Cornerstones of St. Paul: Exploring chiseled (and painted) numbers dating to 1858

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
Downtown St. Paul is full of interesting cornerstones, spanning more than a century.

Walking through a city, you’re surrounded on all sides by little boasts on the part of the people who’ve made up the city. Not just in window advertisements or historic markers, proclaiming something to be the oldest, or best, or cheapest, or tastiest, but in other visual elements that tell a story about how or when whatever you’re seeing came to be.

Maybe boasts isn’t quite the word, but I am talking about little assertions. That’s why one of my favorite things to look for when walking around a city is the cornerstones on buildings, or foundation stones, or dedication stones, or whatever you want to call them. Those are the stones with the date the building was erected carved into them. To me, they always seem to say, “We built this in 1888. This is what 1888 was capable of. You get a good, long look at 1888, and you remember 1888.”

Downtown St. Paul is full of interesting cornerstones, spanning a century or more. Here are a few of those you might see, presented in chronological order.

building photo
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Original Coney Island Tavern on St. Peter.

It’s hard to believe, but the Original Coney Island Tavern on St. Peter – most famous in the past decade or so for not quite being open but not quite being closed – is the oldest continually standing commercial building in St. Paul. This storefront has been on St. Peter for more than 150 years. Up at the top, it reads “1858,” which is about as old as it gets in Minnesota, insofar as buildings are concerned. If you didn’t look closely, you might think the date was carved into the stone, but it’s actually painted on. Probably not in 1858, either – it looks like the work of a sign painter several decades later, but it’s hard to tell. Next door, “1888” is painted up at the top in a similar style. I like the retroactive pride indicated by this, as if someone realized decades later, “Wait, this building is older than every other single building around. We should let people know.” It’s hard to imagine whoever erected this modest building in 1858 thinking it would outlast every other building around it, well into the 21st century.

1888 cornerstone
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Painted, not engraved, numerals.

The cluster of historic buildings around 4th Street don’t have cornerstones, exactly, but do have the dates carved right into the façade. Both the Endicott and Pioneer Press Buildings were built in 1889. The Endicott commemorates this with an MDCCCLXXXIX carved atop a window right over the front entrance. The Pioneer Press puts the same date in a little heraldic shield on the right side of the building. Both are suitably ornate reflections of the tastes of that period, when St. Paul was flexing some civic muscle and building its first generation of skyscrapers.

pipress building
MinnPost photos by Andy Sturdevant
The Endicott and Pioneer Press buildings commemorate 1889 in slightly different ways.

Also reflective of its time period is the St. Paul City Hall and the Ramsey County Courthouse, proclaiming “1931” in highly stylized art deco lettering right in the limestone. Imagine how forward-looking the design of this building must have seemed at the time. “1931” is nothing like the genteel Roman numerals on the Endicott Building, or ornate Victorianism of the Pioneer Press Building. Compare it even to the Hamm Building’s ornate plaque, with its classically minded serifs, bronze, and fasces, from only about a decade earlier in 1919 – it’s from a totally different world. The best cornerstones are the ones that draw on contemporary aesthetic modes, and don’t slavishly try to copy the past in an attempt at that implacable foe of self-expression: some vague notion of authenticity

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
St. Paul City Hall and the Ramsey County Courthouse
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Hamm building

The recently shuttered United States Post Office on Kellogg has a more sedate cornerstone, naming Postmaster General James Farley, one of the architects of the New Deal whose official title doesn’t quite convey the scope of his influence in FDR’s first two terms. Also note the reference to “acting supervising architect” James A. Wetmore, a tentative title that makes him sound as if his presence on this cornerstone is more of a quirk of fate than anything. Wetmore might have agreed: a temporary apppointee, Wetmore ended up serving in the position for almost two decades. This cornerstone is a little less adventurous and more sober than City Hall’s foundational date, perhaps more suitable for a federal building.

post office
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The recently shuttered United States Post Office on Kellogg.

The other Pioneer Press Building claims 1955 in shiny black marble. Before the Pioneer Press was here, this building was the home of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Co. The “1955” is pleasingly understated in a corporate, modernist 1950s sort of way. It’s much more staid, anyway, than the 1889 that graced the newspaper’s first headquarters.

1955 building
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Before the Pioneer Press was here, this building was the home of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Co.

The Degree of Honor Building at 321 Cedar has, aside from one of the best names of any building downtown, my favorite cornerstone. It commemorates the year 1961, when the 10-story building displaced the grand old Globe Building. The Globe was sort of St. Paul’s answer to the famed (and also destroyed) Metropolitan Building in downtown Minneapolis. The Globe, the newspaper for which the building was named, was one of the Pioneer Press’ early St. Paul rivals, and is long-defunct (though the name was recently revived by a bunch of cranks and is available in newspaper boxes all over downtown). It was a stately Richardsonian early skyscraper, and it’s the sort of building both cities were tripping over each other to tear down in the 1950s and ’60s. I never thought the old cliché about St. Paul preserving all of its old buildings and Minneapolis tearing them down was totally fair. St. Paul tore down plenty of old buildings, too.

