Our Minnesota State Capitol: From Groundbreaking through Restoration

Our Minnesota State Capitol: From Groundbreaking through Restoration
Reviewer: Alan K. Lathrop

Our Minnesota State Capitol: From Groundbreaking through Restoration
Author: Denis P. Gardner
Foreword by Former Governor Mark Dayton
St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017
104 pages; softcover; 70 color and b&w illustrations; $19.95

With the brilliant restoration of the State Capitol building in St. Paul, Denis Gardner and the Minnesota Historical Society have issued this timely record of the structure: Our Minnesota State Capitol: From Groundbreaking through Restoration. This volume serves as a detailed guide to the history of the Capitol, its design, construction, decoration, furnishing, and basement-to-dome restoration.

This beautifully illustrated guide should be in the hands of everyone who visits the Capitol. As the visitor strolls through the magnificent building and views its artistic and architectural glory, the book will provide a valuable context for understanding what readers are seeing.

The book opens with a foreword by former Governor Mark Dayton exalting the restored grandeur of the Capitol. In a summary statement, Dayton wrote: “This superb restoration is an inspiring reminder of the enduring values that were at the heart of its design; and it will serve Minnesota well, now and for generations to come.”

Gardner opens the book with a capsule history of the Capitol, complete with historic photographs that illustrate its construction, from groundbreaking on May 6, 1896, to its completion ten years later. Photos of the two earlier State Capitols are included as is a four-page gallery of the construction of the earlier buildings that are reproduced here after being unavailable to the public for decades. These were taken from an album of photographs that was acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 2016.

Gardner utilized previously published books and articles about the Capitol in compiling a succinct, highly informative, and readable narrative of the history of the planning for the building, its construction, and the key personalities involved, chiefly its famous architect, Cass Gilbert. But others, less well known, also appear in the narrative: Channing Seabury, vice president of the Board of State Capitol Commissioners who shepherded the project through the funding stages in the Legislature; Gunvald Aus, Gilbert’s highly capable engineering consultant; Rafael Guastavino, the innovator of fireproof construction who incorporated his method of erecting strong, thin vaults of hollow tiles known as Guastavino vaulting; Zebulon Olson, a hoist operator who helped set the thousands of stones used in the Capitol’s construction; John Rachač, a master carpenter and migrant from Bohemia; and Joseph Bourgeault, a French-Canadian and shop foreman who supervised the stone-cutting operations carried out on site by a team of brilliant and talented artists that included several African American quarrymen and stone carvers from Georgia, the source of the marble that sheathes the exterior.

A brief section of the book covers the planning and construction of the Capitol Mall. It was also designed by Gilbert, who envisioned a broad sweep of streets and green space radiating out from the Capitol to the south, which would provide a clear perspective of the building all the way to the Cathedral of Saint Paul. Much of this area had to be cleared of the dozens and dozens of residences, commercial structures, and churches that cluttered it, many of them, as Gardner points out, were “ramshackle.” By 1930, about a quarter of the future Mall had been constructed; the rest was completed around 1954. The construction of Interstate 94 cleared more land but had the adverse effect of severing the Mall from downtown St. Paul.

By 2014 and the beginning of the restoration of the Capitol, the building needed vast repairs, much of it to correct botched or deteriorating work done in previous decades. The last twenty-eight pages of the book summarize the restoration that finished early in 2017. The prodigious task of completely restoring the art and architecture to their original appearance is fun and exciting to read, accompanied by numerous color photographs taken during and after the project was finished. Controversies surrounding some of the artwork, especially that which depicted the interaction between white settlers and the Native Americans, is included together with the eventual resolution of these concerns, not always to the satisfaction of all the aggrieved parties.

Those who wish to read further about the history of the Capitol, its design, builders, furnishings, and restoration may refer to the “Notes on Sources” section, a combination of bibliography and expansion on a number of points raised in the text.

This slender history and description of our magnificent State Capitol will be welcomed by visitors to the building, the general public, and students and educators throughout Minnesota. It will undoubtedly engender or renew a great collective feeling of pride among the state’s citizens for years to come.

Alan K. Lathrop is a retired professor and curator of the Northwest Architectural Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries and is the author of Churches of Minnesota and Minnesota Architects: A Biographical Dictionary.