The wish-list answers sound so familiar: more affordable housing and bike paths; cleaner air, smaller class sizes, better child care and a desire for everyone to buy local.
But these weren’t responses to some recent survey. In 1899, the St. Paul Globe asked readers: “If St. Paul were all your own and you had $50,000,000 with which to build it into what you would regard as an ideal American city, how would you expend the money?”
Short answer: The more things change, the more the issues stay the same 120 years later.
The newspaper printed 17 responses and hoped “that this great city, located on hill and in valley, at the head of navigation of the Mississippi, will in the next twenty-five years get all the good things wished for it. …”
Answers came from St. Paul’s A-list, including Pierce Butler, railroad baron James J. Hill’s lawyer at the time who would become the first Minnesotan on the U.S. Supreme Court. When Butler died in 1939 during his 17th year on the bench, his robe hung in the current U.S. Supreme Court building (designed by St. Paul architect Cass Gilbert). Butler’s 1899 answer to the $50 million question led the Globe’s coverage over two full, gray pages.
Echoing many of his fellow respondents, Butler favored publicly owned telephone, street railway, gas and electric plants. He called for higher teacher pay, a well-financed library, a string of parks from Lake Phalen to Como Park and, “there might be less politics and better public service.”
Wishful thinking. A political storm battered Butler’s confirmation 23 years later.
You’d think Cass Gilbert’s 1899 letter would be upbeat. After all, his architecture career was blasting off nationally. He’d landed the State Capitol commission four years earlier and, in 1899, secured the job to design the U.S. Custom House in New York City.
Maybe he hadn’t had his morning coffee. “I know of no city in Europe and but few in America where the streets are allowed to remain in so disgraceful and filthy a condition,” fumed Gilbert, 40. “Naples, reputed to be the dirtiest city in Europe, is clean by comparison.”
St. Paul voters, 120 years later, were still wrangling over a referendum on how best to dispose of city trash. Gilbert’s cleanup dreams included clearing St. Paul’s sooty, coal-stained skies. He’d spend some of his $50 million on enforcing “the use of smoke preventing apparatus on all furnaces.”
After outlining his vision for the Capitol Mall, which would become largely realized, Gilbert vowed to replace and fireproof every school building and endow teachers’ pensions.
My favorite response came from insurance man and school inspector L.D. Wilkes, who addressed a different kind of air pollution. He called for free Cuban cigars “so that every man who now smokes a pipe and blows the smoke in my face on the street cars in the morning after I have eaten a good breakfast could go and get the choicest Havana cigars for nothing.”
Buying local, and the budding rivalry with Minneapolis, popped up in an older respondent’s answer. Auguste Larpenteur turned 76 in 1899 and had been a fur trader, grocer and businessman in St. Paul since 1843.
“We have never been loyal to our home industries, be it said to our shame,” wrote Larpenteur, who liked the way Minneapolis backed its mills. “… Our sister city is loyal to her enterprises, a lesson from them we should learn.”
While most of the printed letters came from men, 46-year-old Anna Lichtenberger made a spirited pitch for women’s job-training programs and free, city-run child care for “the working classes who, of necessity, must leave their children uncared for while they go out to earn the daily bread.”
She’d also invest in “large swimming tanks” and baths across the city and new hospitals “surrounded by large grounds filled with trees and covered with lawns.” She’d spend part of her $50 million to “provide carriages to take the invalids out for drives in the beautiful suburban parks which I should build.”
Architect A.H. Stem would make sure working people could buy “convenient and comfortable modern homes, to be sold to them on reasonable terms” so they wouldn’t be “a floating population.”
School principal Julian Bryant would limit grammar school grades to 50 pupils and high school classes to 25 students per teacher because “maintaining schools where the grades are crowded is a waste.”
Banker Ferdinand Willius would pay for flower gardens in backyards and bicycle paths “connecting all the picturesque points in and around St. Paul.”
For Joseph Elsinger, founder of the Golden Rule department store, the whole exercise was folly because “there is very little prospect” of ever having $50 million — which was just as well.
“They say there is nothing which so much tends to harden the heart of man as the sudden acquisition of great wealth,” Elsinger said, “and it might therefore be impossible for me to put in practice that spirit of liberality which now seems to overwhelm me.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.