This year's Minnesota sesquicentennial is shaping up as a low-key affair. It's largely up to us to decide how to celebrate Minnesota's 150th birthday. If hitting the road has more appeal than hitting the history books, the MN150 can provide some inspiration. It's a list of the 150 "people, places and things that shape our state," compiled by the Minnesota State Historical Society from thousands of submissions by Minnesotans. (For more on the MN150, visit discovery.mnhs.org/MN150/)
One member of the MN150 who lends himself to road tripping is Cass Gilbert, arguably Minnesota's premier architect. Gilbert was a homegrown talent who eventually moved onto the national scene, designing the U.S. Customs House and the Woolworth Building, both in New York. In the Twin Cities, enough of his buildings survive to make for a pleasant jaunt.
Choice of materials, unique details and "marvelous sites" are what distinguish the designs that Gilbert produced during his 20 years in St. Paul, according to Sharon Irish in her book "Cass Gilbert, Architect."
A good starting point for the tour is 421 Ashland Avenue in St. Paul. It's the home that Gilbert designed for his mother in 1882, before he started his own firm. Irish says this early Gilbert design features the style of windows, small balconies and porches that were popular on the East Coast and in England - designs featured in the periodicals of the day.
Just up the street at 409 Ashland is the Davis House, which was Gilbert's first independent commission. Notes on the Cass Gilbert Society website say that the "strongly asymmetrical design" is typical of Gilbert's early work, and that the unique chimney placement is an unusual feature of the design.
Designing churches as an important career-building move for young architects. Big companies had designers on staff, so churches allowed young, independent firms to gain public exposure. Gilbert designed the Virginia Street Swedenborgian Church (on the corner of Virginia and Selby) in 1886. The church website says the stone foundation reflects the "solidity of an enduring faith." A few blocks southwest, at 901 Portland, is St. Clement's Episcopal Church, built in 1895. Its English country church look is accentuated by well-tended gardens. Comparing the two neighboring churches is a good test of whether you've gotten a handle on the Cass Gilbert style.
The pink castle
Next, head downtown to Landmark Center, the pink marble "castle" that was designed by Gilbert as the Federal Courts building in 1902. Slated for demolition, it was rescued in 1972 and is now home to St. Paul arts organizations. There are weekend tours and a café, so this can be a good rest stop on your tour.
If you want to extend your drive, head for White Bear Lake, where the R.B. Galusha Summer Cottage still stands at 4320 Cottage Park Road. Derived from European chalets, it's one of the few surviving examples of the elaborate summer getaways built on White Bear Lake for St. Paul tycoons.
A capitol conclusion
Of course, the grand finale of any Cass Gilbert tour has to be the Minnesota State Capitol building. Gilbert worked on the design and construction from 1895 to 1905. Irish notes that he traveled widely in Europe, where he picked up what he called "practical points" on the construction of buildings on this monumental scale.
Irish notes that the pinnacle of Gilbert's Minnesota career was also his undoing. He insisted on using Georgia marble for the Capitol building, which made enemies among Minnesota quarry owners anrailrailroad men. Although he kept an office in St. Paul, the office he opened in New York in 1899 became his headquarters.
There are dozens more buildings to add to your Cass Gilbert road trip. For information, look at Sharon Irish's book and go to the Cass Gilbert Organization website: www.cassgilbertsociety.org