Monday, September 29, 2014

Richardsonian Romanesque St. Paul - Part I


St. Paul, Minnesota possesses many wonderful architectural landmarks.  During the last two decades of the 19th century, a number of prominent architects working in the city embraced the Richardsonian Romanesque style for some of the most distinctive buildings ever constructed in St. Paul.  The heavy and solid Romanesque style, with its illusions to the past, provided a sense of tradition and permanence in the new “western cities” of the United States, such as St. Paul.  In this article, the first of several to explore how H. H. Richardson’s Romanesque style was embraced and interpreted by others in St. Paul, we will explore one college building and several commercial buildings, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Old Main, Macalester College
1600 Grand Avenue


Macalester College was founded in 1874 by Rev. Dr. Edward Duffield Neill as a Presbyterian-affiliated but nonsectarian liberal arts college.  It opened in 1885 with just over 50 students.  It was at that time that architect William H. Willcox was commissioned to design the first new structure for the college.  Completed in 1887, the building, now known as “Old Main,” embraced the Richardsonian Romanesque style with its heavy base and porte cochere of rusticated stone and arched windows of various sizes and groupings set into the brick walls above.  Willcox had practiced in Chicago throughout the 1870s and arrived in St. Paul in 1882, designing numerous structures during his decade there.  The college remains one of the top-rated liberal arts colleges in the United States, and alumni include Reader’s Digest founder DeWitt Wallace, vice president Walter Mondale, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Great Northern Building
281 E. Kellogg Street


This substantial seven-story brick structure was built in 1887 to house the corporate offices of the Great Northern Railroad, by its president, James J. Hill.  The architect, James Brodie, was the in-house architect for the company, and later served as construction superintendent for Hill’s massive residence on St. Paul’s exclusive Summit Avenue.  


The most distinctive feature of the building is its massive and heavy rusticated stone entrance arch; the same stone forms the base around the entire building.  In contrast, delicate foliate carvings decorate the arch and engaged side columns (see image at top of article).  Large arched windows at the first floor level are referenced with the smaller and simpler arched windows at the upper three levels.  Recently converted to residential use, the original brick barrel-vaulted ceilings have been left exposed in the units.

Walsh Building
189-191 E. Seventh Street


This modest three-story commercial building constructed of rich red brick with stone trim in 1888, derives its prominence from the generous arched windows at the second level, in groupings of two and three.  The cornice is embellished with a detailed brick parapet wall above, and a slender turret at the corner.  The architect, Edward Bassford, was a native of Maine who arrived in St. Paul in 1866, and by the 1870s was the busiest architect in the city.  He designed numerous houses, schools, as well as commercial buildings such as the Walsh.  His office employed several architects who went on to prominent careers of their own, including Cass Gilbert, who later designed three state capitol buildings (including Minnesota), and the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.

Merchants National Bank
366 Jackson Street


This building, another design by Edward Bassford was opened in 1892 to house the Merchants National Bank.  The striking rusticated sandstone exterior features window openings of different sizes and designs at each level, resulting in a richly ornamented surface.  Large two story windows at the lower levels illuminated the banking room, while the paired windows on the third and fourth levels show the location of the offices.  


Polished columns at these floors embellish the windows, which are set beneath a high detailed cornice and parapet, all executed in the same stone.  The building was restored in recent years by David A. Brooks and is now known as the Brooks Building.

Saint Paul Building
6 W. Fifth Street


This eight-story office building of Lake Superior sandstone occupies a prominent corner at Fifth and Wabasha Streets.  Constructed in 1889 and based upon a design by architect J. Walter Stevens, the composition of base, shaft, and capital groups the floors into three distinct sections.  The lower two floors, heavily rusticated, are joined with tall two-story columns along the long side of the building, with huge windows set in between.  


The next four stories, with less rustication, feature windows grouped in pairs which are set beneath larger, highly decorated arches at the top of the sixth story.  The final two stories are composed of tall narrow windows with very thin columns connecting the two levels, all set beneath a projecting bracketed cornice. 

