Father of Waters, Mississippi aka Old Man River
Minneapolis City Hall & Hennepin County Courthouse, Minnesota
“Father of Waters” – a magnificent marble sculpture in the grand rotunda of this historic building – has held a special place in my heart since I was a child. Going back to the early 1900s, two of my grandfather’s brothers proudly served as Minneapolis policemen, headquartered in this building. My father, and his father before him, created a cherished family memory with this iconic statue during trips to downtown Minneapolis. Our stop to visit (and rub the big toe of) this huge marble sculpture became a family tradition for several generations.
As a child, I did not yet understand the full impact of the “Father of Waters“ on me. I now believe that it instilled in me a lifelong fascination with Italian marble sculptures. As an adult international traveler: I love Italy. As an art history teacher: I love Italy’s marble sculptures. “Father of Waters” embodies both!
On our recent Travel Date to the world-class city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, my husband and I included a visit to Minneapolis City Hall & Hennepin County Courthouse. Its history, architecture, art, lore and family tradition provided a memorable trip.
The Sculpture: Father of Waters, Mississippi
“Father of Waters” while representing an American River, is as Italian as he can be. Its American sculptor, Larkin Goldsmith, was living in Florence when he created it. It is reportedly sculpted from the largest piece of marble ever taken from the famous Italian Carrara quarries, the favorite source of marble for Italian Renaissance sculptors such as Michelangelo.
Framing the sculpture are massive bronze lamp stands at the sides and colorful stained glass windows at the top of the stair landing. The three figures represent Peace (holding dove), Justice (holding sword and law book) and Community (holding bee hive).
Info from Historic Minneapolis City Hall & Hennepin County Courthouse self-guided tour
If Old Man River were to stand up, he would be more than 15 feet tall! To support his weight of over 14,000 pounds, there is a column underneath the base that continues all the way to the building foundation. (The original block of marble weighed 44 tons!)
“Father of Waters” is patterned after the famous “Father Nile” carved by an unknown Greek sculptor in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago as a tribute to the mighty African River. It now resides in Vatican City, Italy (below). I think our Minneapolis version is much, much nicer!
From New Orleans to Minnesota
Symbols of the countryside through which the Mississippi River flows on its journey from the headwaters in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico are featured.
The figure reclines on a native American blanket and leans against the paddle wheel of a riverboat. He holds a cornstalk, while surrounded by a fish net, alligator, and aquatic turtle. His head is adorned with a pine cone and leaf wreath.
It was originally commissioned for the city of New Orleans and named “Mississippi.” When New Orleans was unable to afford the statue, twelve leading Minneapolis citizens and the Minneapolis Journal purchased and presented the “Father of Waters” to the City of Lakes in 1904. Though never disclosed, the cost was estimated at $40,000.
As Italy’s famous statues and fountains dominate their plazas. . . so the “Father of Waters” dominates the Rotunda in which it resides. And during this visit, I realized that he embodies and reminds me of things I love about Italy!
The Rotunda serves as a perfect setting for Old Man River. He is surrounded by a magnificent skylight above – I wish one could get a closer look at its intricacies – colorful stained glass windows behind it and the decorative stone floors beneath.
The Rotunda hosts public gatherings and is a great space for events such as concerts, weddings and receptions. (municipalbuildingcommission.org)
The Clock Tower & Tower Bells
The Clock Tower is the most prominent feature of the exterior of City Hall. When built in 1916, the distinctive clock tower on this historic building was heralded as the largest public timepiece in the world. Its four clock faces each measure 23 feet 6 inches in diameter. Yes; it is bigger than London’s Big Ben – by 6″!
The Tower Bells are also iconic! Just as we were greeted with the sound of bells on our recent visit to St. John’s Abbey and Church, the bells of City Hall warmly welcomed us on our recent visit to downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Clock Tower
The Clock Tower is the most prominent feature of the exterior of City Hall. Rising to a height of 345 feet (400 at the tip of the flagstaff), it was the tallest structure in the city until the Foshay Tower was completed in 1929.
Each minute hand is over 14 feet long. It was once calculated that the tip of the minute hand travels 110 miles each year. When the original backlit glass faces began to crack in 1949, a new set of metal clock faces with neon lighting was installed. (Note the perspective given by size of worker in the 12:00 position!
Info from municipalbuildingcommission.org/visitors/history
Bigger than Big Ben!
The distinctive green roof is not original; the original roof was slate tiles. They started leaking and occasionally fell to the street below causing a safety hazard! In 1950, the copper roof was installed over the original roof, which has since acquired its glamorous green patina.
Info from Historic Minneapolis City Hall & Hennepin County Courthouse self-guided tour and towerbellfoundation.org
The Tower Bells
Atop the tower and the clock are 15 bells. Every hour, quarter and half-hour you will hear the bells play the Westminster Chime. The bells carry such power that, upon complaints from distant communities, a measure was passed against ringing the bells between 11:00 pm and 5:00 am!
