The great Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham once famously said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
Burnham offered his advice to think big around 1910, and it appears civic and business leaders in St. Paul were listening. Within three years, St. Paul would embark upon one of the most ambitious projects in the city’s history by widening a milelong stretch of a key downtown thoroughfare — Robert Street.
In the early 1900s, Robert was downtown St. Paul’s most congested street. Lined with department stores, hotels and office buildings and home to a busy streetcar line, it suffered from a seemingly intractable problem — its narrowness.
Only 55 feet wide, counting sidewalks, it was the tightest of the city’s main downtown streets. Even so, Robert wasn’t especially narrow by St. Paul standards. Most other downtown streets in St. Paul had been platted at 60 feet wide (compared with 80 in Minneapolis), but the high volume of vehicular and pedestrian traffic made it a choke point that threatened downtown’s continued growth and development.
By 1910 the idea of widening the street began to gain traction, although it promised to be a monumental and costly undertaking. That year, a St. Paul civic group commissioned John Nolen and Arthur Comer to prepare a plan for improving the downtown business district. Many other American cities were rolling out grandiose plans at the time under the banner of the so-called City Beautiful movement, which had been inspired by the gleaming white Classical architecture of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (planned under Burnham’s leadership).
Nolen and Comer’s plan, unveiled in 1911, called for widening Robert (as well as Wabasha and 7th streets), among many other recommendations. Most of these ideas disappeared into the giant circular wastebasket of civic inertia, but the proposed Robert Street project, against all odds, moved ahead.
The downtown business community embraced the project. The big businesses along Robert — led by the Golden Rule, Emporium and Mannheimer Brothers department stores — not only supported the project but also agreed to an assessment plan, along with other building owners, to pay for the work.
The final plan called for widening Robert to 75 feet from the bridge at the Mississippi River to a point near the State Capitol — about 12 blocks in all. The biggest challenge was the stretch between the bridge and 8th Street, where an almost solid wall of commercial buildings, some of them very large, lined Robert. How could an extra 20 feet of roadway be carved out from such a heavily built-up part of downtown?
Several schemes were considered. One suggestion was to insert ground-floor sidewalk arcades into buildings on both sides of the street, thereby gaining added roadway. But this was found to be too costly. Another possibility was to cut 10 feet from the fronts of buildings on both sides of the street. This, too, was ruled out because so many large structures occupied the east side of Robert, including the 16-story Pioneer Building at 4th Street and the giant old Ryan Hotel at 6th.
In the end, the only plan that proved feasible was to create 20 feet of additional space along the west side of Robert. This, however, was no small feat. More than 30 buildings, some as tall as six stories and many dating to the 1880s or earlier, stood along the west side of the street between the river and 8th, and all of them had to be modified, either by lopping off their front 20 feet or tearing them down in order to accommodate the widened roadway.
Amazingly, the rebuilding was accomplished within the span of two years, between 1913 and 1915. Twenty or more buildings were truncated as part of the project. The two largest were the five-story Mannheimer department store, built in 1893, and the six-story Chamber of Commerce Building, a busy Victorian pile from 1886.
The new Mannheimer Brothers facade on Robert turned out to be much like the old one, and it takes a sharp eye to spot the differences between the before-and-after looks of the building.
The Chamber of Commerce’s makeover was more extreme. Its original facade on Robert featured pointed-arch windows and plenty of ornament. In its new guise, the building offered a far more straightforward look with Chicago-style windows (a three-part arrangement consisting of a broad, fixed central pane flanked by smaller double-hungs).
Many of the other refronted buildings along Robert took on a similar look, with Chicago-style windows and a light applique of the sort of classically derived ornament popular at the time.
There also were teardowns. The National German American Bank at 4th and Robert was razed and replaced in 1915 by a 16-story building for the Merchants National Bank (now part of the First National Bank Building complex). Meanwhile, the Golden Rule department store demolished its buildings at 7th and Robert and constructed a new store (now used as offices and known as the Golden Rule Building). Another big project, the six-story Bremer Arcade, was built just across 7th from the Golden Rule in 1916.
Today, aside from the Golden Rule and Merchants Bank buildings, nothing but Robert Street itself remains from the great makeover. Virtually all of the refronted buildings were razed by the 1980s. The Bremer Arcade hung on until it fell to the wreckers in 1998.
A street-widening project of such scale would be all but impossible today in either St. Paul or Minneapolis, given that downtown buildings tend to be much larger than they were a century ago. And, of course, the cost would be outlandish.
By contrast, the 1913-15 project was completed for around $1 million (not counting new buildings). That expenditure would translate into $50 million or more in today’s dollars. But for all the enhancements it allowed, it seems like quite a bargain.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.