The State Capitol Building many acknowledge today as one of the five most beautiful in the country is actually our third state capitol building. The first one, built in 1853 in the north part of downtown Saint Paul at Tenth and Cedar, was destroyed by fire in 1881 and replaced on the same site in 1883 with a four-story, Romanesque, masonry building that shortly after it was opened, was recognized as being too small and suffering from poor ventilation. That site eventually became home to the former Arts and Science Building and today’s McNally Smith Music Academy.
Gilbert, having lived near University Avenue at the base of the hill that would serve as the eventual home to the new Capitol Building, was eventually selected as the architect for new Capitol in 1894. Gilbert was President of the Minnesota chapter of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) and once the site had been selected, he led the charge to have the legislature expand the budget for the building beyond two million dollars, also arguing for higher architect’s fees and lastly for the selected building architect to serve as project superintendent. In all three areas, he was successful, though in the case of the budget, it was as much a case of cost overruns before the building was half finished. Then, in the selection process for the architect, the original solicitation resulted in a short-listing of five, not including Gilbert. After a colorful turn of events and some backroom lobbying of the Capitol Commission chairman and Gilbert's friend, Channing Seabury and other commissioners to reopen the process, Gilbert rose to the top in the next solicitation.
Gilbert was looking to something grand, influenced by the Columbian Exposition in Chicago that celebrated “the White City” and neo-classical architecture in all its European grandeur. Following the examples set by our Nations’ Capitol Building, which started in 1790 but expanded and topped later with a larger dome, as well as state capitol buildings in Boston, Maine and North Carolina (all built in the early 1800's), along with Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan (all built later in the second half of the century); the new building would be built to the highest standards. In line with Renaissance and Beaux Arts styles, Gilbert's design would feature strong articulation of the best of both art and architecture putting forth a new and heightened image for Minnesota. Gilbert would take much from Europe’s best neo-classical buildings, including that of the massive dome at St. Peter’s in Rome.
Gilbert was not afraid of political controversy, and again, influenced by the 1893 Exposition showcasing the White City, wanted Georgia marble in its brilliant splendor, regardless of the issue involving the selection of material from the south less than fifty years after the Civil War instead of native granite. In the end, he compromised by accepting native granite and limestone for steps, base and interior walls while still using the Georgia marble for the vast majority of the buildings’ exterior.
In a letter, Gilbert wrote, “The first elements considered in making this design have been the practical ones of economy and good construction. Next, after this, and hardly less important have been the questions of a suitable and convenient arrangement of the interior of the building giving ample light and ventilation to all its parts, and convenient access between those parts of the structure most requiring it. And finally, that it shall express in all its parts and as a whole the nature of the building and the dignity of its purpose.”
When all said and done, the original $2 million budget would grow to $4.5 million as Gilbert added his own brand of flourishes and refinements, including the highest level of decorative and fine art by nationally recognized artists, all hand-picked and supervised by Gilbert. In addition, there was his unique three story, cantilevered oval stairs in the northeast corner and the second largest self-supported marble dome in the world, behind St. Peters and ahead of the Taj Mahal. Gilbert's three-part dome construction incorporated a middle dome to support the lantern on top and an internal water drainage system. A “gilded quadriga,” representing “the Progress of the State”, modeled after his work at the Chicago Exposition, was designed by Daniel Chester French (who also created the massive statue at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.) would be placed atop the front centerpiece, three stories above the great steps, at the base of his rotunda. It features a charioteer (representing ‘prosperity’) atop a chariot, holding a horn of plenty and a staff with the Minnesota banner, led by four horses, in a sense representing the forces of nature, all guided by two women seen as strength and grace. Often, visitors simply refer to getting up to see the ‘golden horses’.