New book honors famed St. Paul architect

by Andrew Johnson

St. Paul native Cass Gilbert has returned to area bookstores in the new book, “Inventing the Skyline,” published by Columbia University Press. The book highlights the 20th century architect’s past influences and many accomplishments — represented in some 750 buildings throughout the United States.
Edited by Margaret Heilbrun, the coffeetable-sized illustrated book combines seven authors’ perspectives. Spread over five chapters, the book was published to commemorate a New York historical exposition on Gilbert this past summer and fall.
Born in Zanesville, Ohio in 1859, Gilbert moved with his family to St. Paul in 1868 where he would later design the State Capitol in 1905.
Between 1907 and 1909, Gilbert drew up unrealized plans for the Minneapolis East Bank campus. The plans sought to incorporate the Mississippi River into the heart of the campus with levels of plazas and terraces that reached down to the river’s edge.
Gilbert envisioned the East River Road area as a set of public gathering places for the campus community.
Although clearly a different project, until recent ground breakings for future residence halls and a parking facility, Gilbert’s plan had been largely ignored.
Tom Blanck, St. Paul architect and consultant to the State Capitol planning board blames much of this inaction on the United States’ lack of investments in long-range architectural and city planning. In addition, he cites “a pioneer spirit that irrationally believes in the individual over the whole” — even in the area of architecture.
Blanck said Gilbert was a romantic, and even though his plan for the campus was highly functional, it was likely the largest campus plan ever proposed in the country.
Also, Blanck partly blames the lack of temperate weather in North America as a reason why public outdoor spaces have never been fully embraced by American architects as they are in Europe.
Blanck credits Gilbert with the nearest attempt at creating a uniquely American style with emphasis and sensitivity toward communal architecture, as opposed to individual expression.
Gilbert, a city planner and architect, employed traditional lines and forms in his work with an equal eye toward ornate and intricate qualities.
After completing his formal training within nine months at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1879, Gilbert toured Europe. The classic Italian and French buildings became models for what he would later accomplish in his career.
As a designer and developer of public buildings and spaces, Gilbert primarily believed in architecture’s innate ability to transform the human soul — in ideal cases, the human soul becoming as grand as the art itself.
He was drawn to educational architecture and planning, and designed the Detroit Public Library in 1921 and many of the Oberlin College (Ohio) campus buildings.
Yet, similar to his ignored plans for the University, many of his designs for the campus at the University of Texas at Austin were also never realized.
In the book, Gilbert is quoted as saying groups of buildings “should leave a definite and ennobling impression upon those who use them.” In all of his university planning, a campus tower was the significant symbol for the entire community and was meant to be seen as its guiding light.
Although unrecognized as a great architectural name in contemporary times, or maybe even unknown, Gilbert was responsible for designing large, prestigious projects at the height of his career.
Some projects included the 1935 U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Custom House built in New York City in 1907. He also designed a small portion of New York’s recognizable skyline, including the famous Woolworth Building in 1913.
That building remained the world’s tallest, at 55 stories, until completion of the Empire State Building 20 years later.
University journalism professor Ken Doyle lives in a Cass Gilbert house in St. Paul and said he believes there are two other University professors who own Gilbert homes as well. Doyle’s home was built two years before the State Capitol.
Symbolic of a recent resurgence of interest in the American architect — several more books are currently in production — Doyle has renovated his house in the last 10 years to repair its once run-down state.