Monday, October 20, 2014

Richardsonian Romanesque St. Paul - Part IV

In this last of four installments examining Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in St. Paul, Minnesota, we will look at two of the treasures this city has to offer architecture enthusiasts – the James J. Hill House and Laurel Terrace.

James J. Hill House
240 Summit Avenue
Peabody, Stearns, and Furber, architects

The largest house on Summit Avenue and in St. Paul is the imposing James J. Hill House.   Hill made his fortune in the railroad industry, becoming one of its most prominent and successful advocates.  His big break came in 1878, when he purchased the struggling St. Paul and Pacific Railroad with several other investors.  By 1890, he had greatly expanded the railroad from Canada to the Pacific Ocean, renaming it the Great Northern Railway.  He was active in numerous other businesses as well, amassing a fortune estimated at $63 million by the time of his death in 1916 – truly one of the most powerful figures of the Gilded Age. 

Rear of the Hill House

The house derives its power from its size and massing.  Faced in East Longmeadow sandstone from Massachusetts, the structure contains 36,000 square feet of living space including 42 rooms (not including 13 bathrooms, a fourth floor theater, and numerous cellars and storerooms).  The most prominent interior spaces include the reception hall nearly 100 feet long and the two-story skylit art gallery.  

Front entrance beneath porte cochere

It took three years to complete construction, and the final cost was $522,000.  An additional $400,000 was spent for the three acres of land, interior decoration, furnishings, landscaping, separate gatehouse, conservatories, power plant and “mushroom cave.”  At its completion in 1891, it was the largest and most expensive home ever built in Minnesota.

Hill was intimately involved in the design and completion of his home, rejecting Tiffany’s designs for the stair hall windows and even dismissing the architects and hiring another firm (Irving and Casson of Boston) to complete the interiors.  His desire was for a home that portrayed his success, but was not overly ornate – preferring scale over excessively detailing to impress visitors.  Even so, the interior contains 22 fireplaces, 16 chandeliers and elaborately carved oak and mahogany woodwork.

His widow remained in the house until her death in 1921.  Four years later, the family presented the home and some of the furnishings to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul (Mrs. Hill was a devout Roman Catholic).   It was acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978 and has been open to the public since that time.   Tours are offered on a regular basis, and include the expansive basement level highlighting the work spaces of the large live-in staff such as the intact laundry room and boiler room.

Basement window design similar to Glessner House

For more information, visit

Laurel Terrace
286-294 Laurel Avenue
Willcox and Johnston, architects

One of the unexpected surprises in St. Paul is Laurel Terrace, which is described in the AIA Guide to St. Paul’s Summit Avenue & Hill District as “one of the finest Victorian row houses in the United States.”  Featured in several major guidebooks to American architecture, the grouping of seven row houses is Richardsonian Romanesque at its finest in terms of materials, massing, and details.  It is the work of William Willcox and Clarence Johnston, local architects whose brief partnership in the late 1880s produced a number of significant buildings in St. Paul, of which this is generally regarded as their masterpiece.   The total cost of construction was $75,000.

Laurel Terrace is situated at a skewed intersection of Laurel Avenue and Nina Street, giving it a commanding presence at a corner that extends greater than 90 degrees.  Centered by a stately turret at the corner, the Terrace is distinctive both from a distance where the overall massing can be appreciated, as well as up close, where the numerous details delight the eye. 

The overall emphasis of the Terrace is horizontal with the recessed entry porches set beneath arches of varying heights in a regular pattern.  The second floor consists of groupings of windows in twos and threes; above that the gables set into the steeply pitched hipped roof clearly indicate each of the seven apartments.  The use of the various materials – sandstone, granite, and brick – help to differentiate the various levels as well.

Examining the houses up close, one is treated to the rich variety of ornament applied.  From the elaborate wrought iron of the porch railings to multi-colored stone used for the rosettes set to either side of the porch arches, no detail was overlooked.  

Especially interesting are a series of human faces set into the column capitals, and fanciful carved creatures appearing at various points across the façade. 

Author F. Scott Fitzgerald occupied one of the row houses as a boy with his parents and maternal grandmother during 1908 and 1909.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Richardsonian Romanesque St. Paul - Part III

St. Paul’s finest residential street is Summit Avenue – a broad street that extends for nearly five miles through the western half of the city.  Many of St. Paul’s leading architects designed mansions for the city’s business and social leaders, and today the entire Avenue is included in both local and national historic districts.

