Landmark Center: Old Federal Building was rescued from demolition in early preservation effort

Landmark Center

Landmark Center is a trapezoidal building that sits overlooking Rice Park between Fifth and Sixth streets, and Washington and Market streets in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Its ornate style is known as Richardsonian Romanesque or Romanesque Revival, a style that was quite popular for government buildings when that building was constructed around the turn of the twentieth century, and it somewhat resembles a fairytale palace. When constructed, it was the Federal Courts Building.

Completed in 1902, the Federal Courts Building cost $2.5 million to create, and that amount included the interior furnishings. Willoughby J. Edbrooke, the supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury, designed it to grace the adjacent Rice Park, a site he had visited and admired. Federal funding for the construction came through just before a major economic depression hit the country. The city donated the land, a city block, 34,632 square feet, which helped gain the funding.

At the time it was built, it was considered an architectural masterpiece. The St. Paul newspaper called it “a work of art in architecture,” say Dober and Associates in “Reusing the Old Federal Courts Building.”

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Constructed under the supervision of local architects James Knox Taylor and Edward P. Bassford (Cass Gilbert, then unknown, also worked on it for a while), its opening was celebrated May 5, 1902, in a gala ceremony. The Post Office band led a parade of 127 postal workers to the building. There were ribbon cuttings, refreshments and tours, and former Governor Alexander Ramsey, age 87, gave the keynote address.

According to Bonnie Richter in “Landmark Center: A work of art serving people,” it was the pride of the city, and “a tribute to a nation of lofty expectations.” An article in Construction Bulletin notes, “Construction of a new Federal building meant that St. Paul had come of age as a major city and jumping-off point to a vast region that extended to the Pacific Northwest.” Young says in her article, “… its thick walls, marble floors and stained glass ceilings symbolized the power of law enforcement and the majesty of government.”

The Federal Courts Building was built to house the post office, courthouse and custom house, but over the years became the headquarters for all federal offices in the Upper Midwest region. These included the Civil Service, Internal Revenue Service, Corps of Engineers, Soil Conservation Commission, Rural Electrification Administration, Farmers Home Administration, Railway Mail Service, and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) administered its arts program in the fifth-floor loft, according to Richter, and during World War II a recruitment center was housed there.

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Despite or because of all its service, the building suffered decline. By 1967, all the federal offices except the post office had moved out, relocating to a new federal building on Robert Street. The Federal Courts Building was scheduled for demolition in 1967.

The concept of historic preservation was rather novel then, and the prevailing attitude toward nineteenth-century architectural styles was negative, according to Richter. The building was considered a civic embarrassment, she says, and many city leaders considered the building a blemish. More modern styles were the vogue.

The place was in terrible condition, by Billie Young’s account. The upper floors had many broken windows and served as a dovecote for pigeons; plaster had cracked and fallen off walls; and bird droppings were feet deep on the fifth floor.

Yet a series of events, combined with great civic effort and determination, saved the building. In fall 1968, Young says, a “small miracle” occurred in the form of a misleading newspaper story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “The headline mistakenly implied the building was going to be torn down for a parking lot. Reaction was swift and vehement. To everyone’s surprise, a great many people cared about that fusty wedding cake of a building….”

Meanwhile, the St. Paul Council of Arts and Sciences needed to double its space, liked the idea of moving into the Federal Courts Building, and joined the crusade. Its president was Elizabeth Musser, who by all accounts was the driving force behind the restoration.

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A seven-year battle ensued to save the building. From 1965-1969 especially, St. Paul was watched across the nation as the bellwether of the new preservation movement. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. In 1970 it got a reprieve less than a week before it was scheduled for demolition.

The renovation was daunting, to say the least. For example, in the late 1930s asphalt shingles had replaced the original terra cotta tiles on the roof. Luckily, the original molds were still stored at the factory in Italy, and new tiles were cast from them.

A big controversy arose over scrubbing the now-blackened building to its original pink tones; it seems there was a difference of opinion over what was “patina” and what was dirt, and even the mayor got involved. The lobby had been painted the required government green #102A, which had to be scraped off—attentive observers can still see vestiges of it—and the brown linoleum was removed from atop the maple floors. The renovation, done in stages as funding was obtained, restored both the interior and exterior to their original grandeur.

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In addition to the Richardsonian Romanesque, another architectural influence in the Courts Building was called chateauesque, and was reminiscent of castles in France. This influence accounts for the building’s majestic dimensions, small round towers on the second story, gables with copper roofs, turrets and dormer windows, according to the Construction Bulletin article.

The interior is built around a cortile to let in light and air. With the second-floor ceiling gone, the cortile, named after Elizabeth Musser, adds spaciousness and allows visitors to see up to the skylight. The interior features marble, chandeliers, and marble mosaic floors, and many rooms are replete with elaborately carved oak and mahogany. “Materials in the public spaces were lavish,” says the Construction Bulletin, “and workmanship satisfied the highest standards.” That workmanship is once again on display.

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The 1992 article in Construction Bulletin praises the building’s restoration as “a classic example of adaptive re-use,” and says, “The Landmark Center is a testimonial to the spirit of preservation that exists in Minnesota’s capital, a contrast to the wrecking-ball mentality prevalent in its sister city to the west.”

On September 8, 1978, U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale presided over a formal dedication and reopening of the building, now Landmark Center.

Over the years, building occupants have included former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, Associate Justices Harry Blackmun and Pierce Butler (before their Supreme Court appointments), the “father of Prohibition” Andrew Volstead, and U.S. Senators Frank B. Kellogg and Eugene McCarthy. Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower gave campaign speeches from the Fifth Street balcony, which they reached by crawling through an office window.

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These august presences were overshadowed, however, because the most famous “occupant” likely was gangster Alvin Karpis, whom F.B.I. Chief J. Edgar Hoover personally escorted to trial in this building. Karpis and 27 others were found guilty of participation in the Hamm and Bremer kidnappings, Richter notes. After all, she says, it was primarily the Prohibition era that gave rise to the need for the federal court system in the first place.

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Landmark Center, located at 75 West Fifth Street, is owned by Ramsey County and administered by the nonprofit organization Minnesota Landmarks. Its web address is www.landmarkcenter.org, and its telephone number (events hotline) is 651-292-3225. Free public tours are offered at 11:00 a.m. Thursdays and Sundays at noon; no reservation is required.

Currently, the building houses the American Association of Woodturners Gallery, the Ramsey County Historical Society Gallery, the Schubert Club Musical Instrument Museum, the Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Research Center (collections documenting the history of Ramsey County and St. Paul), Uncle Sam Worked Here, and the Landmark Center North Gallery. The cortile and several of the ornate old courtrooms are available for rental through Minnesota Landmarks for parties and events.

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The somewhat loosely related arts and civic organizations occupying Landmark Center today bring back the bustle of the Federal Courts Building when it housed numerous loosely related federal offices.

January 2007, revised December 2016 and July 2018

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Categories: St. Paul HistoryTags:

1 thought on “Landmark Center: Old Federal Building was rescued from demolition in early preservation effort

  1. You have a beautiful city, Lisa. During our short visit last year, John and I were amazed at the beauty and quality of the architecture and it is a treat to revisit some of these buildings via lisastories.com. Thank you 😊

    Like

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