Every building, no matter how tall, has a hundred stories.
The arc is the same; it’s the new place in town, there are the unfashionable years, the sad decline — and then a wrecking ball or a renovation. The characters are often alike: the visionary builder, the idealistic architect, the cranky money men, the decades-long parade of tenants, the maintenance men who knew every creak in the floors, every clank in the radiators.
If a building’s famous for its height or style, someone may tell its tale. If a building’s lucky, it gets Larry Millett. The Pioneer Endicott at 4th and Roberts streets in St. Paul is lucky.
Millett, the bard of Minnesota buildings (and also a mystery writer), recently wrote a history of the two-building complex, which has been rehabbed for apartments. Funded by the developers and the Minnesota Museum of American Art, which is located in the lobby, Millett’s book explains how, despite being the last of its kind, the Pioneer Endicott had many firsts. We talked to Millett about its architecture, its Hollywood connection and its wild elevator rides.
JL: The Pioneer Endicott is actually two different buildings. But how different are they?
LM: The Pioneer was built in 1889, the Endicott in 1890, so they were built at the same time. But they had different architects and different styles.
Solon Beman designed the Pioneer [once home to the Pioneer Press] in the Victorian style, and Cass Gilbert designed the Endicott in Renaissance Revival. As the earliest commercial building of the Revival style in St. Paul, it got a lot of publicity at the time because it was very advanced.
JL: The clean, orderly appeal of the Endicott’s Revival facade made the Victorian look heavy and fussy as the years wore on. But the Pioneer Press building had its own virtues, and for those we thank its architect. By the way, who was he?
LM: Sol Beman was quite a well-known Chicago architect, most famous for the design of Pullman, an industrial town. I have not figured out how he got hired to do the Pioneer building. Almost everything at that time was designed by local architects. But even though he did a number of big prominent buildings in Chicago, this was a big commission for him. It is the last big light-court building in the Twin Cities, one of the last in the country.
JL: Light courts, those big shafts in the middle of the building, were good for illuminating the inside, and you could open a window to get rid of the cigar smoke and other co-worker aromas, too.
LM: It was built right in that little window when architects were doing full-height light courts. Sixteen stories, it’s the tallest ever built, taller than the Metropolitan in Minneapolis.
JL: The Endicott also had something that seems more 1980s than 1880s: a shopping mall.
LM: There were a number of downtown shopping arcades in office buildings — in the Bremer, the Times, the Lowry in St. Paul. It was a common feature in the downtowns’ early 20th century.
The Endicott’s arcade still has its vaulted roof with colored art glass connecting the two buildings. I don’t know any [other buildings] that were connected that way.
JL: It’s still intact, and it’s spectacular. Walking down the hall past the windows that once held hats and shoes and sweets, you get that trademark St. Paul sensation of stepping back a hundred years. The buildings not only look historic — you write that they also made history.
LM: The Endicott claimed to have the first answering service for tenants. Well, maybe that’s true.
I think St. Paul’s first radio station was in the Endicott. Merritt Osborne started what became Ecolab there. And Cass Gilbert had an office in the building. There’s lots and lots of history in the comings and goings.
JL: From what I hear, a lot of the action was vertical.
LM: It had elevator operators — the last in St. Paul — up until early 2000s. The book has a lot of people’s memories of them. The operators had a lot of control over how fast the elevators went, and maybe sometimes they’d like to screw with people for fun and give you a little jump when they took off fast.
JL: The exterior looks original, but are the interiors pristine?
LM: The Endicott got remodeled frequently, and in many ways. The lobby is not the original lobby. They put in a skyway, the first in St. Paul.
JL: Was it also bought and sold frequently?
LM: The ownership remained constant. The Davidson family has owned it since the 1940s, and treated it like a member of the family, not something to be flipped to out-of-towners who’ll knock it down for a parking ramp.
JL: Was it ever threatened?
LM: Well, speaking of the Davidsons, there’s a strange Minnesota connection to a Broadway play based on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” a book by St. Paulite Max Shulman.
The guy who adapted the play for the stage was William Davidson, manager of the building. They made reference in that show to “tearing down the Endicott,” an inside joke between Shulman and Davidson. It was probably lost on the Broadway audiences.
JL: You have another Sherlock Holmes mystery coming out later this year. So, will the great detective and his nemesis Moriarty tumble down the light court in the Pioneer Endicott in a replay of Reichenbach Falls?
LM: [Laughs.] No. But in another book, Holmes and Watson walked past the Pioneer a few times, because they spent a lot of time in the bar at the Ryan Hotel.