Rice Park: Gathering place at heart of St. Paul has undergone several facelifts since 1849

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Rice Park really should be named Central Park, given its situation as a hub of Saint Paul. Bounded by Fourth, Fifth, Market and Washington streets, it was one of the city’s first parks. Even today, it’s central to many of the city’s activities, surrounded as it is by the Saint Paul Hotel, Landmark Center, the Central and James J. Hill libraries, and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. During winter holidays, it sparkles with lights and later in the winter it hosts Winter Carnival activities such as the ice sculptures.

The park underwent a major $2.42 million renovation in 2018-2019 and reopened officially June 11, 2019. Over the years it has benefited from several such facelifts.

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Rice Park predated New York City’s Central Park by seven years. In 1849 Henry M. Rice and John Irvine filed a plat for a section of land in downtown Saint Paul, and in doing so designated what’s now called Rice Park as a “public square.” At the same time they created Irvine Park, and shortly later Smith Park, now Mears Park, was founded. Those were the first three parks in the city.

Actually, Rice Park is not a square. It’s a 1.6-acre trapezoid, 300 feet long and 200 feet wide at the north end, 275 feet wide at the south end, as Andrew J. Smith et al. note in “The 106 Group’s Historical Documentation for Rice Park.”

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In their early days, these parks were largely untended vacant lots. General C. C. Andrews, in his 1890 city history, quotes a sarcastic discussion of the park’s early state: “As a specimen of beauty unadorned, of the freshness and purity of nature undiluted and uncontaminated by art, it stands unrivaled among the attractions of the city…. Surrounded on all sides by the ruder and more imperfect works of human art, it sparkles like a gem of nature upon the bosom of the city. Among the rare plants…that annually spring spontaneously and untilled from the dust… are fox-tail, pigeon-grass, juniper-weed and dog-fennel. The only care and attention which these spontaneous plants require of the city is an annual mowing. This attention is freely given by our city fathers without regard to expense.“

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This situation was not uncommon. Irvine Park, similarly, was simply left open and cows could be found grazing there. Likewise, cows were frequent visitors to Rice Park, then called City Park. The only other activity of note in the park was that for a few years a German florist grew flowers and vegetables there rent-free in return for caring for the lot. A fence was erected in 1858, and the first trees were added in 1860. The trees became something of a joke, because the land was limestone under a thin layer of topsoil. The Minnesotian commented at one point: “It is a fact, ascertained by actual observation, that at least one, if not two, of the shade trees in the City Park are alive” (Max Winkel, Ramsey County History). Later, in the early 1890s, fill was added which raised the ground four feet, but caused many of the trees to die.

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At the end of the Civil War, the area surrounding the park was largely residential and commercial, other than the City Hall where Landmark Center now sits and the Metropolitan Hotel on Washington between Fourth and Third streets (Third is now Kellogg Boulevard), according to the Historical Documentation.

The park’s residential neighborhood and neglected state made it attractive for other purposes. According to a pamphlet on the park, “Before the advent of bleach and vacuum cleaners, neighborhood women used the grassy area to bleach their laundry in the sun and on cleaning days could be found beating their rugs.” Minnesota Pioneer Editor Joseph R. Brown, who was also a publisher and territorial senator, introduced “A Bill to Suppress Immorality,” which included a prohibition about undergarments drying in Rice Park, says Virginia Brainerd Kunz in Saint Paul: The First 150 Years. The bill passed and Brown was paid to print it as well. Winkel cites an account in an unnamed newspaper that a police officer once found women beating rugs there and thundered, “This is no place for such vandalism. The mayor has said stop, the chief has said stop, and now I say unto you stop.”

