The Great Seal of Minneapolis today lies virtually forgotten, nearly 100 fragments of carved limestone stored on city property in Columbia Heights.
Carved in the mid-1960s, the seal once stood tall on the exterior of the old Minneapolis Auditorium, 26 feet in diameter and purportedly weighing 20 tons. It was brought down and put into storage in 1988 when the arena was demolished to make way for the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Now the Great Seal is coming out of retirement, as the city plans to display it in the lobby of a new municipal office building set to open downtown in 2020. Last month, the city put out a call for a “stone artisan” to help restore, reassemble and install the colossal sculpture in the new building.
For Dean McFarlane, who as a child helped carve the seal for his family’s stonecutting company, its return has been a long time coming.
“It’s an amazing piece of art,” McFarlane, now 61, said. “It would be amazing for another generation of people to see it.”
The city officials working on the new building are also eager to bring it back. Mary Altman, the city’s public arts administrator, calls it an “important historical artifact.”
“It’s really cool to have something that is connected to the city’s identity that is so beautiful,” Altman said. “People associate government with all kinds of difficult things, and this is a beautiful celebration of the city’s service to its residents.”
First, they will need to find a contractor capable of putting the seal back in one piece. The city is seeking a company with “minimum 7 years’ experience transporting and installing historically architecturally significant artifacts, including stone works that weigh at least 2,400 pounds.”
Though McFarlane has since sold the family company, known then as the Rich-McFarlane Cut Stone Co., he’s confident they will be able to find somebody fit for the job.
“There are a few good carvers that can do the work,” he said. “There’s not many. It’s a dying art, unfortunately.”
The city commissioned the seal as part of the remodeling of the Minneapolis Auditorium in 1965.
According to McFarlane, the seal was designed to combine elements of different variations of the city emblem that were around at the time: a suspension bridge, mill buildings, smokestacks, a barrel of flour and a shock of grain. The city’s motto, “EN AVANT” — French for “forward” — was written above the picturesque display.
Slabs of Indiana limestone were carved in the company’s plant, but the seal was so big that they had to rent out a ballroom to lay out the pieces, McFarlane said. The pieces were raised by a crane and installed high on the east wall of the auditorium in 1967.
The seal hung there for about 20 years, until it was disassembled for the auditorium’s demolition and put into storage for a future use.
“It needed to be on a big project,” Greg Goeke, the city’s director of major real estate projects. “The thing is 26 foot in diameter.”
When city officials began to design the new office building — which will be built diagonally across from City Hall and stand 11 stories tall — they decided to include the seal as part of the artwork for the main lobby. The seal is expected to be installed in late 2019 and will cost up to $150,000 to put up, Goeke said.
The pieces now rest on pallets on the grounds of a city water facility. They remained in surprisingly good condition over the decades, with a few chips and cracks, Altman said. Only five pieces are missing, which will have to be replicated by the stone artisan.
Earlier this year, an art conservator cleaned the pieces using detergent and a biodegradable solution. In spring, they will be laid out to bleach in the sun.
Goeke, who has worked for the city for more than 30 years and remembers when the auditorium was brought down, considers the return of the seal a part of his personal legacy.
“I’m very proud we’re doing this,” he said.
An enduring artifact
Like McFarlane, Evansville, Minn., resident Bernie Cullen is delighted that the seal will rise once again.
His father, Myles Cullen, was a senior carver for the project back in the ’60s. A photo from the time shows him kneeling on top of the seal in the ballroom, dwarfed in comparison.
“I thought it was extraordinarily impressive,” Bernie Cullen, 75, said. It was so high up, however, that “it was hard to really appreciate the details that the carvers put into it.”
In recent years, he had prodded the city to display the seal somewhere else. “Lo and behold, they were a step ahead of me,” he said.
His father’s skills became less in demand as Art Deco architecture grew out of style, he said. The seal was one of his father’s last projects before he died in 1971.
“After the glass buildings are on the ground or gone, these kinds of things will endure,” Cullen said. “In centuries to come, these works that these guys did … are gonna be around.”