In this installment, we will examine a number of homes that were built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style during the 1880s and 1890s.  For more information on these houses, and the other homes located along Summit Avenue, see the AIA Guide to St. Paul’s Summit Avenue & Hill District (Larry Millett, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009) and St. Paul’s Historic Summit Avenue (Ernest R. Sandeen, Living Historical Museum, 1978).

Joseph Lockey House
684 Summit Avenue
Hermann Kretz, architect

The breadth of this large home is accentuated by the alternating courses of tall and short stones, which emphasize the horizontal lines of building.  The asymmetrical façade includes a four-story gabled section at right offset by a three story turret at left, the two sections connected with a broad porch. 

Farrar-Howes Houses
596-604 Summit Avenue
Clarence H. Johnston, architect

Johnston was one of St. Paul’s most prolific architects, executing numerous buildings in a variety of styles including Richardsonian Romanesque.  This grouping of five houses derives part of its design from the use of two contrasting colors of stone, differentiating the wall surface from the trim.  

The elegant symmetrical façade with Classical detailing avoids the monotony often found in row houses with slightly shorter houses at either end, and an interesting treatment for the entranceways of the three center units.

Summit Terrace
587-601 Summit Avenue
Willcox & Johnston, architects

Clarence Johnston, architect for the Farrar-Howes houses above, teamed with partner William Willcox one year earlier for the design of this row of eight brownstone houses.  The grouping is anchored at either end by a tall turret, with gabled sections, projecting bay windows, and a variety of treatments for porches and entryways creating a rich and varied façade.  

The Terrace is a National Historic Landmark, not for its architecture, but for its connection with author F. Scott Fitzgerald.  His parents moved into 593 Summit in 1914, when their son was away at Princeton.  In 1918, they moved to 599 Summit, and it was here, during the summer of 1919, that F. Scott Fitzgerald completed the manuscript that became his first novel – This Side of Paradise.

Chauncey Griggs House
476 Summit Avenue
Clarence H. Johnston, architect

This house, by prolific architect Johnston, was designed during the first year of his practice in St. Paul.  Faced in Lake Superior sandstone, it was one of the first in St. Paul to use this stone, which became very popular over time.  

Now heavily obscured by foliage, the house has a stately presence with its simple lines, arched windows at the second floor, and octagonal turret.

Edgar Long House
332 Summit Avenue
Gilbert and Taylor, architects

This house is the work of Cass Gilbert and James Knox Taylor.  Gilbert went on to become a nationally recognized architect, after designing numerous buildings in St. Paul, including the Minnesota State Capitol building.  

In this commission, the architects combined red brick and sandstone to achieve a rich façade, including fine carved detail on the turret and central gable.  The main entrance comprises a set of elegantly carved double doors set within a massive Romanesque arch.  An open porte cochere at the far left end of the building was later bricked up.

William Lightner – George Young Double House
322-324 Summit Avenue
Gilbert and Taylor, architects

Located adjacent to the Long house, these double houses continue a stretch of massive stone clad houses along this section of Summit Avenue.   The overall structure is clearly defined as two houses, with the right half more in the Renaissance Revival style with its boxy shape and Classical cornice.  The left half is more picturesque, with a pair of Romanesque arches on the front porch supporting another porch above.

William Lightner House
318 Summit Avenue
Cass Gilbert, architect

This is generally regarded as one of the finest houses along Summit Avenue.  Gilbert was at the peak of his career when he designed this house, for the same client who had commissioned half of the double-house next door, just a few years earlier.  The influence of Glessner House is clearly evident in the design, which is grounded by a large center entryway set beneath a massive sandstone arch.  Additionally, the grouping of windows above, with engaged columns in between, clearly speaks to Richardson’s design for Glessner.  However, by the time Gilbert designed this house, Romanesque was starting to fall from flavor, so elements of Classical Revival mix seamlessly in this transitional house.   The treatment of the stone is particularly effective, contrasting the sandstone trim and banding with the South Dakota quartzite used for the wall surfaces.  The stone is further delineated by utilizing tall courses of stone at the first level, and alternating courses of tall and short stones at the second.  The house was extensively restored in 2006, at which time it was converted from its later use as seven apartments, back to a single-family residence.

