnishings, was $4,458,628.27-about $90 million in 2005 dollars. "That every dollar . . . appropriated for this building," wrote the artist Kenyon Cox in 1905, "has been honestly spent . . . is creditable to the people and the politicians of the State; that the value has been received not only in honest building and good material but in beauty and taste and art is their good fortune."
Brian Horrigan is an exhibit developer at the Minnesota Historical Society.
Read more about architect Cass Gilbert and his other Minnesotan projects in Sharon Irish's article East Meets West: Cass Gilbert in Minnesota.
For a listing of Cass Gilbert designed buildings visit the Cass Gilbert Society website.