The clinking of china and silverware gave way to a rousing chorus of "America" one spring night in 1913 Manhattan. More than 900 dinner guests had gathered for the grand opening of the Woolworth Building to honor its St. Paul-bred architect, Cass Gilbert.
At 53, Gilbert had reached the pinnacle of his profession, designing a 60-story Gothic-style skyscraper on Broadway that was the tallest building in the world and the second tallest structure, trailing only the Eiffel Tower.
Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in the White House that April 24, 1913, "and for the first time lights flashed from every floor," the New York Times reported.
But long before the president pushed a button to illuminate Gilbert's work, passionate courtship letters had lit up the love between the then-emerging architect in St. Paul and his wife-to-be in Milwaukee, Julia Finch.
Gilbert's career would span more than 40 years, from winning the Minnesota State Capitol bid in 1895 to designing the U.S. Supreme Court building that opened in Washington, D.C., in 1935, a year after he died at 74. But seeing that it's Valentine's Day, we'll skip the architecture talk and turn to those letters, a trove mined in a 2000 Minnesota History journal article by the late Geoffrey Blodgett, a history professor at Oberlin College in Ohio where several Gilbert buildings still stand.
Born in Ohio in 1859, Gilbert moved to St. Paul as a child, studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and made his way to Manhattan. He first met Finch there in 1880 while working for the prestigious firm of McKim, Mead and White on Broadway, 33 years before his Woolworth skyscraper rose several blocks north on the same avenue.
Finch, whom Blodgett calls "sprightly," "strong-willed [and] saucy," was in Manhattan for finishing school. Six years later, by then a 24-year-old piano teacher and church soloist, she reconnected with Gilbert, 26, during a Lake Minnetonka vacation. They strolled along the beach and rowed a boat on the lake.
"What a happy day that was with all the sweet uncertainty of love half confessed," Gilbert wrote Finch in an 1887 Valentine's Day letter. For most of a year, their relationship was limited to two or three letters a week, sent on passing trains between St. Paul and Milwaukee.
"The knowledge that I was in love came upon me with such overwhelming suddenness that it took my breath away and I have been rather gasping ever since," Finch wrote to Gilbert weeks after their Lake Minnetonka date.
The letters steadily grew steamier, prompting Gilbert to jest that he had "forsaken Architecture to write love letters." Finch's letters were "downright seductive" according to Blodgett, who theorizes that most of their pillow talk was just that: talk. Premarital sex, he notes, was seldom indulged in the 1880s among middle-class urban twentysomethings — especially by two people who still lived with their mothers.
"Oh Cass Cass I wish you were with me this instant," Finch wrote six weeks into their courtship. "I long to tease you, there is nothing I would not do this morning."
In March, 1887, she wrote: "So here I am, saying in my most persuasive tones, 'Julie wants to be loved please.' I am thinking, even while I write, that you are sitting here beside me, and I am laughing at you and singing to you, and now I have stopped … because, I like better just now to be made love to rather than sing."
Later, she wrote that she looked forward to married life when "I shall go quietly over to your chair and lean over it and kiss you, and then you will have to love me until it is time to light the gas."
His mother, Elizabeth, cool toward Finch, nevertheless went a bit over the top at the engagement dinner she threw for the couple at the Shingle-style house her son had designed for her on St. Paul's Ashland Avenue. It was a 13-course catered dinner with raw oysters, red snapper, beef filet, sweetbreads, breast of partridge, cheese soufflé, bonbons, coffee (but no alcohol) and served by waiters in swallowtails and white gloves.
Once engaged, Gilbert occasionally pined for the freedom of the bohemian art scene of New York. But he vowed to buck societal norms as a married man and lean on Finch for help.
"I don't believe it is 'the thing' for a man to look to his wife for advice on business matters," he wrote, "but when we are married that is precisely what I am going to do. Because you have clear insight and good judgment."
The wedding — which Elizabeth Gilbert apparently skipped — was held in Milwaukee on Nov. 29, 1887. Within seven years, the couple had four children. The family moved from St. Paul to Manhattan's Upper East Side in 1900, and a few years later purchased a Revolutionary War-era farmhouse as a summer home in Connecticut.
Julia outlived Cass by 18 years, spending most of the 1930s and '40s at the farmhouse, wrangling grandkids and working in the garden beds her husband had designed for her. She died in 1952 at 90, and was buried next to Cass in a cemetery not far from their farmhouse.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.