Piggybacking on yesterday’s post about Art Deco/Moderne architecture in the Twin Cities, I decided to step back in time—both the City of Saint Paul’s and my own. Unfortunately, there’s no succinct online list of Art Deco examples in St. Paul that I can share, but, in my opinion, the Art Deco crown jewel of the Twin Cities not only resides in the heart of the capital’s quaint business district area—it’s also the city’s main bureaucratic artery: City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse, located right on Kellogg Boulevard downtown overlooking the mighty Mississippi.
A monochromatic exterior, yet with detail and craftsmanship for days.
Now, before you get any crazy ideas about bad choices I might have made in my youth, I’ll explain how the building played a part in my personal history. Going into my senior year at Harding High School in St. Paul, I worked part-time at the County Attorney’s Office as a file clerk. While the bulk of my work took place in the building recently acquired from West Publishing on the opposite side of Kellogg Blvd., I would sometimes shuttle over, via underground tunnels, to the courthouse to deliver documents to attorneys hard at work in the building’s many courtrooms.
Clockwise from top left: Oriental Hardwood paneling from Australia, so hard only 10 feet could be cut before sharpening the saw blade; elevator doors featuring bronze reliefs depicting six periods of history; Belgian black marble in a book-matched pattern; bronze railings, period-specific light fixtures and rich, marble walls transport you back in time.
Back then, with the September 11th attacks still several years in the future, the building’s entrance was free from any security measures; today, your bags and person will need to be scanned before entering. Still, it’s worth spending the time to find parking and devoting a few moments to getting scanned, because the building is breathtaking in its grandeur, contrast and visual drama.
Factoids from the City website give the general info:
- Completed and dedicated in 1932, the building captures the evolution of the American Art Deco “Skyscraper Style” architecture by using both the American Perpendicular and Zigzag Moderne Art Deco styles.
- Designed by architects Holabird and Root of Chicago and Ellerbe and Co. (now Ellerbe Becket Inc.) of St. Paul, the building was originally financed by a $4 million public bond offering in 1928.
- Because of the stock market crash of 1929, the cost of labor and materials was much less than anticipated. As a result, the building was finished with expensive domestic and foreign woods and marble, and fine artistic details.
- The $48 million building restoration took place between 1990 and 1993 to preserve the historic appearance and increase the efficiency and function of the working and public space. Cosmetic improvements included using colors and fabrics that were characteristic of the Moderne period.
- The Art Deco theme is used throughout the building, even down to such details as the bronze elevator doors, light fixtures, stair railings, the lobby mailbox, door handles, and locks. The bronze door locks, manufactured by the Corbin Company, were named Ramsey Design.
- If all the bronze in the building was collected and sold today, it would bring a price of about $4 million, which was the total cost to build this building in 1932.
The showpiece of the building is the statue, Vision of Peace, which dominates the first floor. According the city website, it is the largest carved onyx figure in the world at 60 tons and 36 feet high. A tribute to peace, the statue depicts five Native Americans sitting around a fire smoking their pipes of peace. Swedish sculptor and pacifist Carl Milles who designed the work described the scene this way: ”Out of that smoke of tobacco and fire arises in their imaginations, their vision of peace, talking to them and to the world.” To create this astonishing work, Saint Paul stone carver Giovanni John Garatti and 19 local stone carvers carved the statue from Mexican onyx into 98 blocks, joined in 38 sections and cemented together on a steel backbone with bronze ribs. The statue rotates on a motorized turntable, 66 degrees to the left and 66 degrees to the right. It takes 2-1/2 hours to complete a rotation.
The large statue is located in Memorial Hall, a dark and striking cavern-like space which is dedicated to Ramsey County soldiers who died in World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, and Grenada Conflict, and whose names are carved in the columns. The hall measures 85 feet by 21 feet, is three stories high, and is the visually dramatic heart of the building. The black marble is from Belgium and is placed in a book-matched pattern. (A piece of marble is sliced in half and laid flat like the pages of a book. The quartz veining pattern becomes a mirror image reflecting itself on the other page.)
Another striking feature is the hall’s gold mirror ceiling, which over the years deteriorated and was then varnished, causing it to lose its reflective character. The ceiling was replaced at a price of $88,000.
In addition to all the eye candy on the first floor, there are myriad historical treasures to be found throughout the building: a terrazzo map of Ramsey County from 1932, depicting the cities, towns and villages of the era; especially timely with Cuba's recent re-opening, a bust of Jose Marti, a Cuban writer and patriot, considered his country's greatest hero; paneling made from an exceedingly rare type of hardwood from Australia; and the ship's bell from the USS St. Paul, a heavy cruiser which saw action in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, among many other treasures.
Licensed Associate Working with Sharlene Hensrud of RE/MAX Results, and HomesMSP — Sharlene, John, Angela
- All That Glitters in MSP: Finding Art Deco in the Twin Cities
- Where to find Mid-Century Modern Homes in Minneapolis-St. Paul
- Inner-City Serenity: Notable Cemeteries of the Twin Cities