I was walking down Grand Avenue one day with a friend from the east coast when I mentioned that I’d always liked the design of Macalester’s Weyerhaeuser Memorial Chapel. She shook her head. “That is not an attractive building,” she said. “You’re just biased because you grew up here. If you were walking down the street in St. Paul, Minnesota and saw a pile of dog shit, you’d say, ‘That’s the best-looking pile of dog shit I’ve ever seen!'”
I’m not sure whether St. Paul’s Architecture would be a better book if authors Jeffrey A. Hess and Paul Clifford Larson shared my unabashed enthusiasm for the architecture to be found in my home town, but it couldn’t hurt. Among the book’s problems is that Hess and Larson fail to make a compelling argument as to why we should care about St. Paul’s architecture. If the answer were just, “because you live here, dummy,” that would be fine—but Hess and Larson go to great lengths to place St. Paul’s architectural legacy in the larger context of cultural history, which serves to underline the profound ordinariness of the Capital City’s building stock. I didn’t need a book to tell me that downtown (with the happy exception of Rice Park and its surrounding buildings) is drab.
|st. paul’s architecture by jeffrey a. hess and paul clifford larson. published by the university of minnesota press (2006). $24.95. also in the daily planet, read paul clifford larson on the question of whether there has been any decent architecture in st. paul in the last 30 years.|
The book proceeds in narrative fashion from the establishment of Fort Snelling through the construction of the Como Park Conservatory addition. The focus is on trends in building technology and design, with special attention being given to architects of note. Besides the fact that this gods-and-generals mode of history is yawn-inducing, it strikes an odd balance between the very global (“At the turn of the twentieth century, a common vision haunted the labors of artists and art critics throughout the United States”) and the very local—with not much in between. In the book’s index, there are almost as many references to England (10) as there are to Minneapolis (12).
When Hess and Larson turn to specific buildings, their descriptions are pithy but laden with architectural jargon that will stop the lay reader in his or her tracks. We get no further than page 14 when we’re hit with this description of the Simpson-Wood House: “Capped by a shallow-pitched hip roof, it presents a picture of no-nonsense sobriety. Yet its austerity is lightened by a wood frieze below the eaves topped by a delicate dentil cornice…With its narrow side-lights and fluted mullions sculpted into slender Doric pilasters, the doorway assumes a fragile grace.” Can you picture that? If not, you do have two photos to help you—though the book’s graphic design is unexceptional. Nearly every building discussed in any detail is depicted in a photograph or drawing, but the illustrations are all black-and-white and fairly standard in size, leading to an uninspiring page-through experience.
The book’s prose is certainly polished and often witty, but someone with the background to appreciate the authors’ description of Landmark Center as “subjugating the raw force of the Romanesque to the patrician elegance of the Renaissance” might prefer a book organized not in narrative form but as a reference guide or encyclopedia. Larry Millett’s jam-packed AIA Guide to the Twin Cities is the book to beat, organized by neighborhood in a manner that reflects the way architecture is actually experienced. For most St. Paulites, Millett’s guide is a better starting point for appreciating the city’s architecture—and as a bonus, it covers Minneapolis too!
Hess and Larson are at their best when they use the book’s narrative structure as an opportunity to describe the urban planning process. They detail, for example, Cass Gilbert’s appealing but impracticable vision of an expansive grand boulevard stretching from the State Capitol to West 7th Street. Hard as it now seems to believe that anyone ever thought it would be a good idea to cover buildings’ historic façades with smooth sheeting, Hess and Larson explain that William Loewy’s 1945 recommendation for the resurfacing of downtown St. Paul in the interest of “unity of design” was taken very seriously indeed; they illustrate a couple of astonishing examples of this “shell treatment” in practice.
Despite its flaws, St. Paul’s Architecture is, as Millett notes in a back-cover blurb, “the most thorough account to date of St. Paul’s architectural legacy.” As such, it’s a book of significant value for cultural historians (and college students writing term papers), even if it’s likely to be a tough slog for the casual reader. St. Paul may not be New York or Barcelona, but Hess and Larson do manage to demonstrate that it’s full of buildings worth taking a closer look at. Dog shit or not, they’re what we have.
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.