Historic Structures

Interior Description St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse, St. Paul Minnesota

In contrast to the stark monochranatic American Perpendicular exterior, the interior of the Saint Paul City Hall was designed in the more jazzy, ornate "Zigzag Moderne" style of Art Deco. Zigzag Moderne is directly derived from the 1925 Paris exhibition, "L'Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Moderns". In France, the style which evolved from the exhibition was characterized by soft ornamentation, sensuous curves, and curlicues. As the trend became popular in the United States, the influences of machine simplicity and mass production gave rise to the more angular Zigzag style.

Memorial Hall, located directly inside the Fourth Street entrance, is the most striking interior space in the City Hall building, and also an extraordinary example of "Zigzag Moderne" interior design. This black marble walled hall measures approximately 85 by 21 feet and extends upward three stories. Black marble piers running from the white marble floor to the gold leaf ceiling form side aisle arcades on the main floor and galleries at the second and third story levels. Waist high screens of flat brass strips separate the galleries from the main hall. Brass is also used in cylindrical shafts with recessed lights at their bottoms, set into the marble piers.

At the end of Memorial Hall, opposite the Fourth Street entrance. Is the famous three-story onyx statue, the "Indian God of Peace", by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. Treated in an angular schematized style similar to that characteristic of the Lawrie reliefs, this massive Indian god holds a peace pipe in his left hand and is surrounded by five huddled kneeling figures. Indian symbols decorate the back of the main figure's headdress. To allow viewing from all sides, the statue was placed on a turntable that gradually rotates from side to side. The effect of the sculpture in its Memorial Hall setting is so dramatic that architectural historian David Gebhard has described the Hall as a place in which " the bringing together of theatre and architecture characteristic of the 1920's is fully realized".

Holabird and Root and Ellerbe and Company originally planned Memorial Hall without sculptural decoration; however, after the City Hall had been completed, Thomas EUerbe decided that the addition of a colossal sculpture at the south end of the Hall would make the space much more dynamic. Ellerbe first contacted Paul Manship, a nationally known sculptor who was originally from Saint Paul. Manship was unable to accept the commission so Carl Milles was contacted. Milles accepted the commission, agreeing to a budget of $100,000.

Milles' first design was for a sculpture of Saint Paul, in whose honor the city was named. However, the height of the space required the figure to be so grossly elongated that the design was rejected by the Advisory Commission. A second design for a "Father of Waters" figure (symbolizing the Mississippi River) was also rejected because it required glass materials which were, at the time, impossible to manufacture.

During the period of Milles' initial design submissions, the public voiced objection to spending city funds on the statue. In an effort to gain support for the project, the Advisory Commission decided to name the hall a "War Memorial", and to dedicate the hall and statue to Ramsey County soldiers killed in World War I. Milles' next submission was thus a nude male figure, meant to symbolize youth returning from war. Milles explained his model to a group of mothers of Veterans of Foreign Wars as a "Peace Memorial", instead of a war memorial. The women reacted negatively to the peace image; they preferred a representation of a strong war hero, such as a weary soldier.

Mnies was outraged, claiming that he was a pacifist and would have no part in constructing a war memorial. For several months he ignored the statue commission.

During this time, Milles witnessed a pow-wow at an Indian reservation in the American West. Huddled around a smoking fire, a group of Indians was commemorating the "God of Peace". The image had such a strong impact on Milles that he decided to use it for his City Hall statue.

The rich marble paneling and art work which decorate Memorial Hall are representative of the lavish materials and quality craftsmanship used throughout the City Hall building. Terrazzo stone, marble, and wood imported from 16 different countries cover walls and floors in many areas of the structure. Original art works, incorporated into the extravagant decor, add to the rich quality of the interior. The use of such exquisite materials was possible primarily because the City Hall was constructed in the years immediately following the stock market crash, when supplies and labor were exceptionally cheap.

The third floor Council Chambers, decorated with English Oak and California Walnut panelling, and four murals by John Norton, is similar to Memorial Hall in its combination of expensive materials and original art work. Norton, who is best known for his association with Prairie School architects, Purcell and Elmslie, used a painting style now known as "PWA Moderne" to symbolically depict the founding and growth of City of Saint Paul. The east wall has scenes of an Indian leading a white hunter down a river in a canoe, Indians and white men signing a peace treaty, and missionaries teaching Indians; the west wall murals show white men building railroads and buildings, and a surveyor, black porter, and woman with her husband. The murals emphasis on industrial labor and stereotypical symbols for the history of the city make them stylistically and thematically similar to the Lee Lawrie reliefs on the exterior of the City Hall building.

Similar themes of history and Industrial growth characterize relief sculptures on elevator doors in the first floor lobby. The artist, E.R. Stewart, has used a simplified flat relief style to portray an Indian and teepee, a black slave working along the Mississippi, a farmer, factory, train and bunsen burner, a worker carrying a power tool, and the City Hall building itself.

The entire City Hall building is decorated with distinctively 1930's Deco style details. Door handles and light fixtures throughout the structure, the sculpted bronze eagle on the mailbox of the first floor lobby and the flexwork on departmental signs are designed specifically to suit the Deco theme of the building. Even stair railings and washroom fixtures reflect the mechanized stylization characteristic of Art Deco design.

The fact that the Saint Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse has been maintained as originally constructed, and continues to serve the purpose for which It was built, is testimony to its functional and artistic value. The combination of exquisite detailing, quality craftsmanship, rich materials, and original art works in a design which expresses the aesthetic and cultural ideals of an era, gives the Saint Paul City Hall a unique historic and architectural significance. It stands as both a monument to the city of Saint Paul, and a masterpiece in American Art Deco design.