The Capitol Mall: Historic memorials and tributes adorn the capitol lawn

There’s much more to the Capitol Mall than meets the eye. If you’ve driven by and never stopped to explore, you likely think it’s a large grassy lawn with some run-of-the-mill statues where not much changes over the years: an attractive open space leading up to the Capitol building.

In fact, the statues and memorials are poignant and intriguing. For example, the two in front of the capitol steps, statues of early governors Knute Nelson and John Johnson, were there before the mall, which had to be planned around them. Johnson’s statue was built in 1912 and was the first on the capitol grounds. A close look reveals Johnson was a beloved figure in his time; the inscription reads in part: “Cut off in his prime… The Nation mourns his loss…His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him, that nature might stand up and say to all the world: This was a man.” Johnson was so well liked that 100,000 people donated $1 each to create this monument.

A tier of monuments fronts the Capitol building inside the loop of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That group includes Floyd B. Olson on the west and Christopher Columbus on the east. Italian Americans donated the Columbus figure in 1949. Governor Floyd B. Olson enjoyed great popularity among Minnesotans during the Great Depression, when he led the Farmer-Labor party, but died in office “at the height of his political career,” says the walking-tour brochure available from the State Capitol’s information desk.  

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All told, 26 memorials occupy the mall area, 27 if the Quadriga atop the capitol building, the Judicial Plaza, and Leif Erikson are included. Erikson’s figure is directly west of the capitol building, somewhat hidden by trees and outside the central mall, but more visible to the public since the light rail line along University Avenue was completed.

The mall is built in a fan shape, like an apron flowing from the capitol steps. Its western edge connects the Capitol building to the Saint Paul Cathedral via John Ireland Boulevard, and the eastern edge connects to downtown Saint Paul. Thus, according to principal planner Paul Mandell, the mall symbolically and literally connects the state, the church and commerce. State government office buildings line the streets on the edges of the fan.

Mandell has been head of the Capital Area Architectural and Planning Board since 2014 and has been with the Board for 30 years. The Board handles design and zoning decisions for the area around the capitol, much larger than the grassy approach with the monuments. The designated area is some 60 square blocks stretching from Jackson Street to Kellogg-Marion, from Interstate 94 to Pennsylvania Avenue, even including several downtown blocks and the small square with the Civil War monument (with a statue of Josiah King) across from the Cathedral. This board, rather than the city, approves all physical improvements in that area and holds a design competition for any state project within its purview costing over $1 million. Most of the memorials and even the bridges over Interstate 94 in the area were created through this process.

The larger and more populated part of the mall between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 12th Street houses the Veterans Service Building as well as various tributes and memorials. On the east side are a statue of Charles Lindbergh by local sculptor Paul Granlund (1985), a memorial to Hubert H. Humphrey installed in 2012, and an abstract tribute to Roy Wilkins called “Spiral of Justice” (1995). The symbols involved in the latter are explained alongside the work. The west side features a garden of native plants dedicated to women’s suffrage; the garden grows around a woven trellis timeline documenting the suffrage movement and Minnesota women who contributed to it.

In addition to all these, the war memorials are worth a visit, and very moving. Right by the Veterans Service Building is a large statue of a soldier with his hand outstretched, captioned, “Why do you forget us?” (1982). The Vietnam Memorial (1992) has as an entrance walkway a map of the Indochinese Peninsula (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and part of Thailand) leading into a map of Minnesota with inlaid green stones marking the hometowns of Minnesotans lost (either killed or missing in action) in the war. A wall to one side lists the lost soldiers’ names, and a façade and pool on the other side represent homecoming. The pool is shaped as Lake Superior.

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The Korean War Veterans Memorial, installed in 1998, features a silhouette of a soldier representing those missing in action. The World War II memorial (2007) has large vertical glass panels describing major events and Minnesotans’ roles in them, back home as well as in the combat zones, such as Fort Snelling processing more than 250,000 inductees. The state had 320,000 veterans from that war.

