The Minnesota State Capitol Mall in St. Paul has been a busy place in recent weeks, site of numerous protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. These protests have served to underscore the mall’s importance as the state’s “front porch,” where Minnesotans can gather to exercise their democratic rights.
With its broad green expanse dotted by statues, monuments and memorials, the mall is such a familiar place that it’s hard to realize it wasn’t always part of the Capitol complex.
Cass Gilbert’s white marble palace opened in 1905, but the mall wasn’t completed until 50 years later, and it required a huge clearance project.
The mall, one of St. Paul’s many graveyards of Victorian architecture, was carved out just a few years before Minneapolis began its enormous Gateway Urban Renewal Project. The Gateway project has garnered plenty of attention from historians over the years, and I’ll plead guilty to adding my fair share of words to that endeavor. But relatively little has been written about how the Capitol Mall transformed a big chunk of St. Paul at almost the same time.
When the Capitol opened in 1905, it was fronted by a small, irregularly shaped patch of green space set amid a tangle of streets. Just beyond this rather measly space was a largely residential neighborhood crisscrossed with streets that offered an array of housing built between the 1870s and early 1900s.
Single-family houses, row houses, double houses, apartment buildings and even a few mansions were included in the mix. There were also some small commercial buildings, several bars and diners, and a pair of historic churches.
As time went on, this aging neighborhood came to be viewed, in the words of one newspaper writer, as “a screen of ugliness” detracting from the Capitol’s magnificence. Over the years Gilbert and others had advanced a variety of monumental schemes to create a more suitable foreground for the Capitol, but it wasn’t until 1945 that plans for the present mall began to take shape.
Funded by a $2 million state appropriation, the mall was designed to provide a grand setting for the Capitol and for several new state buildings to be constructed in the 1950s. At the same time, plans were underway for what became I-94, which eventually swept past the southern end of the mall, requiring the destruction of numerous structures for its right of way.
Once all the plans were in place, more than 100 homes and buildings were condemned and then demolished. In less than five years, the old neighborhood south of the Capitol was completely gone.
A few years later, the old residential buildings around Central Park just to the southeast of the Capitol were also cleared to make room for the Centennial Office Building.
Although the lost Capitol neighborhood was no Summit Avenue, it did include some fine houses, intermixed with quite a few seedy buildings ripe for demolition. The area was in fact regarded by the city as little better than a slum, although photos taken in the early 1950s show that many of the properties were far from decrepit.
Much of the housing was along two short streets, Tilton and Central Terrace (also known as Dexter), which were wiped out by the mall. Other residences were on sections of Central, Iglehart and Summit avenues, which once ran in front of the Capitol. Still others were on streets — including Cedar, Wabasha and Rice — that remain near the Capitol but have been scoured of all of their historic homes as well as their old commercial structures.
Fortunately, there’s a visual record of many of these lost properties, the bulk of which were demolished between 1952 and 1955. Before they were condemned and taken by the state, the properties were professionally photographed. Scores of these images are now in the collections of the Ramsey County Historical Society and have been posted on the society’s excellent website, rchs.com.
Some of the largest and most elaborate of the condemned houses were on Tilton, a two-block street that ran from Wabasha to Rice streets along what is now the southern part of the mall.
Tilton’s lineup included several big Queen Anne-style houses, most of which ended their days as rooming houses. Perhaps the most impressive of the lot, at 63 Tilton, was a tall, multi-gabled house with incised ornament built in 1887 and torn down in 1953. The house’s crisp interplay of forms suggests it was designed by an architect. Next door at 69 Tilton was another Queen Anne beauty, built in 1889, which featured a tower and a distinctive curved pediment atop its steep front gable.
Another impressive specimen was a brick row house, in the Romanesque Revival style, at 117-125 Iglehart Av. (just west of Rice Street in what is today the right of way of I-94). Built in 1890 and torn down in 1955, the row house originally had five units, and judging by its level of finish it was intended for a well-to-do clientele. Like other row houses in the area, it was later subdivided into apartments.
Double houses were also common throughout the neighborhood. Among the most interesting was a high-roofed, Gothic Revival-style double house at 576 Cedar St. (near today’s 12th Street). It was probably built in the 1870s, as was a small house next door at 580 Cedar. A wonderful photograph taken in 1950 shows a man sitting in the house’s tiny front yard, perhaps ready to observe the impending destruction of his neighborhood.
The loss of the old Capitol neighborhood was probably inevitable given the longstanding push to create a mall and to expand the footprint of state government with new buildings.
The construction of I-94 (which, in a better world, would have been routed north of the Capitol) also doomed a big swath of the neighborhood as well as much of the historic Rondo Avenue district to the west.
I’ve never been an admirer of the mall, which has always struck me as too big for its own good. But for better or worse, it’s now deeply integrated into the fabric of St. Paul, and the city would feel very different without it.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.