Pioneer-Endicott Building
141 E. Fourth Street


This large complex was built as two separate buildings in the late 1880s.  The corner Pioneer Building, constructed between 1887 and 1889, is a design by Chicago architect Solon S. Beman (designer of the Town of Pullman, the Kimball mansion on Prairie Avenue, and the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, amongst many others in Chicago).  


In 1890, the L-shaped Endicott Building was designed by Cass Gilbert and James Knox Taylor and wrapped the Pioneer on two sides.  The two buildings were connected by arcades in the 1940s, and the complex has been known as the Pioneer-Endicott ever since.  


The Pioneer Building was significant in its day.  At 13 stories, it was tallest building in St. Paul at the time, and remained the tallest building west of Chicago until 1915.  A 36-foot wide light well provided light and ventilation and featured the first glass elevators in the United States, which could travel 300 feet per minute.  It has recently been converted to more than 200 luxury apartments.


Next week:  The Federal Courts Building, now the Landmark Center

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Preserving the beauty of the White Mountains

The Glessners' summer home, The Rocks, in New Hampshire

Exactly 125 years ago, during the summer of 1889, John J. Glessner penned a letter to the editor of a local newspaper near his summer home in New Hampshire.  Entitled “Good Advice to Mountain Folk – A Few Words of Truth and Importance by a Prominent Summer Resident,” the article shared Glessner’s thoughts on the importance of preserving the natural beauty of the White Mountains, which he felt was being compromised with signage and other manmade intrusions.  In addition to preserving the landscape in and of itself, Glessner was also careful to point out that it was the natural beauty that drew many visitors to the area every summer, bolstering the local economy.  Glessner would go on to write many more articles on this topic, and was among the earliest members of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests when it was organized in 1901.  In the late 1970s, nearly 1,300 acres of his summer estate “The Rocks” was donated to the Society by his grandchildren, a fitting tribute to this early conservationist.  The text of the 1889 article, in its entirety, follows.

A view from the Glessners' home at The Rocks

On an eminence a little to the south of the carriage-road between Bethlehem and Littleton, and about midway between those villages stands the “Rocks,” the summer abode of Mr. J. J. Glessner of Chicago.  During a few years residence amid its beautiful surroundings, that gentleman’s keen eye has detected many shortcomings of the resident population, and, in a letter published in a recent number of the LITTLETON JOURNAL, has, in a few kindly words, made some valuable suggestions to follow.  Here is what he says.

I wonder if the people of the White Mountain region appreciate the grand scenery in the midst of which they dwell.  Frequently the things which we come in contact with every day are not highly prized.  I imagine that here in Chicago, with its dead level surroundings, even though it has a considerable elevation above the sea level, we think more of the hills and rocks and forests and magnificent scenery of Grafton and Coos counties than do the people who see these beauties constantly.

Looking from the porch at The Rocks

Not only have you the bracing air and pure water and all things so grateful to the denizens of the cities, but the beautiful surroundings are greater attractions than you realize, and draw the summer visitors to your neighborhood.  With the advent of the summer visitor comes not only gaiety, but a handy and profitable market for your commodities and labor.  Under other circumstances the produce and labor must go to market, but here the market comes to the produce and labor, and it is because this influx of summer visitors is pleasant and profitable to you, that I ask whether you fully appreciate the beauty of the surroundings and their market value.

Personally I am not anxious to have many city people visit the mountains in summer, for it increases somewhat the cost of my living there, and I see enough city people in general at other seasons; but it has a money value to you, in that it enhances the selling price of butter and eggs and poultry and vegetables, and gives employment to hundreds of people and horses, etc. etc.

