James Knox Taylor

Richardsonian Romanesque St. Paul - Part I


St. Paul, Minnesota possesses many wonderful architectural landmarks.  During the last two decades of the 19th century, a number of prominent architects working in the city embraced the Richardsonian Romanesque style for some of the most distinctive buildings ever constructed in St. Paul.  The heavy and solid Romanesque style, with its illusions to the past, provided a sense of tradition and permanence in the new “western cities” of the United States, such as St. Paul.  In this article, the first of several to explore how H. H. Richardson’s Romanesque style was embraced and interpreted by others in St. Paul, we will explore one college building and several commercial buildings, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Old Main, Macalester College
1600 Grand Avenue


Macalester College was founded in 1874 by Rev. Dr. Edward Duffield Neill as a Presbyterian-affiliated but nonsectarian liberal arts college.  It opened in 1885 with just over 50 students.  It was at that time that architect William H. Willcox was commissioned to design the first new structure for the college.  Completed in 1887, the building, now known as “Old Main,” embraced the Richardsonian Romanesque style with its heavy base and porte cochere of rusticated stone and arched windows of various sizes and groupings set into the brick walls above.  Willcox had practiced in Chicago throughout the 1870s and arrived in St. Paul in 1882, designing numerous structures during his decade there.  The college remains one of the top-rated liberal arts colleges in the United States, and alumni include Reader’s Digest founder DeWitt Wallace, vice president Walter Mondale, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Great Northern Building
281 E. Kellogg Street


This substantial seven-story brick structure was built in 1887 to house the corporate offices of the Great Northern Railroad, by its president, James J. Hill.  The architect, James Brodie, was the in-house architect for the company, and later served as construction superintendent for Hill’s massive residence on St. Paul’s exclusive Summit Avenue.  


The most distinctive feature of the building is its massive and heavy rusticated stone entrance arch; the same stone forms the base around the entire building.  In contrast, delicate foliate carvings decorate the arch and engaged side columns (see image at top of article).  Large arched windows at the first floor level are referenced with the smaller and simpler arched windows at the upper three levels.  Recently converted to residential use, the original brick barrel-vaulted ceilings have been left exposed in the units.

Walsh Building
189-191 E. Seventh Street


This modest three-story commercial building constructed of rich red brick with stone trim in 1888, derives its prominence from the generous arched windows at the second level, in groupings of two and three.  The cornice is embellished with a detailed brick parapet wall above, and a slender turret at the corner.  The architect, Edward Bassford, was a native of Maine who arrived in St. Paul in 1866, and by the 1870s was the busiest architect in the city.  He designed numerous houses, schools, as well as commercial buildings such as the Walsh.  His office employed several architects who went on to prominent careers of their own, including Cass Gilbert, who later designed three state capitol buildings (including Minnesota), and the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.

Merchants National Bank
366 Jackson Street


This building, another design by Edward Bassford was opened in 1892 to house the Merchants National Bank.  The striking rusticated sandstone exterior features window openings of different sizes and designs at each level, resulting in a richly ornamented surface.  Large two story windows at the lower levels illuminated the banking room, while the paired windows on the third and fourth levels show the location of the offices.  


Polished columns at these floors embellish the windows, which are set beneath a high detailed cornice and parapet, all executed in the same stone.  The building was restored in recent years by David A. Brooks and is now known as the Brooks Building.

Saint Paul Building
6 W. Fifth Street


This eight-story office building of Lake Superior sandstone occupies a prominent corner at Fifth and Wabasha Streets.  Constructed in 1889 and based upon a design by architect J. Walter Stevens, the composition of base, shaft, and capital groups the floors into three distinct sections.  The lower two floors, heavily rusticated, are joined with tall two-story columns along the long side of the building, with huge windows set in between.  


The next four stories, with less rustication, feature windows grouped in pairs which are set beneath larger, highly decorated arches at the top of the sixth story.  The final two stories are composed of tall narrow windows with very thin columns connecting the two levels, all set beneath a projecting bracketed cornice. 

Pioneer-Endicott Building
141 E. Fourth Street


This large complex was built as two separate buildings in the late 1880s.  The corner Pioneer Building, constructed between 1887 and 1889, is a design by Chicago architect Solon S. Beman (designer of the Town of Pullman, the Kimball mansion on Prairie Avenue, and the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, amongst many others in Chicago).  


In 1890, the L-shaped Endicott Building was designed by Cass Gilbert and James Knox Taylor and wrapped the Pioneer on two sides.  The two buildings were connected by arcades in the 1940s, and the complex has been known as the Pioneer-Endicott ever since.  


The Pioneer Building was significant in its day.  At 13 stories, it was tallest building in St. Paul at the time, and remained the tallest building west of Chicago until 1915.  A 36-foot wide light well provided light and ventilation and featured the first glass elevators in the United States, which could travel 300 feet per minute.  It has recently been converted to more than 200 luxury apartments.


Next week:  The Federal Courts Building, now the Landmark Center