Alongside the war memorials is one to police officers killed in the line of duty, which features a fountain and a thin blue line symbolizing the police role separating law-abiding citizens from those who break the law. The Peace Officers Memorial was added in 1995.  

The mall has developed over time, with most of the memorials added during the last 60 years. Four were added between 2006 and 2016.

The Minnesota Workers Memorial is located on the southeast corner of the mall, near the intersection of Cedar Street and 12th Street, south of the suffrage garden. The Workers Memorial Garden was dedicated in August 2010 as a way to commemorate the lives lost by the people who built America. In the garden a mural on the south-facing wall of the memorial depicts workers and working life in Minnesota. The mural is the work of Twin Cities artist Craig David, who also created the murals on the exterior wall of Target Field in Minneapolis

The Firefighters Memorial is a sculpture of a firefighter rescuing a girl, placed amid 100 columns of rusticated metal that suggest a burned building. The columns bear the names of firefighters who died in the line of duty. This is south of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the west side of the Veterans Service Building. The statue was moved from its original location inside the airport.

Also next to the Vietnam Memorial, appropriately, is a monument to the Special Forces in Laos who supported the U.S. during the Vietnam conflict. It is a bronze bas relief sprout with petals, like Hmong tapestry telling a story, arranged chronologically bottom to top, with top representing the Hmong fighters and their families being relocated in Minnesota.

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A tribute to military families takes the shape of a landscape running east-west from north of the Peace Officers Memorial to north of the Firefighters Memorial. The landscape contains, at one end, boulders etched with segments of personal letters, one boulder per county, and at the other, western end, a gold star table like a family dining table, made of circular bronze. Light reflects off the gold and goes through holes representing constellations, signifying that all family members would have been watching the same constellations as their deployed relatives.

The idea for a mall originated with the architect who built the capitol, Cass Gilbert. Perhaps inspired by the development of the mall in Washington, D.C., Gilbert wanted an open area in front to complement his building. According to “Minnesota’s Capitol: A Centennial Story,” Gilbert “imagined broad boulevards and open vistas like those constructed in Paris during the nineteenth century. He believed that Saint Paul could rival the grandest of European cities.” He lobbied for almost 30 years for such an approach, even at one point suggesting a design that connected the capitol with downtown. Gilbert never saw his mall concept realized, but in the 1940s Clarence Johnston and Associates proposed a more modest design that included some of Gilbert’s ideas and was accepted. At the time, the area surrounding the Capitol primarily consisted of run-down homes. It was essentially a slum.  

The state of Minnesota and the city of Saint Paul acquired 53 acres of land south of the capitol building, according to “Minnesota’s Capitol,” and demolition of buildings there began in 1949. Construction and plans worked around the statues of Nelson, Johnson and Columbus that were already in place. Construction of the Veterans Service Building began in 1953, and the mall has been a work in progress since then.

The mall has never sat stagnant. Various memorials were added over the years, and numerous events have taken place there. As early as 1953, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival Parade wound its way through the developing mall area. In 1957, the Winter Carnival toboggan slide went along Cedar Avenue toward downtown. Current readers may be more familiar with the mall as the site for Taste of Minnesota for several years and as the end point for the Twin Cities Marathon.

Paul Mandell cites as his favorite event the capitol’s centennial celebration in 2005. Roses were bred especially for the event, time capsules were created and interred, and “Cass Gilbert” appeared amidst a cloud of smoke. Mandell notes that former state attorney general Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey, Jr., dubbed the mall “the state’s front yard.”

Information about the Capitol Mall and an interactive online map are available on the website of the Minnesota Historical Society (www.mnhs.org). Search “capitol mall” for a tour describing each site.

There’s much more than meets the eye at the State Capitol Mall. It’s a sprawling, dynamic testament to Minnesota and its history.

September 2009; revised August 1916, December 2016, February 2017 and July 2017

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