The Degree of Honor Building at 321 Cedar
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Degree of Honor Building at 321 Cedar

Anyway, you hear these stories about the Globe Building and the Metropolitan, and you think, “How could they tear down all those wonderful old buildings? What were they thinking?” The Degree of Honor Building, I think, provides a clue into the contemporary mindset. It’s right there on the cornerstone. Look at that typeface proclaiming the year 1961. Look how perfectly symmetrical and palindromic it is, the same backwards as it is forwards, upside down as it is right-side up. It looks very “Star Trek,” a bit of futurism compounded by the fact that it arrived a full half-decade before there even was a “Star Trek.” It looks like it belongs on the side of the Freedom 7, the craft that carried Alan Shepherd, the first American into the space, on May 5 of that year.

Like the rest of the building, it is sleek and New Frontier-esque and unapologetically Space Age. It doesn’t refer to the past at all. It only refers to modernity, and hints at a bright future, full of efficient International Style buildings, technological triumphalism, and handsome young presidents in sharp suits. Think of how old, fussy, tired buildings like the Globe must have seemed embarrassing and backwards-gazing to the people that dreamed up the Degree of Honor Building. Whoever chiseled that “1961” into the black marble face of the building was ready for the future.

The chiselwork in the cornerstone on the U.S. District Court Building from 1966 has a similar, though less dramatic sans-serif sleekness. It’s easy to imagine Mr. Lawson B. Knott of the General Services Administration sitting in an Eames chair in Washington, D.C., wearing a dark suit and narrow tie, the very model of the technocratic, efficient Great Society bureaucrat. (In fact, here he is.) It’s also easy to imagine LBJ strutting into that office unannounced, belching and adjusting his crotch, and demanding, “Lawson, what in the hail’s the deal with that Courthouse Buildin’ in dahn-tahn Saint Paul? They finishin’ that thing up on schedule?” Yes, sir, of course, Mr. President, they’re chiseling the cornerstone right now, sir. I’m sure LBJ had better things to do in 1966 then micromanage federal building projects in St. Paul, but it’s fun to think about. 

gsa building
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
I’m sure LBJ had better things to do in 1966 then micromanage federal building projects in St. Paul, but it’s fun to think about.

Underneath it reads, “Renovated 2008.” It’s hard to tell if that addendum was made in 2008, or if it’s an entirely new cornerstone fabricated to look like 1966.

In fact, the cornerstones you find after that time tend mostly to reflect the past, not the present. Cornerstones seemed to have fallen out of favor after the 1960s. Or perhaps there just aren’t that many buildings in downtown St. Paul from that era. Most of the more recent buildings, like Galtier Towers or Wells Fargo Place, are pretty minimal in terms of ornamentation. Plus, frankly, they’re not really great buildings. Maybe the people who built them knew this and decided to forgo any sort of ceremonial acknowledgement of the year the building went up.

city hall
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Slavish adherence to the past or sensible aesthetic continuity?

The marker at the St. Paul City Hall and Courthouse expansion from 1991 reflects this idea quite nicely. It’s dated “1991” in the same style as the “1931” carving; a perfect imitation. Slavish adherence to the past or sensible aesthetic continuity? I’ll leave that call to you.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jim Sazevich on 06/19/2013 - 01:01 pm.

    1858 Date on Coney Island Bar

    Thank you, nice article. The date of 1858 on the Coney Island Bar is an accurate date, and indeed the building is the oldest extant commercial structure in the entire city of St. Paul. (The oldest residential structure dates from 1850, and stands near Irvine Park at 234 Ryan Avenue.) The Coney Island Bar was built of locally quarried limestone, by August Botzet, (1827-1894), a German stone mason, who arrived in the United States in 1852. Botzet married Maria Lies (1835-1871) in 1856, at Aurora, Illinois, and three of their five children were born in the building on St. Peter street. The structure has a brick store front, which is part of a 1890s remodeling. The upper floors of the building retain their original 1850s interiors, with few alterations. At the end of the Civil War, the building was rented for several years by the State of Minnesota, as the State Arsenal. It was used to store weapons, cannons, and flags brought back from Civil War battlefields by our Minnesota troops. After 1880, the building was used as a hotel and saloon. In 1923, the Arvanitis family purchased the building, (and the one adjacent to the south, built in 1888 as a hotel, and now the oldest hotel building in the city) to open the Coney Island Bar and Restaurant. The Arvanitis family still own and operate the business, and have won prestigious awards for their preservation and restoration of the buildings. The buildings are not closed, but can be rented for special events. Hope this helps you better understand the significance of St. Paul’s oldest commercial building. Jim Sazevich, The House Detective, St. Paul, Minn.

  2. Submitted by Marta Fahrenz on 06/19/2013 - 03:43 pm.

    Coney Island Bar lore

    I went on the St. Paul Gangster Tour this spring and our guide told us that during Prohibition, the Coney Island was Bonnie Parker’s favorite hangout when she came to town. (Dapper Dan Hogan was our guide, so it must be true!)

  3. Submitted by george hesselberg on 06/20/2013 - 11:27 am.

    buildings

    What a great idea for a story, which is well-written and informative. Now we need to know if anyone is left who can do stone-cutting on site. Not many, I suspect.

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