St. Paul City Hall & Ramsey County Courthouse
Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA
Unable to travel abroad due to the pandemic restrictions, my husband and I continue to embark on a summer of “Skip & Cher Travel Dates” to the world class cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, just out our back door. If we were visitors to these cities, these are places that would be on our must-see list! We’d like to share them with you!
On this Travel Date, we explored downtown St. Paul. Parking our car in a free public lot on Harriet Island, we walked across the Mississippi River on the Wabasha Bridge. The great lookout points provided a wonderful view of Raspberry Island. (See separate blog to follow)
This blog covers one of the city’s fabulous historic and artistic masterpiece – the St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse. It is open to the public; FREE! Here are the highlights.
St. Paul City Hall & Ramsey County Courthouse
St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse
In line with the 1920s race of who could build the highest skyscraper (think: The battle of the race to be the tallest between the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building in NYC!) – this 21-story monument to high-rise architecture opened in 1932 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Capturing the highlights of American Art Deco “Skyscraper Style” architecture, it uses both the American Perpendicular and Zigzag Moderne Art Deco styles.
The stark, straight lines and angles were vastly different from the ornate architectural periods before it (e.g. St. Paul Cathedral, 1915; Minnesota State Capitol , 1905). Publicly, it was either embraced as innovative – or shunned as boring – both then and still today.
Bad News – Good News
Also significant is that it was built under unique circumstances – at a very unique time in history. Designed by architects Holabird and Root (Chicago) and Ellerbe and Co (St. Paul), it was originally financed by a $4 million public bond offering in 1928.
Within a year came the 1929 stock market crash. Cost of labor and materials also crashed and the building was able to be finished with fine artistic details and domestic and foreign woods and marbles. (Compare that to cost of renovation of $48.8 million in 1989-95!)
The St. Paul City Hall & Ramsey Country Courthouse were included on an assignment given my college art history students. The project was to personally visit, photograph, and complete a photo/journal of ten of the Twin Cities’ architectural masterpieces (25 options). In their final project reflections, they often concluded that the architecture of this building was uninteresting, especially when comparing it to the St. Paul Cathedral, the Minnesota State Capitol and the Landmark Center all of which were just down the street or around the corner. At first glance, they were probably right.
Students were encouraged to “GO INSIDE” if and when possible. However, they often encountered closed buildings on weekends (when students were most free to do the visits). They typically never made it inside this phenomenal interior to marvel at the statue and study the nuances of art deco design on the elevator doors. Knowing the treasures inside this architectural masterpiece, their disappointment grieved me as their professor. I hope this blog will encourage you to GO INSIDE when you visit it!
Through the century, the building was deemed worthy of recognition and in 1983 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Co-owned by Ramsey County and the City of St. Paul, it houses state, county and city offices.
This main public entrance includes a security check point scanner similar to that used by TSA at the airport. Be prepared to remove belts, and not have anything that closely resembles a weapon (including a small pocket knife).
Vision of Peace Onyx Statue
Dedicated in 1936 to the war veterans of Ramsey County, it is a tribute to everlasting peace. “Out of the smoke of tobacco and fire arises in their imaginations, their vision of peace, talking to them and to the world.” wrote Swedish sculptor Carl Miles, a pacifist, who designed the work. His inspiration for the masterpiece came from a peace pipe ceremony he attended in Oklahoma.
The massive and splendid “Vision of Peace” onyx statue is without question the highlight of the building and dominates the first floor. If you do nothing else then enter the lobby to gaze at its magnificence, that is worth the time for the security check and brief visit.
It is the largest carved onyx figure in the world. The 60-ton, 36′ high statue depicts five Native Americans sitting around a fire smoking their pipes of peace. In one hand, the figure holds a peace pipe; the other hand signals a gesture of good will. It was officially named Vision of Peace in 1994 at a special community ceremony involving 3 major Minnesota Native American tribes.
