Clarence Wigington, the nation’s first African American municipal architect, served as lead architect in over ninety St. Paul city projects. His legacy in brick and stone has lasted well into the twenty-first century. He designed both the enduring (schools, fire stations, park buildings) and the ephemeral (five Winter Carnival ice palaces).
There are at most four architects whose names are associated with St. Paul and widely remembered: Cass Gilbert for the Minnesota State Capitol; Emmanuel Masqueray for the St. Paul Cathedral; Clarence Johnston Sr. for many Summit Avenue and Cathedral Hill mansions; and Clarence W. Wigington. Though Wigington is the least accomplished of the four, he has three buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. He is also the only architect to have a St. Paul building named after him.
Born in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1883, Clarence “Cap” Wigington grew up in Omaha. As a teenager he won three first-place certificates in drawing at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1899 — Omaha’s World’s Fair. This may have attracted the attention of Thomas R. Kimball, a distinguished Omaha architect and chief architect of the Exposition. When Wigington graduated from high school in 1902, Kimball hired him.
Wigington spent six years with Kimball as a draftsman, then began a long stretch of searching for his own professional identity. He designed a simple residence in Omaha—his first commission—and a potato chip factory in Sheridan, Wyoming. He moved to Sheridan and managed the factory until it failed. Back in Omaha in 1912–1914 and working on his own, he designed houses, apartments, academic buildings, and the Zion Baptist Church. In 1914 he moved to St. Paul.
Wigington’s lack of formal training — he never got a degree or certification in architecture — probably held him back, but he did have skills. In 1915, at the urging of his wife, Viola, he took a qualifying exam as a senior draftsman in the then-new office of St. Paul City Architect. He received the highest score in his cohort of eight. He then began a city career that spanned, with occasional breaks, thirty-four years.
Upon taking the position of “senior architectural draftsman” in November 1915, Wigington became the first African American municipal architect in the nation.
The work did not offer much opportunity for imagination or creativity. City government was tight-fisted in the teens and twenties, and then came the Depression. Wigington had to take the assignments he was given. Schools, fire stations, and park buildings marked the top of the line. He also did park benches, toboggan slides, and water fountains. He took two breaks from the city, in 1916 and 1922, to go out on his own, but neither lasted long.
Wigington emerged as a leader of St. Paul’s African American community during World War I. In 1917 he successfully petitioned Governor J.A.A. Burnquist to form a “colored” battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard. His appointment as a captain earned him the nickname “Cap”.
The same Depression that suppressed local government spending encouraged federal spending that funded the best work of Wigington’s career. The Wigington designs most enjoyed by St. Paulites in the early twenty-first century were all WPA (Works Progress Administration) projects. They include the Hamline and Minnehaha playground buildings, Harriet Island Pavilion (since renamed the Clarence W. Wigington Pavilion), and the Highland Park Water Tower. Both pavilions were added to the National Register of Historic Places. The third of Wigington’s National Register buildings is the Holman Field administration building. They have in common a restrained moderne style and sandy-colored Kasota limestone.
Wigington’s enduring creations conceal his imaginative side. He let that part of himself show much more in his ephemeral works: the St. Paul Winter Carnival ice palaces of the late 1930s and 1940s. Ice palaces had been essential features of the early, exuberant Winter Carnivals but had gone out of fashion during the 1920s and 1930s. The WPA brought them back starting in 1937.
Wigington’s career wound down after World War II. He retired from the city in 1949 but kept a private practice going in St. Paul and Los Angeles, where he lived, with his wife Viola, from 1949 to 1958. They returned to St. Paul in 1958, then moved in 1963 to be with their daughter Muriel. Clarence Wigington died on July 7, 1967.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.