“When its white dome first swims into view there is a shock of surprise, then a rapidly growing delight in its pure beauty, and as one studies the building, inside and out, the surprise and delight increase. One leaves it with regret and with the hope of return.”
Architectural Record, August 1905
This glowing description of Minnesota’s State Capitol and its beauty has stood the test of time. What people may not know is that Minnesota state leaders took a risk on a 35-year-old architect to design this building that would become a “surprise and delight”. Today architectural historians venerate our Capitol’s architect Cass Gilbert, but when he was selected in the 1890s to be the architect, he was relatively unknown and had no experience with a project this grand.
The selection of Gilbert was inspirational because he saw this as his life’s work. Young Cass arrived in St. Paul at the age of 9 from Ohio with his mother and brother. They were joining his father who was employed as a surveyor in the then frontier regions of Minnesota. Unfortunately, soon after the family arrived his father passed away. His mother worked hard to make sure her boys completed school while they lived only blocks away from where his great work would eventually be built. At age 19 Cass secured a minor position in a small architectural firm in St. Paul where he discovered his true calling. He eventually went to MIT to study architecture and later worked in a prestigious New York firm, but he eventually returned to his hometown of St. Paul to strike out on his own.
He developed a respectable reputation designing homes, churches, railroad stations and commercial buildings in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Montana. His rise into architectural history, however, started with our State Capitol. This work was so respected that it led to him being commissioned to design such great architectural structures as the Woolworth Building in New York City and the Supreme Court Building in Washington DC. Nonetheless, despite his great architectural success, the Minnesota State Capitol remained his favorite building.
Underneath the great dome that Gilbert designed, over a century of Minnesota political drama has played out. Unfortunately for those of us Capitol observers, this week’s political drama was painfully slow and boring. The only thing exciting at the Capitol that happened this week actually had to do with the building Gilbert designed.
Two years ago the main chandelier in the Rotunda was lowered so that weatherproofing and structural repairs on the dome could be completed without damaging the one-ton light fixture. This is only the fifth time in the over 100 year history of the Capitol building that the light fixture has been lowered. Therefore, it was sort of a big deal when the Department of Administration that oversees Capitol maintenance had a ceremony this Thursday to raise the chandelier back up to its lofty position at the top of the dome. Most of the legislators and their legislative staff took a break from the day to watch the fixture to be put in place.
Things were slow at the Capitol because everyone was waiting for the release of the governor’s budget. Just like a great capitol building cannot be built without the architect’s plans, a state budget cannot be built by the legislature without the governor’s initial recommendations. The governor’s budget becomes the working plan on which the legislature builds state appropriations. Under state law the governor needs to submit that budget by Tuesday of next week.
The governor always develops his budget in near complete secrecy without even his friends in the DFL majority knowing exactly what will be in the budget. The leaders of the DFL majorities in both the House and Senate have made it clear that their first and foremost priority this year is to complete the state’s budget without any gimmicks supported by major tax reform. Therefore, all was quiet as legislators await the architectural plan before they begin their building project.
Certainly after that plan is released next week there will be a lot of noise and dust kicked up in the process of building the budget. Conservation Minnesota will do a full analysis of the budget to ensure that the necessary investments to our great outdoors are maintained at appropriate levels. We will keep you informed each step of the way through this legislative budget construction project.
*Quoted from the Historical Society website articles article by Brian Horrigan, exhibit developer at the Minnesota Historical Society, and is the curator of the exhibit on the Capitol on view at the History Center.