1.14. DUELING SKYSCRAPERS: ST. PAUL

Cartoon published in St. Paul Globe, December 25, 1886. Mix’s Globe Building is directly in the center of the drawing. Note the 24-story stepback skyscraper annex in the center left and the elevated train supported solely by iron framing in the foreground, (Millet, Lost Twin Cities )

But the Twin Cities needed an architect with tall building expertise if it really was going to surpass Chicago’s architectural achievements.  This exact experience moved to Minneapolis in early 1886, in the form of former Milwaukee architect, E. Townsend Mix.  Mix, who had worked with Peter B. Wight in using his newly-patented terra cotta fireproofing systems for the first time in the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and Mitchell Buildings (see Vol. 3, Sec. 3.7), and who had taken second place in the New York Produce Exchange competition, had moved to Minneapolis apparently to take advantage of the building boom.  He brought the brick box with him, for compared to the great, rough-faced sandstone masses of Long & Kees, Mix employed the latest Chicago pressed brick techniques.  This is readily apparent in his first building in Minneapolis, the eight-story Temple Court Building designed in 1886. 

Above: E. Townsend Mix, Temple Court Building, Minneapolis, 1886. (Millet, Lost Twin Cities); Below: Burnham & Root, Burlington Building (left); Counselman Building (right).

In this building, one can easily see the influence of Root’s work.  Mix articulated the elevations into a two-story base, with three, two-story layers supported on top of it.  Each of these layers comprised of a two-story arcade of either single- or paired-windows that had the feel of those that Root used in the Burlington and Counselman Buildings.  The only difference in the detailing of the three layers was that the lower two employed segmental arches, while the top arcade incorporated semicircular arches, inset into a rectilinear framework.  This was capped by an open grid cornice that again, seemed to owe its inspiration to Root’s competition drawing for the Kansas City Board of Trade.

Ice Palace (140’ high) for the First St. Paul Winter Carnival, February 1886. (Online)

Surprisingly, all of these towering structures were built in flat, unlimited Minneapolis (“a ten-story building in a ten-acre lot requires explanation”).  St. Paul’s real estate market apparently wasn’t in need of the potential extra floor space created by the elevator prior to 1886.  However, one construction material that St. Paul did pioneer with that is less celebrated by architectural historians but nonetheless merits a brief mention, is ice.  The 140’ tall Ice Palace (the Insurance Exchange in Chicago was 140’ high) erected in February 1886 for the inaugural St. Paul Winter Carnival revealed the city’s yearning to build tall structures, even if they were ephemeral.  The following year, the Ice Palace was lit by electric lights.

Finally, in May 1886, Mix was commissioned by the St. Paul Daily Globe to design a ten-story skyscraper for St. Paul at the south corner of Fourth and Cedar Streets.  While the detailing of the two street facades of the Globe Building repeated much of that in the Temple Court Building, the building’s cornice sprouted corner turrets and a 40′ high lookout pavilion, that had been dictated by the building’s St. Paul owners as a direct response to Minneapolis’ ten-story Lumber Exchange.

E. Townsend Mix, St. Paul Daily Globe, St. Paul, 1887. (Millet, AIA Guide to the Twin Cities)

Mix wrapped the 85′ by 90′ site with a single-loaded corridor that left a meager 20′ by 20′ lightcourt running up the middle of the building.  When completed, it would be St. Paul’s first skyscraper, the tallest building in the city.

Mix, St. Paul Daily Globe. Atrium viewed from an upper floor. Note the glass tiles in the balconies’ floors. (Millet, Lost Twin Cities)

Nonetheless, the fact that Minneapolis had gained an early lead in building skyscrapers did not stop the local press from imagining that St. Paul would not only catch up with its local rival, but over time would eventually surpass it.  The Globe published on December 25. 1886, a cartoon that was a remarkable Jules Verne-like prophesy of what the city might look like thirty-three years into the future in 1919.  

Cartoon published in St. Paul Globe, December 25, 1886. Mix’s Globe Building is directly in the center of the drawing. Note the 24-story stepback skyscraper annex in the center left. (Millet, Lost Twin Cities)

In the middle of all of the new-fangled transportation systems, transcontinental balloons, elevated railroads, and pneumatic-tube like people movers, sat The Globe’s new ten-story building, then under construction, that sported a nine-story addition.  Immediately to its left rises The Globe’s new annex, a twenty-four story stepback skyscraper, one of the earliest manifestations of this type of skyscraper ever published (the tallest building at this time was the 258’ tall, 12-storied Washington Building in New York).  The stepback skyscrapers that were linked by skybridges have a direct resemblance to Henri-Jules Borie’s Aérodômes, first proposed twenty-years earlier in Paris.  

Henri-Jules Borie, Aérodômes, Paris, 1867 redesign of his original 1865 proposal. (Design Quarterly, 85, 1972)

No contemporary prophesy of tall buildings in either New York or Chicago has yet been uncovered to match this vision of the skyscraper future (this cartoon was six years earlier than Louis Sullivan’s own rendering of such a skyscraper that has often been referred to as “pioneering”).  Eight months after the bomb was thrown in Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, and real estate speculation had fled the scene of class struggle in Chicago’s downtown looking for a safer climate for investment, St. Paul was looking forward to the erection of 24-story skyscrapers: ‘skyscrapermania’ had broken out in the Twin Cities during 1886. The year just ended had been a very good year in the Twin Cities, with 1887 even promising to be better.  The same could not be said for Chicago.

Louis H. Sullivan, “The High-Building Question,” the Graphic, Dec. 19, 1891. (Hoffmann, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and the Skyscraper)

FURTHER READING:

Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2007.

Millett, Larry. Lost Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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