Next week:  The James J. Hill House and Laurel Terrace

Monday, October 6, 2014

Richardsonian Romanesque St. Paul - Part II

One of the most commanding buildings in St. Paul is the Landmark Center, located at 75 West 5th Street.  The design of the building was strongly influenced by H. H. Richardson’s Alleghany County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  This structure, designed in 1892 by the Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury, is also very similar to other structures built for the federal government during the last years of the 19th century, when the Richardsonian Romanesque style was deemed most appropriate for large government buildings.  Completed in 1902 at a cost of $2.5 million, local architects involved in the massive project included James Knox Taylor and Edward P. Bassford, as well as Cass Gilbert, who went on to design the nearby Minnesota State Capitol. 

The building housed the federal courts, post office, and custom house, and eventually was home to all of the federal offices in the Upper Midwest.  By the late 1960s, the federal government moved its offices to a new building, and the old structure was threatened with demolition.  An ambitious public campaign was launched to save the building, and it was eventually deeded to Ramsey County.   It was reopened as the Landmark Center in 1978 after an extensive restoration, which earned it numerous awards, including a top national award from the American Institute of Architects in 1980.  Today, the building is managed and programmed by Minnesota Landmarks, and is home to many of the city’s arts and cultural non-profit organizations, which sponsor a diverse range of offerings.

Several of the major interior rooms have been fully restored and are used as venues for public programming and for private events.  Visitors to the building are welcome to explore on their own and view these spectacular spaces.


The building is wrapped around a huge four-story sky lit “cortile” or atrium.  The post office occupied the ground level of this space for more than 50 years, with a louver-paneled ceiling at the second-floor level.  Supervisors could watch the postal workers from a cat-walk above the ceiling.  

The ceiling and cat-walks were removed during the restoration, opening up the space and bathing the marble wainscoting, ornate columns, and tiled floor with light from the clear skylight above.

Now the Ramsey County Room

Four courtrooms were contained within the building, which served as the Federal Courts building for the Upper Midwest.  This courtroom was the largest of the four and was the site of many well-publicized gangster trials during the 1930s – including those of Ma Barker’s son “Doc,” and John Dillinger’s lady companion, Evelyn Frechette.  An interesting feature of the two-story space is the upper balconies, where FBI G-Men, armed with Thompson sub-machine guns, kept guard to ward off escape attempts or ambushes.  

Just down the hall from the courtroom is the original “Detention Room,” now a private office.

Now the Butler Room

An interesting feature of this room is the elaborate ceiling with its molded crossbeams, discovered when the dropped ceiling and fluorescent lighting were removed during the restoration.  

The Tudor style fireplace disguised the steam heating system used throughout the building.  The room is named in honor of Associate Justice Pierce Butler, a St. Paul native who was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1923.

Now the Sanborn Room

This courtroom was used as the Court of Appeals.  Notable features include the extensive use of white marble most notably for the windows, which are said to be based on Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston.  

The huge stained glass skylight had been painted over in later years and was restored during the restoration.  The room is named for two generations of the Sanborn family who served as judges in this space.

Now the Chief Justice Room

Set beneath a spectacular stained glass dome, this is the most ornate space in the building and originally functioned as the law library, later being converted to a courtroom.  

The extensive ornamentation in the space includes female figures depicting law and justice flanking the fireplace; relief heads below the skylight depicting prominent figures in the history of law; and ornate wood carvings incorporating symbols for St. Paul, Minnesota, and the United States. 


In addition to these restored spaces there are a number of exhibits on display in the building.  These include the permanent “Uncle Sam Worked Here” exhibit on the ground level showcasing the history of the building and its restoration, and the Landmark Gallery on the lower level.  The Ramsey County Historical Society has rotating exhibits of local history in a large space located off of the “Hamm Foyer” on Sixth Street, with its original marble and mosaic floor still intact. 

The second floor features the Schubert Club Museum, with an extensive collection of early keyboard instruments and manuscripts and letters by many of the greatest composers from Mozart to Gershwin.  Also located on the second floor is the Gallery of Wood, showcasing rotating exhibits by the American Association of Woodturners.

Information taken from the “Landmark Center – A Ramsey County Property” self-guided tour brochure.

For more information, visit:

Next week:  St. Paul’s historic Summit Avenue

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Rees coach house relocated

The long-awaited relocation of the Rees coach house took place on Wednesday October 1, 2014.  In just under an hour, beginning at 8:00am, the brick masonry structure was moved about 400 feet from the southwest corner of Prairie Avenue and 21st Street to its new home at the rear of 2017 S. Prairie Avenue.   The coach house measures 25 feet wide by 35 feet deep, stands 23 feet high, and weighs 187 tons (374,000 pounds).

