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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.