Before it ever got to Minnesota, the statue had a very arduous journey! Originally the statue was to be made of glass, but it was not possible using available technologies. Instead, 98 blocks of onyx were ordered from a quarry in Pedera, Mexico. The blocks were driven 50 miles by ox cart to be shipped to San Diego, were St. Paul stone cutter, Giovanni John Garatti, sorted through the blocks and shipped 70 of them to St. Paul. He and 19 local stone carvers created the Vision of Peace, which has 38 sections cemented together on a steel backbone with bronze ribs.
The statue rotates on a motorized turntable, 66 degrees to the left and 66 degrees to the right. It takes 1 1/2 hours to complete an almost undetectable rotation.
(All info taken from the self-guided walking tour of the building, available at ramseycounty.us)
Art Deco Elevator Doors
The six elevator doors feature bronze reliefs sculptures by New York artist Albert Steward. They depict six periods of history and industrial growth important to the county and city.
Art Deco Elevator doors
The interior of the building features Zigzag Moderne, an Art Deco-style derived from a 1925 Paris art exhibition.
The Art Deco theme is displayed throughout the building on details including the bronze elevator doors, light fixtures, stair railings, lobby mailbox, door handles, locks an more. The bronze door fixtures were manufactured specifically for the building.
Themes portrayed include an Indian and teepee, a black slave working along the Mississippi, a farmer, a factory, a train, a Bunsen burner, a worker carrying a power tool, and the Saint Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse itself.
When built, these were the second fastest elevators, next to those in the Empire state Building.
Travel Tip: The elevators are key to a self-guided tour of the building. They are accessed in the hall just behind the onyx statue. Take the one closest to the statue and first go to the 18th floor to visit the Law Library and its great views of the city. You can see for miles! Then, on the way down, stop at every floor (yes, you heard right! It was our official instructions – for a logical reason!). Each elevator lobby is made of unique woods and marbles from around the world. (Hint: Save time by holding the door open, jumping out to read to plaque just outside the door with details, and jumping back in to make the next stop at the floor below!)
At the 3rd floor – STOP – get off of the elevator and explore. Treasure await! Just steps from the elevator lobby are a close up of face of the onyx statue – a ship’s bell from the USS Saint Paul – and great overview of the lobby. Engraved in marble, along the walls of the first 3 floors, are names of Ramsey County soldiers who died in World War I, World War II, The Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Lastly, stop at the Basement Lower Level for a special historical exhibit well worth the extra few minutes of time. Then walk up the art deco staircase to the 1st floor exit. (By this time, it may be helpful to know that the Restrooms on this level are close by and easily accessible!)
18th Floor: Law Library & Great Views
Lower Level Exhibits
It includes historic exhibit space. Two items were of particular interest to me: the model of the building (see left) and an artwork created from a piece of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis which tragically collapsed in 2010 (see right).
There are meeting and conference rooms, and a commons room (see left behind the model) with a wall to wall glass mural of etched and cast images summarizing the history of Ramsey County and City of St. Paul. It is complete with a narrated light show available on guided tours. (It might be worth another trip sometime?!)
- FREE Admission (during open hours, typically M-F, daytime business hours – check website)
- Self-guided tour available to print out at the website ramseycounty.us
- Guided tours available. Call 651-222-4786 for more info or to schedule a tour. rchs.com Ramsey County Historical Society.
- Note that this is a working building; not all rooms are available to tour at all times.
- Security clearance, similar to TSA airport screening, is in place for all visitors.
Map of downtown St. Paul with places visited on our Travel Dates and included in my blog.
Review of the “Skip & Cher Travel Dates” in St. Paul, MN
- Our last St. Paul Travel Date toured the Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul Cathedral and St. Paul Brewing.
- On this Travel Date, we immersed ourselves in the Rice Park area with a tour of the historic Landmark Center and a culinary stop at Herbie’s in the Park.
- We then focused on sites overlooking the Mississippi River as discussed in this blog on the Government Center.
- We finished this Travel Date with a look at Raspberry Island and a culinary stop at the City House.
- All photos taken by Cher B or Skip B, 09 July 2021
- Self-guided tour by Cher and Skip B (09 July 2021)
- Self-guided walking tour brochure of Saint Paul City Hall – Ramsey County Courthouse (ramseycounty.us, 09 July 2021)