Minnesota’s State Capitol: A makeover creates a gleaming new look for the next century

One of the most prominent buildings in Saint Paul is the State Capitol. By numerous accounts it’s one of the most impressive capitols in the country, and seeing it up close doesn’t cost a dime, except maybe some change for a parking meter. A bonus is that when the weather’s good a tour will include a climb to the roof at the base of the dome, where visitors can see all of St. Paul and the surrounding area, including the Minneapolis skyline.

When the capitol was built, its construction was an ambitious undertaking for a state that was only 37 years old, according to a Minnesota Historical Society brochure. It took 14 years to create, from approval to completion, and cost $4.5 million. The time was considered short (Minnesota’s Capitol, Neil B. Thompson) and the cost quite reasonable for what the investment bought.

A $310 million renovation was undertaken on the 100+-year-old building from 2013 to 2017, the most extensive it ever enjoyed. Art restoration alone cost $4 million.

This is actually Minnesota’s third capitol building. The first two were comparatively plain, practical buildings on the block downtown bounded by Tenth, Cedar, Exchange and Wabasha streets.

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The new capitol’s groundbreaking took place May 6, 1896, and it opened to the public early in 1905. Thompson describes the opening: “Late into the night of January 2, 1905, thousands of people crowded through the halls of the new Minnesota State Capitol building…. they were viewing a fine monument that expressed their concept of a sovereign state and their ideal of public magnificence….It was, indeed, a moment to remember.”

The person behind the huge project was architect Cass Gilbert, who was raised in St. Paul and went to Macalester College. His design for the capitol won a national contest, which gained him national prominence. He and his partner James Knox Taylor designed numerous houses, churches and office buildings in St. Paul and elsewhere, notes Larry Millett in Lost Twin Cities. His best-known buildings outside this area are the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., and the Woolworth Building in New York, which popularized the skyscraper; he’s also responsible for the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson River in Manhattan.

Gilbert not only designed the capitol but supervised its construction and decoration, even oversaw the making of hallway benches and selection of quotations for the walls on the second floor. Further, he “…had direct supervision over every canvas, statue and other decoration in the building, and many of the furnishings are the result of his advice and suggestion,” according to Julie Gauthier’s The Minnesota Capitol: Official Guide and History.

The building is an elaborate granite and marble structure, in the Italian Renaissance

Beaux Arts style. The exterior of the capitol is grand, but it pales in comparison with the interior, a lavishly decorated space dominated by Kasota stone from Kasota and Mankato quarries, buffed to a polish. The original floor lamps are still in the hallways, a sign of how modern the capitol was when first constructed. It was one of first buildings to get electricity, and featured a telephone and elevator as well.

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In the central part of the building visitors can view the impressive rotunda. From the second floor, they can look down on a large North Star made of marble and glass inserted in a framework of bronze on the first floor. The North Star is a symbol of Minnesota and its state motto: “L’Etoile du Nord.” Or they can look up to the top of the dome, which rises 220 feet from the ground and boasts a six-foot chandelier hanging from a 28-foot-long chain. Gauthier’s Capitol Guide quaintly calls this fixture, “a great spherical electrolier of prismatic glass.” The pillars in the rotunda are made from Minnesota granite, and the red strip around the second floor is pipestone from Pipestone. Statues of Civil War leaders circle the open space, and the four paintings lining the interior of the rotunda above the third floor depict “civilizing of the West,” complete with human figures somewhat anachronistically clad in what appear to be togas.

The second floor houses Senate, House of Representatives and Supreme Court chambers, while the Governor’s and Attorney General’s offices are on first floor, allowing a literal separation of powers. These ornately decorated rooms are a must-see on any tour. The Governor’s Reception Room is one of the most ornate spaces in the structure and is part of most tours (those not on an official tour can ask the receptionist if they can look inside).

‘The basement includes the Rathskeller, whose German decor was covered over during World War I, but is now restored and the area functions as a cafeteria.

In addition to the expansive view, the trip up to the walkway outside the dome features a close-up glimpse of the large gilt sculpture generally known as the Quadriga (a quadriga is a chariot drawn by four horses abreast). This is the work of Daniel Chester French, an American sculptor who was also responsible for the seated statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Its actual title is “The Progress of the State,” and the figure driving the chariot represents Minnesota’s prosperity. At a cost of $350,000, the Quadriga was re-leafed with gold during the 2013-2017 restoration.

That restoration included much exterior and interior work, not to mention extensive electrical, mechanical and plumbing updates, and changes to meet modern safety codes and improve accessibility. For the exterior, workers replaced 6,000 pieces of Georgia marble—the new pieces were taken from the same quarry as the originals had been—and made some 20,000 repairs. Other restoration work accomplished was:

–Numerous paintings and 51 murals throughout the interior were cleaned and conserved. Architect Cass Gilbert had commissioned some of the nation’s best artists to create them, but they were covered with over 100 years’ worth of grime.  

–Skylights and stained glass were restored and wall panels repainted to original colors and designs.

–Bronze light posts were restored and relocated to their original 1905 locations.

–For the Governor’s Reception Room, which had been the first room in the building to be restored to its original appearance in 1984, the original carpet was reproduced. The wall art work and its placement back in the room after restoration generated much controversy; four paintings depicting the Civil War were said to not fully reflect the state’s history, but in the end were put back on the walls.

–Natural light was increased by uncovering six previously covered skylights and some windows.

–40,000 square feet of new public space was created, including a classroom for touring students. Much of the new space is in the basement, where walls and drop ceilings were removed to expose limestone walls and arched tile ceilings.

–Work was done to “mitigate water infiltration,” in other words to stop the roof from leaking.

The 2017 capitol building is expected to last another 100 years before another major makeover is necessary.

Capitol tours, provided by the Minnesota Historical Society, are free and frequent, every hour on the hour 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday. There’s also a brochure available at the new visitor information center that can serve as a guide for visitors who prefer a self-guided tour. For more information, call 651-259-3292 or send an e-mail to statecapitol@mnhs.org. The capitol’s web site is at http://www.mnhs.org/statecapitol. It’s worthwhile to go on the free tour not just for the abundant information the guides provide, but also for the access they have to the stairs up to the dome. Parking is available at meters on John Ireland Boulevard leading up to the Capitol as well as in several lots (search online for Minnesota Capitol Complex Parking). The address of the capitol building is 75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155.

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May 2004, revised August 2016 and February 2017. Detailed citations available on request.

Categories: St. Paul History

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