By the time workers installed the building's massive granite cornerstone — and chiseled out the year, 1891 — the Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County Courthouse already rose two full stories above the dusty streets that surrounded it.
Carpenters and stonecutters had been toiling away for at least two years, and it would be another decade before they'd finish the project. But on a July day in 1891, the city was ready to celebrate. People lined the downtown streets, with dozens climbing trees for a better view, for a parade and formal ceremony. Politicians took their turns making speeches, telling the crowd that the massive, castle-like building rising before them would put Minneapolis on the map.
"It towered over the surroundings," said Cedar Imboden Phillips, director of the Hennepin History Museum. "It was meant to be impressive. It was a monument to civic pride."
One hundred twenty-five years later, the city is celebrating that moment — and the building that has remained a monument to Minneapolis' history as streets and skyscrapers and stadiums have grown around it. At noon on July 11, there will again be a public ceremony with speeches from local officials and a noted historian, plus the chance to see new exhibits stocked with artifacts from the building.
In the lead-up to the big anniversary, the city and county have been seeking to expand those exhibits with the help of residents who happen to have a piece of City Hall history stashed away at home. They set up a special e-mail address and hosted a one-day event that was like a municipal "Antiques Roadshow," except that the items were not appraised and participants were asked to give them up, rather than take them home to ponder what to do with their treasures.
Banners to doorknobs
The collection day yielded a few items, including an early-1900s banner from the city's Division of Public Relief (an early social-service department) and a record book found in a church in northeast Minneapolis. Longtime employees stopped by to share some of their own stories and many people in City Hall made their way to the building's rotunda, where Imboden Phillips and others were showing off a few items already in the Municipal Building Commission's collection.
Council President Barb Johnson browsed through the collection — ornate doorknobs, black-and-white photos, an inmate's tin cup from the county jail, which is still partly housed in the building — and wondered out loud if her great-grandparents, who had sold mattresses, might have supplied the jail. Imboden Phillips, who is organizing the exhibits for the anniversary celebration, mused on the building's early years, when City Hall would have been a much noisier — and dirtier — place.
Built for a much larger city than the one that existed at the time, the building originally had so much extra space that officials opted to rent out sections of it for use as a horse stable, blacksmith's shop and other decidedly non-office operations. Today, city offices are spread in buildings around downtown and officials are mulling the construction of another city building to keep up with growth.
"The fact that there was a chicken hatchery in here is one of my favorite things," Phillips said.
Lucky marble guardian?
There are traces of that past in marble walls still tarnished from years of use (and smoking, until it was banned in more recent history). Look close enough, and there are other notes from the building's early days, too.
Scattered around the building, a few of the millions of tiny tiles that cover the floors bear the neat signatures of the young women who made them. They'd sign their name on the front and put an address on the back, hoping, apparently, to catch the eye of (and a date with) one of the workers installing the floors.
Downstairs, visitors like to marvel over the massive, 14,000-pound "Father of Waters" statue that has watched over the building's rotunda since 1906. Originally built for the city of New Orleans, the large, bearded guy (seated next to a turtle, alligator and paddleboat wheel) ended up in Minneapolis after New Orleans couldn't come up with the money to pay for it.
Theresa Baker, a Municipal Building Commission employee who often gives guided tours of the building, points out the big guy's big toe, rubbed shiny and smooth. There's a tradition, she said, of people thinking it might bring them luck — especially police officers heading out from the department's City Hall headquarters offices for a shift.
The tradition extends all the way up to Mayor Betsy Hodges, who said that in her decade in City Hall as a council member and mayor, she's appreciated the building's stained-glass windows, and the marble guardian of the rotunda.
"As I pass by, I make sure to touch his big toe for good luck," she said.