But the pure air and the pure water are not enough to fill your hotels.  City people, with their eyes full of city dust, and their ears deafened with city din, want something pleasant to look upon, and your people are not careful enough in preserving the natural scenery.  It is all right and desirable to have neat fences, well-cleared and cultivated fields, substantial barns, comfortable houses, etc., but do not mar the boulders or fences or barns with advertising signs, do not destroy the beautiful wild shrubbery that lines the roadsides; do not cut down the fine trees on the farm, or by any act reduce the natural attractions of your surroundings.  As it is now, many persons feel repaid for a journey half the world over to visit the White Mountains.  I have personally known Englishmen who came to the United States merely to see the White Mountain country while the forests were in their gorgeous autumn coloring.  But you may be sure a sign on a boulder advertising some one’s liver pills, or a board nailed to a barn advertising the tourists to take the Fall River Steamers, or a bridge lettered to show the virtues of somebody’s bitters, nor yet a dirty barnyard visible from the road, or a roadside devoid of shrubbery, or a field showing the deformities made by the woodman’s axe, help in any way to draw the visitor or induce him to lighten his pocketbook.  These things are not congruous with the landscape.

A view through a window at The Rocks

The wild flowers of Northern New England, the asters, goldenrod, ferns and maple bush, even the hazel-bush, are beautiful beyond your thoughts.  Make a good drive-way by all means, smooth it and drain it properly, but do not destroy the shrubbery at its sides.  Have good fences, walls or board fences, but do not deface them with signs, and never permit such an indignity as painting anything on the noble rocks.  Keep your barnyards and dooryards clean, it is both profitable and pleasant to you.  Keep your dwelling and other buildings in good repair; that is pleasant and profitable, too.  But as far as possible let Nature alone.  Do not try to improve upon her work.  In both extremes she surpasses all that you can do; hers are more delicate and graceful, and again greater and grander than any workman ever can do.

The summer traveler may be selfish and supercilious; he may be a cad and disagreeable; he may not be a model for imitation by your sons, but he spends money, he helps to make your farm and labor profitable.  Cultivate him, cherish him, even pamper him, do all in your power to induce him to come again and bring his family and friends, but do not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; do not damage or deface or destroy the natural scenery about you.

My great admiration for your many attractions has induced the writing of this letter, and I shall be more than pleased if through your courtesy, Mr. Editor, my words have even a slight influence.


Monday, September 15, 2014

A Home for the Servants


The Glessner house was not only home to four members of the Glessner family, but also their live-in servants.  Situated on a large corner lot, the design of the house provided for separate entrances for family and servants, and furthermore, separate entrances for the female and male servants.  The servants even had their own separate address.

The photograph shown above, taken about 1890 by the Glessners’ son George, depicts the female servants’ entrance facing 18th Street.  The entrance, set within a dramatic arch and concealing the doorway at far left, is one of the most distinctive and most photographed features of the exterior of the house.  Visitors to this day, especially those approaching from the west, often stop at the entrance, assuming it must be the main entrance to the house.

The image is interesting for two reasons.  For one, George carefully posed the photograph to capture the silhouette of the cook in the kitchen window set within the arch.  The shade is pulled down and the cook is illuminated from behind, giving a clear silhouette of her head.  Additionally, a bronze plaque mounted on to the granite clearly indicates the address used by the servants – 35 Eighteenth Street.


Early addresses for east-west streets in the city did not use State Street as a dividing line, and as such addresses did not include “East” or “West.”  The system was to start the numbering at the lake and then proceed west.  The shoreline of Lake Michigan was much closer to Glessner house than it is today, as indicated by the low number of the address.  When these streets were renumbered in 1909, State Street became the zero mark, and the address of the servants’ entrance became 225 E. 18th Street.

The original “35” address plaque, with its distinctive font, was replaced, and the new “225” plaque remained in place for the remainder of the Glessners’ lives.  At some point after the house passed to the Armour Institute, the plaque was removed, and the fact that the servants had their own address was all but forgotten.  During the 125th anniversary of the house in 2012, docents Jackie Walker Dunscomb and Joan Stinton generously funded the creation of a new “35” address plaque, as a way to help interpret the lives of the many servants who called the house home through the decades.  The plaque was installed during the last week of August 2014.


In consultation with master metal smith John LaMonica, Alice Melita Steffen was engaged to design and craft the new plaque.  Steffen, shown above with the new plaque, is a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, where she received a First Class Honors Degree in Sculpture and Environmental Art.  She also studied at the London City and Guilds Art School and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is what brought her to the United States from Great Britain.  She was delighted to have the opportunity to work on Glessner House, given her long interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement, which she considers to be a major influence in her work.

