That Amazing Rotunda

“The purpose of the Rotunda is to provide a great central space … to accommodate the moving crowd of people.”

Cass Gilbert


As a young boy Cass Gilbert grew up near one of the most prominent hills in St. Paul.  In 1868 at age nine Cass arrived in Minnesota with his mother and brother to join their father who had just retained a job as a surveyor in St. Paul. Unfortunately, tragedy struck when his father passed away soon after they moved to Minnesota. Cass’s mother was determined he would succeed and refused to let him drop out of school.  By 1876 Cass landed an apprenticeship as draftsman in the office of Abraham Radcliffe in St. Paul, launching one of the greatest careers in American architecture.

Cass always knew that the hill of his youth was a prime location for a state capitol and through his connections with prominent leaders at the Minnesota Club he was able to make this vision a reality starting in 1895. He also knew that the Capitol building project was an opportunity to set himself apart as an architect and his efforts were richly rewarded.

Cass went on to design several important buildings in New York, including the New York Life Insurance Company Building, the Brooklyn Army Terminal, and the U.S. Courthouse. The most impressive of these buildings was the greatest skyscraper of its time in 1913, the Woolworth Building. For the next 10 years it held the distinction of being the world’s tallest building. His career continued all over America. He would also be commissioned to design the state capitols in Arkansas and West Virginia.  His crowning achievement and the last building he designed was the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C.

He always had a soft spot for the Minnesota State Capitol, considering it one of his greatest achievements. He would tell those he worked with not to skimp on the project because they were building it to last 500 years. Well, after 100 years the old building is still an amazing site. It’s a privilege for those who work in the Capitol to be able to gather in his beautiful rotunda, which is still considered to this day one of the most magnificent rotundas in the world. Unfortunately, after 100 years the building is in need of some serious renovation. That renovation has become one of the most challenging political issues needing to be decided under the rotunda in 2012.

The even numbered year sessions are typically dedicated to the approval of the capital investments for state buildings, land acquisition and other public infrastructure. Minnesota’s Constitution does not allow the state to go into debt for general operation, but allows for state bonds to be sold for capital investments such as these. Governor Dayton released his bonding proposal at the beginning of the session suggesting that the state commit an additional $756 million toward capital projects, but did not suggest anything for state capitol renovation. The House proposed a much smaller package a couple weeks ago.  They suggested $280 million, but also suggested in a separate bill that the state commit over the next 5 years another $221 million to completely renovate Cass’s pride and joy, the State Capitol building. Only $60 million would be committed for this coming year.

The Senate has proposed $496 million in general obligation debt for their capital investments of which only $25 million is for the Capitol renovation. The House is sparse on local earmark projects like community buildings and civic centers, but the much larger Senate proposal does have several of these local projects. Therefore, it appears that the Governor, the House and the Senate are a long way apart and the likelihood that they will be able to finish their work before their Easter break next week has diminished greatly.

The good news for the conservation community is that all three proposals give an excellent proportional share to the protection of our great outdoors. It has always been our recommendation that at least 22% of these bonding bills should be dedicated to the environment. This has been the historical level of funding over the last decade. All three of these proposals, when combined with the unusually large bonding bill from last session, honor this benchmark. Obviously the proposal by Governor and Senate are preferable because they start from a much higher base. The Governor’s proposal has 22.2% of its projects going to the environment with both years’ investments totaling $283 million. The Senate is right behind the Governor in their proposal at 25.7% going to the environment and investments totaling $261.6 million. The House bill has 25.6% going towards the environment, but because it’s package is much smaller, overall their investments only add up to $220 million.

Cass Gilbert built one amazing monument to the principle of Minnesota’s citizen self-governance. It’s not always pretty what goes on under that amazing rotunda. As has occurred in the past, there is still a lot of compromise that needs to happen over the next few weeks if this Legislature is ever going to finish its work in 2012. They will need to solve the problem of the Capitol renovation and several other differing bonding proposals before they can leave the great marble walls of Cass Gilbert’s masterpiece to do battle in a very contentious election on the landscape throughout Minnesota.

*Cass Gilbert to Capitol Commissioners Board, Sept. 9, 1895, draft, Gilbert Papers, MHS

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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