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A Capitol centennial
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The Minnesota State Capitol building turns 100 years old this month, and state officials have planned a variety of events to note the occasion. The kickoff celebration was Sunday. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The Minnesota State Capitol building is turning 100 years old. A year-long centennial celebration kicked off Sunday, to recall the controversy which surrounded the construction of the building, and the history which has been made in it.

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - When Minnesota's new Capitol opened in January 1905, the occasion was largely relegated to the inside pages of Twin Cities newspapers. A sensational murder case involving rival New Ulm dentists and conflict between the Russians and Japanese over a key port got top billing.

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Image Birthday cake

By week's end, the building had received more attention from the press, but hardly the kind that the people who put more than a decade into the project would have liked. The Minneapolis Journal, for instance, knocked it as too cramped and poorly laid out.

"Less than a week of actual use of the magnificent new Capitol in St. Paul has demonstrated that, from a utilitarian viewpoint, the great marble pile is a disastrous, costly failure," the paper wrote. "Everything has been sacrificed to esthetic effect. The eye must be pleased even though the citizens and state officials suffer keen discomfort."

The Capitol's architect and project superintendent, Cass Gilbert, wasn't about to let such attacks get to him.

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Image The Quadriga

"We must not look for immediate praise in Minnesota, and we must not be disappointed if some criticism is made," Gilbert wrote to Channing Seabury, who led the commission overseeing construction, "but when they have time to consider, I have no doubt they will approve."

Indeed, they have.

"You can walk in the building and there's a `Wow' effect to it so consistently carried out," Thomas O'Sullivan, a St. Paul author of a book on the building, said in a recent interview. "It was state of the art, the finest of architecture at that time."

The Capitol, Minnesota's third since it became a state, turns 100 in January. A slate of activities will mark the building's birthday. The public kickoff is Sunday, Jan. 2, complete with music, historical reenactments and, of course, cake.

Building the beacon of state government was an arduous undertaking.

The Capitol is the best work I have ever done, or shall ever do, and I am glad to have given it to St. Paul.
- Architect Cass Gilbert

The previous capitol, a four-story brick building in downtown St. Paul, was barely two decades old when discussions began for a new one. State government was running short of space.

By a slim margin, the Senate established a committee in 1891 to explore options. Two years later, the Legislature created a commission to pick a design and oversee construction, with an expected cost of $2 million.

It took two design competitions - involving 97 total submissions - before the commission settled on Gilbert, an Ohio native with St. Paul ties.

Gilbert, whose domed design resembled the U.S. Capitol in Washington, looked far and wide for the finest materials.

Italian quarries supplied marble for Corinthian columns guarding vaulted staircases. Renowned painters filled walls and ceilings with elaborate murals and etchings. A prominent East Coast artist crafted the gilded sculpture of four horses, a chariot and three human figures - known as the Quadriga - that crowned the main entrance.

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Image The rotunda

But the reliance on outside materials drew scorn from some quarters, especially the decision to use white Georgia marble more prominently than home-state stone. Gilbert and his allies saw the Georgia marble as more durable, less expensive and more vibrant, and the Capitol commission decided it should make up the exterior, with local granite worked in elsewhere.

Newspaper editorials panned the move. The Sauk Rapids Free Press expressed outrage that the commission "saw fit to betray the people. These Judases ought to be sent down to Georgia to stay. At any rate, it should be pelted out of the north star state with granite chips, thick and swift as snowflakes in a blizzard."

The Litchfield Review chimed in: "Shame on the commission for advertising to the world that Minnesota stone, of which there is a great variety of excellent quality, is not good enough for home use."

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Image Cake in the window

Even with the imported materials, the building offered plenty of distinctly Minnesota touches. Gilded ladyslippers, the state flower, decorate the top of columns. The cursive letter `M' appears in wrought iron railings. The names of territorial fur-trappers encircle the ceiling of the House chamber. Trim used between the second and third floors includes gilded gophers.

The attention to detail didn't come cheap. It was clear to commission members as early as the 1898 cornerstone laying that the $2 million wouldn't cut it.

Commissioner Charles H. Graves of Duluth used his speech at the ceremony to appeal for more money, saying builders "may be obliged to use ordinary woodwork for the interior finish and leave plain walls unless the state in its wisdom shall make other provisions."

The Legislature upped the building allowance to $3 million. In 1903, the commission was back for more. Lawmakers were agitated but came through with another $1.5 million.

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Image Carved angel

Channing confided in Gilbert that he was "ashamed" for making repeated requests for money. Gilbert concurred, saying, "The building has cost more than you or I expected."

A House committee investigated spending on the project and sharply questioned Gilbert's stewardship of it. A vote to replace him narrowly failed.

But Gilbert never expressed bitterness. A few years before his death in 1934 he reflected fondly on the Minnesota Capitol, a project that brought him national recognition. He would go on to design capitols in West Virginia and Arkansas and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington.

"The Capitol is the best work I have ever done, or shall ever do, and I am glad to have given it to St. Paul," Gilbert said.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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