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Landmark Center at 100
By William Wilcoxen
Minnesota Public Radio
May 3, 2002


A variety of musical, dramatic, and artistic events will highlight this weekend's birthday celebration for one of St. Paul's most historic buildings. The centennial of Landmark Center has admirers of the castle-like structure expressing gratitude that the building lasted 100 years.

Italian artisans were brought in to carve the stone, while a separate group of Swiss carvers did the woodwork. St. Paul author Billie Young, who has written a centennial history of the building, agrees that craftsmanship is part of what makes Landmark Center special. Take a slideshow tour.
(MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)

First-time visitors to downtown St. Paul can't help but notice the two big domes of the state Capitol and Cathedral of Saint Paul that look down on the business district from hilltop perches. The five-story Landmark Center is harder to locate, tucked away as it is downtown. But its unmistakeable roofline - with towers, turrets, gables, and dormers - helps make it one of the Twin Cities' most distinctive buildings.

A grandiose and distinctive space was what the U.S. government had in mind in the 1890s, when architects began planning what was then known as the Federal Courts Building.

Macalester College geography professor David Lanegran says with the impressive building the feds were trying to help Minnesota shed its frontier image of the 19th century.

"They were saying that 'The federal government is in charge out here, you guys. And this is going to prove it to you. When you go in there, you'll be going into this intimidating space,'" according to Lanegran.

Architects say Landmark Center was built in the style of a chateau, but it's more often compared to a castle. Lanegran, who's also president of the non-profit group that manages the building, says the hand-carved decorative details are among its extraordinary features.

Italian artisans were brought in to carve the stone, while a separate group of Swiss carvers did the woodwork. St. Paul author Billie Young, who has written a centennial history of the building, agrees that craftsmanship is part of what makes Landmark Center special.

"It has mosaic floors, it has marble courtrooms, it has beautiful stained glass ceilings. Those are the kinds of things that spelled elegance and importance in those days. And they do today, too," says Young.

This is the building where a Minnesota congressman wrote a bill calling for a federal prohibition of alcohol. After that bill became law and spawned a network of organized crime, some notorious Prohibition era gangsters stood trial in the building's federal courtrooms. It's where some of John Dillinger's cohorts were convicted. Another ringleader, Alvin "Kreepy" Carpis, was personally escorted up the steps by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Once inside, Carpis was reportedly shackled to one of the building's radiators during his interrogation.

Lanegran says the mobster trials of the 1930s were among the most prominent days for the old Federal Courts Building.

"They really captured people's imagination. But those Dillinger trials were part of the same thing of the federal government asserting its control. The FBI, and Hoover made these enemies number one so that the federal government would be important by capturing them. So, it's part of this long story of the emergence of federal power over states," Lanegran says.

Over the decades, though, St. Paul's federal building moved from symbolizing the majesty of government to telegraphing the indifference of the bureaucracy. Young says the building's government tenants showed little respect for the integrity of its architecture and decor. When the skylight leaked, it was covered over and flourescent lights installed. Maple floorboards were covered with linoleum and marble carvings with government-issue green paint. By the 1960s, St. Paul's city fathers considered the old fashioned courthouse embarassing - a liability in the effort to keep up with the more modern suburbs that were sprouting.

When the federal courts finally moved into a new home, the city planned to tear down the old chateau and put up a parking lot. But they were stopped in their tracks by an unexpected outcry from St. Paulites who felt a strong attachment to their castle.

Young says the group that fought to save the building consisted mostly of women who were developing political savvy just as a historic preservation movement was forming. What they saved, though, was a dilapidated building.

"The windows were broken, there was no heating upstairs, pipes broke. Pigeon droppings were several feet deep on the fifth floor. The only part of the building that was being used and heated was part of the first floor that the Post Office still occupied as a branch office," Young says.

The building's refurbishment - with mostly private funds -inspired the subsequent renovation of the neighboring St. Paul Hotel and construction of the Ordway Theater, all of which revitalized the city's Rice Park district.

Young says it's also important that Landmark Center became not a historic relic, but a community gathering place that now hosts a variety of events, including a Cinco de Mayo festival this week.

"There are hundreds of weddings, bar mitzvahs, swearing in of judges, ethnic festivals. All kinds of things are going on in this building. Weekends are booked up more than a year in advance," Young says.

Commemorative events are planned at Landmark Center through Sunday.