Cass Gilbert: Architect’s Minnesota State Capitol moved him to national fame

Capitol 5 copy

Cass Gilbert “changed the face of St. Paul,” according to Leigh Roethke in Minnesota’s Capitol. After moving to Saint Paul as a child, he left to learn his trade but returned to grow his architectural practice and stayed for 27 years. Then he left again, this time for New York City where his national reputation solidified. Before that he built dozens of homes, commercial buildings, churches and the Minnesota State Capitol in his home city, and in that sense he never really left St. Paul at all.

Source: Architectural Digest

A man of purpose and “fierce determination,” Gilbert decided on his career early and never wavered. Following two years as an apprentice for local architect Abraham Radcliffe, Gilbert completed one year of a two-year architecture program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then went to Europe, where he studied, sketched and painted buildings in England, Italy, and France.


Returning from Europe, Gilbert obtained employment with McKim, Mead and White, a prominent architectural firm in New York City, where he worked as Stanford White’s assistant. When he moved back to St. Paul in 1882, he apparently hoped to get work for the Northern Pacific Railroad from his former employers. But when the railroad’s financial troubles cut off that option, Gilbert turned to local sources to garner commissions.


Essentially, he joined clubs to gain access to prominent St. Paul citizens who might employ him; clubs were central to social life in that era, and the strategy worked well for the up-and-coming architect. He helped organize the Minnesota Club, and joined boat, tennis and golf clubs as well as a German club, the Nushka Club and the Informal Club.

In January 1883 Gilbert opened an office in St. Paul in the Gilfillan block where two other young architects just back from New York, Gilbert’s boyhood friends Clarence Johnston and James Knox Taylor, also were located. Taylor and Gilbert were business partners from 1884 to 1891 and remained lifelong friends.


It was more than coincidence that the three architects landed in St. Paul at the time. The country, especially at its western edges, was enjoying a boom period of growth: The Twin Cities grew from a population of 87,000 in 1880 to 298,000 in 1890. Quite logically, young architects went where they could benefit from the building boom and make their careers.

Despite the competition, Gilbert prospered. Gilbert and Taylor won more than 50 commissions between 1885 and 1892. The firm produced about 180 designs between 1883 and 1911, of which nearly half were residences. Many of the residences were in the central area of St. Paul, including Summit Avenue, which was then developing into the showcase it remains today. In 2005 the Cass-Gilbert-themed Ramsey Hill Association House Tour featured 14 homes by him, and 19 others were marked externally.


Gilbert started building in St. Paul with his mother’s house at 471 Ashland, where he lived a while. He also built his own family house at 1 Heather Place after his marriage; before that, he and his wife took an apartment in the Albion Apartments (now Blair House) at Selby and Western Avenues.


Gilbert’s residential work includes the Charles P. Noyes house at 89 Virginia Street, an Early American revival house characterized by its Georgian symmetry. “Its appearance fortified Gilbert’s rising reputation as a master of disciplined stylistic nuance,” Geoffrey Blodgett says in Cass Gilbert: The Early Years. Gilbert’s first Summit Avenue commission was the Lightner-Young house at 322-324 Summit, in the Richardsonian Romanesque style; he later built the house next door at 318 Summit for the Lightners, who lived there more than 40 years. The McCourt house at 161 Cambridge Avenue has been called Gilbert and Taylor’s most exquisite urban Shingle-style design.


Gilbert’s churches in St. Paul include St. Clement’s Episcopal Church at 901 Portland, his homage to English churches; the Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church at Dayton Avenue and Mackubin Street, a Romanesque building based on 12-century French influences; the Virginia Street (Swedenborgian) Church at Selby and Virginia streets, in the Shingle style; and the “wonderfully site-specific” German Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, 311 Ramsey Street, one of several sites Gilbert often revisited. His first major office building was the Endicott Building at 141-3 East Fourth Street and 350 Robert Street in downtown St. Paul, where Gilbert moved his office until he went to New York in 1910. The 1889 Endicott Building, the firm’s largest project, was something of a media sensation when it was completed.


Blodgett notes: “By the early 1890s Gilbert had established a reputation as perhaps the most talented, energetic, and disciplined architect among the batch that had gathered in the Twin Cities a decade earlier to exploit rapid urban growth…. Cass had brought the eastern newness to a region aching for cultural maturity, and he brought it at a level of surpassing quality.” Yet even early on Gilbert yearned for a wider stage; at age 26, he wanted “a position in the world which will increase my chances of getting great work to do, and of having the influence to carry it out.”

Photo from Cass Gilbert Society

The Minnesota State Capitol was the work that made his national career. The new capitol was important for the state to showcase its prosperity on a national level, in competition with other states. (Roethke notes that from the end of the Civil War to the 1890s, new capitols were built in 13 states.) In Minnesota, after a nationwide competition for the building’s design, architectural advisers declared all 56 entries “awful” and Gilbert began campaigning to increase the stipend and the architect’s job scope in the by-invitation-only second competition. Gilbert won from among 41 total entries. “The Capitol is the best work I have ever done, or shall ever do, and I am glad to have given it to St. Paul,” Gilbert said.


That was in 1895. In 1899 Gilbert opened a second office in New York City, and moved his family there in 1900. During this stage of his career he designed many buildings around the country, the most noted being the Woolworth Building in New York, which was the world’s tallest building for over a decade, and the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.

On a personal and individual level, Gilbert was likewise successful. He married Julia Tappan Finch of Milwaukee in 1887, after a largely epistolary courtship which saw some bumpy times due to his mother’s very large role in his life and Gilbert’s devotion to his work, according to Blodgett. The couple had four children, and Cass Jr. followed his father into the architectural profession. Gilbert was elected president of the American Institute of Architects in 1907, thereby receiving his field’s highest honor. He designed more than 200 buildings in his lifetime.


In 1934, while on one of their frequent vacations in England, Gilbert died, at age 75, with Julia by his side. In obituaries cited by Blodgett in “Cass Gilbert and Julia Finch,” the Times of London called Gilbert “the most remarkable architect of his generation in America,” and the New York Times said, “New York City has lost the prophet of her distinction among the cities of the earth.”


Even when in New York, Gilbert maintained ties to Minnesota and St. Paul. He kept his St. Paul office until 1911 and continued to work on projects in the area, including plans for the Capitol Mall that were never fully realized, and St. Paul’s parks and parkways system. Roethke notes between 1906 and 1922 Gilbert worked on the master plan for Northrup Mall at the University of Minnesota and the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, and the Mannheimer Fountain at Como Park in St. Paul. Even as Gilbert’s New York era was starting, he designed four Summit Avenue residences, including the Crawford Livingston house at 339 Summit.


Many of Gilbert’s buildings stand in St. Paul today as monuments to his skill and artistry. Gilbert not only changed the face of St. Paul, he left an indelible stamp on it.


November 2009, revised December 2016 and January 2019



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