The plaque was cast in bronze using the “lost wax process.”  The process begins by making a replica of the plaque in wood, from which a plaster mold was produced.  The historic photograph of the plaque was used to determine the overall size, and the design of the numbers.  Hot wax was then poured into the plaster mold and then “chased” to remove imperfections in the wax replica.  The replica was then “sprued,” which involves the addition of a tree-like structure that allows the molten bronze to flow into the mold and the air to escape.

The sprued wax plaque was then dipped into a slurry of silica repeatedly to create a ceramic shell around the mold.  The shell was then placed into a kiln allowing the wax to melt (flow out) leaving a hollow mold, hence the name “lost wax process.”  Bronze was melted in a furnace and then carefully poured into the mold.  The shell mold was then allowed to cool before sand blasting to reveal the rough bronze cast.  The sprues were cut off and the plaque was finished by hand to remove any imperfections and polished. 

Liver of sulfur was rubbed into the numbers to give them a dark cast, and then a patina was applied to the bronze to provide a protective coating and to inhibit corrosion and weathering.  Finally, the plaque was installed using epoxies to attach it permanently to the granite, in exactly the same place as the original.



Today, the plaque is a visible reminder of the many men and women who called the house at the southwest corner of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street home from 1887 until 1936. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Tableaux Vivants

Fanny Glessner as Yum Yum

Exactly 125 years, on August 31, 1889, Frances Glessner noted in her journal, “Isa (Coolidge) went to town with George to buy some articles for the evening – they were getting up some tableaux.”  The family was in residence at their summer home, The Rocks, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the tableaux were to provide the evening entertainment.

The term tableau vivant (tableaux vivants plural) means “living picture” in French, and refers to amateurs or professionals dressed and posed to represent works of art or other scenes.  During each tableau, the people on display do not speak or move.  This form of entertainment became very popular in the 19th century, before the widespread availability of color reproductions of artwork.  The tableaux might be presented in a drawing room following dinner, as a sideshow at a county fair, or elaborately staged in a theatre, one following another to tell a story.  The idea was similar to the “magic lantern shows” that became popular during the Victorian era.

The tableaux vivants to be presented at The Rocks were announced by a formal notice, as indicated in the journal:

“We found a notice put up in the hall that an entertainment would be given for the benefit of The Rocks.  John pinned another one above it saying the proceeds would be used to provide water for the great unwashed heathen visiting The Rocks.”

The latter reference being a humorous acknowledgement of the house guests then in residence, a few of whom were forced into participating.  Elizabeth Sprague and Caroline Kirkland both “rebelled strongly at being put on exhibition” but only Miss Kirkland was able to get out of it. 

The tableaux drew upon characters ranging from opera to ancient civilizations.  Fanny portrayed two characters – Yum Yum from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and Brunhilde from Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung.

Fanny Glessner as Brunhilde

The entertainment proceeded thusly:

“The first tableau was of Fanny as Yum Yum – bound up in a window curtain and bed quilt.  Then Miss Coolidge as an Indian with a drawn bow made of a barrel hoop.  This one they called a truthful savage.  Then Elizabeth in a white Grecian costume (cheese cloth), “the modern liar,” all to illustrate something I said about civilization making people lie.  Then Miss Scharff was an Egyptian princess – then all four together.  Then came Fanny as Brunhilde stretched out on the lounge which was covered with my shawl – her dress was of cheese cloth – both arms bare – hair down – a wing affair on her head (turkey wings) a spear of paste board and the Brown’s boiler cover laid over her dear little stomach and lungs.  George stood by her – with a bare arm, one of the fur rugs bound over him, a blonde wig, made of rope, on his head.  He awakened Fanny with a kiss – we pelted them with flowers which had been thrown out in the afternoon.”


And thus drew to a close a charming evening of entertainment, forever preserved in Frances Glessner’s journal and in these two photographs taken by her son George.
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