The Harriet F. Rees house was built in 1888-1889 at 2110 S. Prairie Avenue at a cost of $20,000.  It was designed by Henry Ives Cobb of the firm of Cobb & Frost, architects of the Potter Palmer castle (demolished), the Newberry Library, 18 buildings on the University of Chicago, the Chicago Athletic Club, the house at 1811 S. Prairie Avenue, and many other structures.  Rees, a 71 year old widow at the time construction began, died in 1892 and the house was sold to the Edson Keith Jr. family.  By 1920, during the decline of Prairie Avenue, the house was converted to a rooming house.  In 1970, it was briefly home to the Prairie House Café, and then reverted to use as apartments.  The current owners purchased the house in 2001 and have undertaken extensive restoration of the interior.  It was designated a Chicago landmark in March 2012.

The coach house has an interesting history of its own.    When Rees purchased her property in 1888 for $15,000 from Mark Kimball, who lived next door at 2108 S. Prairie Avenue, Kimball’s coach house extended across the back of both lots.  It is believed that the Kimball house was built in the late 1860s, meaning that the coach house may actually pre-date the Great Chicago Fire (which bypassed the neighborhood).  Rees acquired ownership of the south half of the coach house, and a party wall was constructed in the middle to divide it into two separate sections.  The Kimball house and its half of the coach house were demolished in the 1930s, leaving the two-story Rees coach house intact.  Interesting also is the fact that the coach house had a full basement.  Story has it that the carriages utilized the ground floor, and a ramp was used to take the horses down to the stables in the basement level.  The coachman would have occupied the rooms on the second story.

Media, including Frank Mathie from Channel 7, mixed with a crowd of curious neighbors and onlookers, as the coach house moved north on Prairie Avenue, at a rate of one to three miles per hour.  

The street had been leveled with gravel and steel plates, providing a smooth and level surface.   

After being moved back onto its new lot, the coach house was rolled onto wood cribbings that had been constructed on the base of what will form the new foundation.  

Over the next several days, more cribbing will be added, the dollies will be removed, and the foundation walls will be constructed.  Once that is complete, all of the cribbing, consisting of 6 and 8 foot hardwood beams, will be removed, and the coach house will then rest solely upon its new foundation.

In preparation for the move, the coach house was separated from its foundation using diamond-bladed masonry saws.  

Steel corner braces were installed at all four corners and chains were wrapped around the building, to keep it square and plumb.  

Jacks were then used to raise the building seven feet into the air, at which point it was placed onto six massive automated dollies and turned 90 degrees.   

While this work was ongoing, excavation at the new site was undertaken, and the floor of the new basement was poured. 

On September 25th, the structure was turned another 45 degrees and rolled to the corner where it sat on its dollies until today’s move.  

In the past two days, all of the trees along the route on the 2000 block of Prairie Avenue were cut down, and the stone base and steel plates were put into place along the planned route.

At the same time, the wood cribbing was built at the new site to support the structure once it was moved.

The main house is scheduled to be moved in early November 2014.  That move will take much longer and will be far more complicated.  For one thing, the 3-1/2 story brick and limestone house weighs in at 763 tons, more than four times the weight of the coach house.  That will make it one of the heaviest residential buildings ever moved in the United States.  Additionally, the house will need to be turned around, as the front façade will face west at its new location, rather than east as it does presently.  That will involve moving the house considerably north of its new site, almost to Cullerton, and then backing the house onto the lot. 

The move and restoration of the Rees house and coach house are being coordinated by Chicago contractor Bulley & Andrews, with Thornton Tomasetti serving as the project’s engineering firm, and Iron Workers, Machinery Movers, Riggers & Machinery Erectors Local #136 providing the necessary labor.  Wolfe House and Building Movers is performing the move of both structures, and McGuire Igleski & Associates, Inc. is serving as historic preservation consultant.    The relocation will make room for the McCormick Place Entertainment District, which will include a 10,000-seat event center on the block bounded by Prairie Avenue, 21st Street, Indiana Avenue, and Cermak Road.

This final series of photos shows the coach house turning off of Prairie Avenue and being moved back on its new site.

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