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Minnesota’s first capitol building lasted about 30 years — until it burned down

The building was completed in 1853, four years after Minnesota became a state.

First Minnesota State Capitol, 1853–1872.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota became a U.S. territory on March 3, 1849. After much debate, the new territorial government chose St. Paul as the permanent capital city. The first capitol building was completed in 1853 and served as the seat of Minnesota’s territorial and early state government until it burned in 1881.

Congress created Minnesota Territory when it passed the Organic Act of 1849. The act gave the president of the United States power to appoint a territorial governor, secretary, chief justice, and other officials; called for the election of a nine-member council and an eighteen-member House of Representatives; and provided for a temporary seat of government in St. Paul until a permanent capital city could be determined. Congress approved $20,000 to erect government buildings in the new capital.

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The territorial legislature set up makeshift headquarters in the Central House Hotel in September 1849 and continued to meet in temporary locations during the next three sessions. It wasn’t until the second session that lawmakers turned their attention to the question of a permanent seat of government. After lively debate over an alternate location at St. Anthony, they chose St. Paul. The government accepted the offer from Charles and Annie J. Bazille of a building site bounded by Tenth, Wabasha, Exchange, and Cedar Streets for the token price of one dollar.

On February 7, 1851, the legislature approved “An Act to Provide for the Erection of Public Buildings in the Territory of Minnesota.” The act created a Commission of Public Buildings to oversee finances and the hiring of contractors to build the capitol.

Architect N. C. Prentiss drew up specifications for the new capitol that included digging a foundation measuring one hundred and twenty feet by sixty-five feet and a stone foundation four feet high by three feet thick. Exterior details included brick work, cut stone floors and steps for the porches, a wood pediment, wood Ionic-style columns, and a well-framed roof covered with fireproof material. Interior work called for Norway pine flooring and staircases of oak and ash with oak handrails and turned balusters. The plan for the House of Representatives featured a viewing gallery on three sides of the chamber supported by columns. The specifications required the contractors to complete the work in a “good, substantial, workmanlike manner.”

The commission received proposals in the summer of 1851 and chose contractor Joseph Daniels to do the work. Daniels agreed to the sum of $17,000 for materials and labor. The federal funding fell short, and in March 1853 Congress approved another $12,500 to complete the building. In May 1853, the commission hired more contractors to finish the dome and interior details, including all lathing, plastering, and painting. The total cost came to $31,642.81.

The legislature moved into the new capitol in time for the fifth territorial legislative session on January 4, 1854.

As more people moved to the territory, the number of lawmakers needed to represent them grew. The population boomed when Minnesota became a state in May 1858, and the small capitol building needed improvements. Gas lighting replaced candles in 1867. Four years later, steam heat replaced wood-burning stoves and new plumbing brought city water into the building. The capitol expanded with a new wing on the Exchange Street side of the building in 1873 and a second wing facing Wabasha Street in 1878.

Despite efforts to make the capitol fire-resistant, the threat of fire remained a concern. During repairs conducted a few days before the Minnesota Constitutional Convention in July 1857, a fire started on the west side of the cupola. There was little damage to the building, but the fire consumed some of the Minnesota Historical Society’s collections stored there. While legislators met on the evening of March 1, 1881, another fire broke out in the dome of the capitol and quickly spread. Legislators and nearby residents rescued furniture, many important documents, and historical collections. No lives were lost, but efforts to save the building failed. Newspapers estimated the total loss at $180,000.

The newly completed Market House at Seventh and Wabasha Streets became the temporary home of state government the following day. The building housed government offices until the opening of a new state capitol in 1883.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.