Friday, June 10, 2011

Netroots Nation: My St. Paul

St. Paul is easily the best-kept secret in Minnesota. Yes it is the capitol. Yes is has a bunch of state offices. But generally speaking, even most Minnesotans rarely go there so it has become this quiet and extraordinarily beautiful bedroom community with some very nice colleges.

This building was designed by Minnesota's most famous early architect, Cass Gilbert who would go on to design such building as the Woolworth building in New York. It was started in 1896 and completed in 1905.

The capitol approaches contain several sculptures of famous Minnesotans. One of my favorites is by Paul Granlund of Charles Lindbergh. From the front, you see the young aviator dressed to fly to Paris.

Walk around behind and you Granlund's conception of Lindbergh as a young boy imagining flight.

But St. Paul's real charm is its neighborhoods and perhaps the most charming is called Cathedral Hill. A boarded up slum by the 1970s, it was rescued from the bulldozers mostly by a gay community who refused to see something so fabulous lost.

By 1980, the housing stock on the Hill was beginning to look more like this.

This house had been abandoned and thoroughly looted. It was also moved.

These Victorian rowhouses had been chopped into 46 rooming units and then completely neglected.

But there were signs this had once been a prime neighborhood. For one thing, the curbs are granite. For another, it had graceful touches like this Cass Gilbert Episcopalian church. So many rich folks had willed assets to the church over the years that it could essentially live off its coupons. So without a conservative congregation (the money-givers in most churches) to please, the gay community sort of moved in and upgraded the music and the banners.

Then they organized to rebuild the Lytchgate. Lytch is an old-english term for a corpse and a Lytchgate is supposed to be large enough to shelter a coffin and the pallbearers. At St. Clements, the churchyard had never been used as a cemetery (zoning reasons) but the gate had become extremely popular for wedding pictures and a drawing of it was used as the church logo. So even though it had become so rotten it was a hazard, folks wanted it around. It was rebuilt to extremely careful measurments so this is a completely faithful recreation of the original Gilbert design down to the the location of the Gothic detailing.

And 35 years later, it needs some paint but is still is pretty good shape and folks still love to sit in it.

The southern border of the Cathedral Hill neighborhood was this street of oversized mansions built by the empire builders called Summit Avenue. The largest was ordered up by James J. Hill, the railroad man. As these guys go, he was pretty enlightened--especially in contrast to the thieves like Vanderbilt. But when he built his house, some of his instincts got in his way.

Example: he imported German woodcarvers who carved details for over three years. Unfortunately, the carvings are almost painfully ugly.

Example: he built a system to blow stream up the downspouts after a big snow to keep them open. This plus a bunch of other features just like it meant this house used so much energy in a Minnesota winter that Hill had to have a spur laid to his powerhouse so he could have coal delivered by the train car.

Of course, Hill needed something uplifting out his front door so he helped Bishop John Ireland build a cathedral of granite. Made his Catholic wife happy. And Ireland made sure that St. Paul Catholics didn't get any crazy ideas about organizing unions in Hill's shops. The cathedral recently had an expensive facelift so it looks like it did when new up close.

Not surprisingly, artists like Cathedral Hill. Garrison Keillor not only lives in the neighborhood, he has this utterly delightful little bookstore in the Dakotah building at the corner of Selby and Western. It is right behind the woman on the computer and just below the coffee shop. If you look very carefully, you can make out some of the store's posters through the skylight below the railing. Kiellor doesn't want to force himself an anyone--he is SUCH a Protestant!

In spite of there being essentially no reason for a downtown to even exist in St. Paul, boosters keep trying to keep it vital. Here we have newer (3M) money on display. Officially the Ordway is the home of the St. Paul chamber orchestral but it is used by an assortment of performers. It was built during the design revolt against modernism so the interior has lots of mahogany, velvet, and crystal. FUN!

Around the corner from the Ordway is the Hill Public Library. Minnesota has some spectacular libraries and this one is especially amazing. Perhaps Hill thought he was giving too much to the Catholic Church and needed this to compensate.

These public buildings surround Rice Park. It is usually quite beautiful here anytime but it especially stunning during the ice sculpture contest held here during the Winter Carnival. There are commercial buildings to the east of this little jewel pictured below.

Directly behind the Hill Library is the Science Museum of Minnesota. LOTS of science-based industry in Minnesota. It is never too early to get kids interested in science is an adage firmly believed by folks who work in the field.

Once you get to the Science Museum, you can see the Mississippi. You can see the River from hundreds of places both public and private all over St. Paul. It is the city's most scenic feature.


  1. I just visited St. Paul from Canada while taking my little guy to a hockey game. I will definitley be returning. It is a beautiful city with wonderful people. We felt welcome and safe during our stay.

  2. I went to a contemporary art fair in Shanghai recently, which was a real eye-opener. Chinese contemporary art has come leaps and bounds from the watery Zen landscapes to huge canvases of strange-looking beings. The prices being asked and paid were huge too.
    Oriental, if not Chinese, my print of Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting,, bought some time ago from, is as lovely as ever.