Manufactured in New York, each weigh from 300 to 7,300 pounds – over 14 tons total! Originally played by pressing large wooden levers, they are now electronic. Interesting note is that it is the only American-made set that can plan the “Star Spangled Banner” in the original key!
The legacy of the bell ringers is fascinating! Between 1912 and 1969, Joseph Henry “Hank” Auld would climb 447 steps to the unheated bell tower to play the bells by candlelight on holidays and special occasions. His son, Edward, accompanied him into the tower for bell concerts. When Hank retired at age 84, his son continued his legacy until he retired in 2001 at age 88. Since 1972, the bells have been played from a keyboard located in the rotunda by members of the Tower Bell Foundation. Their concert schedule can be found on their website (towerbellfoundation.org)
Public access to the top of the tower is not permitted. However, the passage to get there is fascinating and worth a mention! As noted in the bell tower website, to get to the bells at the top of the Minneapolis City Hall “you pass through an old vault before inching up a tiny elevator to the 13th floor of the clock tower. Step out, and you’ll find sweeping views and a set of 15 weathered bells, but you won’t find anyone ringing them. The room where someone used to play sits empty. A sheet draped over the old controls collects dust, but this tradition is not lost. For an hour every week volunteers proudly play this contraption. These 25 keys were wired to the tower bells in the 70’s making it much easier to play the bells, no longer needing to climb the 300 stairs as their predecessors did.”
The Architecture & Building Exterior
National Register of Historic Places
Built between 1887 and 1906, Minneapolis City Hall and Courthouse is one of the top historic buildings in Minneapolis; it is listed on the NRHP.
Comprising a full city block, it is between 4th Street on the north and 5th Street on the south and 3rd and 4th Avenues at its sides.
The 4th Street (north) entrance opens into a stunning 4-story atrium and its center-piece, the 14,000 pound marble statue of Old Man River – the Father of the Waters.
City Hall & Clock Tower, P.C. Cher B 06 August 2021
Richardsonian Romanesque Style*
Built in the same style at the St. Paul Landmark Center – it was designed by the firm of Long and Kees. The style was popular in 1882 and characterized by massive surfaces, heavily worked stone, stained glass and windows with arches.
*Romanesque was originally a Medieval architectural style based on ancient Roman architecture; a modern architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, brought it back into vogue with a 19th century twist.
The south entrance opens to the light rail line.
However, one must enter from the north side on 4th Street to appreciate the breathtaking rotunda and the marble sculpture.
City Hall & Clock Tower, P.C. Cher B 06 August 2021
A Bit of History
The base of the building is formed by massive blocks of limestone, weighing up to 26 tons each!
Granite for the building was hauled by horse and cart from Ortonville, Minnesota, over 160 miles away. Many blocks of granite weighed more than 20 tons!
I was intrigued by the fact that, after the building’s completion, not only did both Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis government offices move in – but also a blacksmith shop, a horse stable, a wool brokerage, and a chicken hatchery came to live in the new City Hall.
While many administrative offices have moved out, as well as the various shops and animal pens, Minneapolis City Hall and Courthouse is still primarily used for governing purposes.
Info and photo from municipalbuildingscommission.org and Historic Minneapolis city Hall & Hennepin Country Courthouse Self-Guided Tour
Besides the nostalgia of recalling fond times on an outing with my dad while rubbing the statue’s big toe, I realized that I enjoyed this visit in a much deeper way. As a “culturally literate” adult, I can more fully appreciate the artistic quality of the carving of the marble sculpture. I observed the opulent setting of the rotunda. . . the grand marble stairs and railings. . . the intricate stained glass windows. . . the beautiful skylight above. I was surprised at the emotional connections I discovered between my love for Italy and its art as an adult – with the deep memory of a wonderful childhood experience.
- Address: 350 South Fifth Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55415 – enter 4th Street north side for immediate access to Rotunda and “Father of Waters” sculpture
- Hours: 8:00 am – 4:30 pm Monday-Friday
- Admission: FREE
- Parking: On-street metered parking or in an underground ramp under the Hennepin County Government Center. Watch out for one-way streets.
- Self-guided tour can be printed out from the website: municipalbuildingcommission.org
- Visitors can stop in for a Tower Bell concert or even rent out the atrium for a wedding surrounded by marble staircases and stained glass. See website above or towerbellfoundation.org
Safe, Quiet & Peaceful
On our visit on 06 August 2021, the site was quiet and peaceful. Aside the helpful guard who sat at an information desk, we were practically the only ones in the Rotunda. Recently reinstated mask mandates were posted, the only restrictions that impacted our delightful visit.
- Self-guided tour by Cher B on 06 August 2021
- Brochure: Self-Guided Tour of Historic Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County Courthouse
- All photos by Cher B and Skip B except where noted.