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In 1872 the Great Western Band began summer evening concerts in the park that continued for many years and for which a bandstand was built. Also that year, the city acquired an ornamental fountain for the park at a cost of $964.50, so maintenance and attention to the site were increasing. Perhaps even more importantly in that decade for the future of Saint Paul, the sheriff of Memphis, Tennessee, visited in 1872 and noticed the absence of squirrels in the park. The following year he sent a pair as a goodwill gesture. Could this possibly be the origin of the city’s vast squirrel population?

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One highlight for the park was its central role in celebrating the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883, when the Golden Spike connected the east and west parts of the line. Preparation for that, according to the Historical Documentation, was likely the impetus for improvements that year such as floral displays, additional lights and a sculpture of a boy and a swan. The pamphlet “Rice Park” says, “Nothing . . . could compare to the grand opening of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which was celebrated in this park on Sept. 3, 1883. The 21st president of the United States, Chester Alan Arthur, attended the festivities with his party…. At Rice Park, which on that morning was a gem of trees and flowers, many of the honored guests were seated to review the great parade…. It was indeed a memorable day for Saint Paul.”

The park enjoyed its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, as did much of the city. Andrews wrote in 1890, “Thither every evening in the warm seasons, when the electric lights are aglow, come hundreds of people, of all classes and ages, and on occasions when open air concerts are given the park is fairly crowded.” Andrews adds, “This park has been beautifully improved.”

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The park eventually took on the name of its founder, Henry Mower Rice, who gave the plot of land to the city, but the date of that change is not clear. Rice is the person for whom Rice Street and Rice County were named. He was one of the state’s early movers and shakers. He was born in Vermont, moved to Detroit in 1835 and came to Fort Snelling in 1839. For many years he was an agent of the Chouteau Fur Company, according to Warren Upham in Minnesota Geographic Names, and he aided in the negotiation of several treaties “by which lands were ceded for white immigration in Minnesota.” He was the delegate from the Minnesota Territory to Congress in 1853-1857, and was appointed a U.S. senator when Minnesota became a state in 1858. By all accounts, he was an early developer of Saint Paul, became a successful businessman, and promoted both Saint Paul and Minnesota. He’s said to have built the first residence on Summit Avenue, though Ernest Sandeen lists another one that same year, 1855, in Saint Paul’s Historic Summit Avenue. Upham describes Rice as a “most generous benefactor to this city.”

1898 marked the first comprehensive design for Rice Park, according to the Historical Documentation, in anticipation of the construction of the Federal Courts Building and to complement it. In the early twentieth century, it was the site of many events, including rallies for women’s suffrage and labor causes as well as Winter Carnival events. Recruits assembled in Rice Park when the United States entered World War I.

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By the 1920’s the area around the park was no longer residential, as the larger buildings sprang up—the Saint Paul Hotel, the Minnesota Club, the Hamm Building and the Amherst Wilder Foundation Building.

The park area fell into “disrepair and deterioration” between the 1940s and 1960s, says the Historical Documentation, but the Saint Paul Women’s Institute undertook to plan and raise funds for a renovation, which took place in 1965. That is when the central statue, Alonzo Hauser’s “The Source,” was added.

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The park was closed for a full year during its 2018-2019 renovation, which was initiated and led by the St. Paul Garden Club. Fundraising by that group, the St. Paul Parks Conservancy, and Rice Park Association contributed $1.35 million to the project. Plus a $250,000 endowment to maintain the park has been established with funding from the St. Paul Foundation. Changes include new lighting, electrical and irrigation systems, new walkways, new landscaping and tree layout, and an area for a stage. Changes such as the pathways and plantings were made in keeping with the park’s history and safety concerns. Interestingly, Rice Park was the St. Paul Garden Club’s very first community beautification project back in 1927.

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Throughout its long history, whether used for cleaning rugs, grazing cattle, rallying for political change, celebrating an historic event like the railroad completion, confronting the northern winter via the Winter Carnival, or just gathering with one’s friends, Rice Park has remained central to this city. It is particularly resplendent in its holiday decorations from December through February.

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December 2007, revised December 2016 and May 2019

 

 

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