History on the Grounds
Architects Cass Gilbert and Clarence Johnston competed to outline the future of the flagship U of M–Twin Cities campus—a contest that was both contentious and complex.
More than a hundred years ago, two of Minnesota’s finest
architects vied for the opportunity to create a whole new vision
for the U of M-Twin Cities campus. The legacy of their work and
rivalry remains evident today.
As the U of M embarks on a new master planning process
for what its Twin Cities campus will look like far into the future,
it’s engaging and enlightening to look back at its history.
In fall 2019, two Twin Cities organizations cosponsored
an event that described the relationship between prominent architects Cass Gilbert and Clarence Johnston—up
to and throughout their work for the University of Minnesota. Like the architects themselves, the members
of the Cass Gilbert Society and the Clarence Johnston
Society are generally friends and brethren in the school
of architecture. They had no trouble spending a collegial
morning together at Ralph Rapson Hall in the School
of Architecture listening to Barbara Christen, author of Cass Gilbert: Life and Work, and Johnston biographer Paul
Clifford Larson describe the lives of these architects and
their intersection with the campus.
A post-discussion tour of the campus—hosted pre-pandemic
—revealed how Johnston’s work on the mall is thick and
distinguished: Walter Library, Northrop Auditorium, Morrill
Hall, Lind Hall, and others are evidence of his labors. So are
many buildings elsewhere in Minneapolis and St. Paul, from
Williams Arena to the Cattle Barn on the state fairgrounds.
Cass Gilbert’s work is apparent as well: It was his plan
that took the campus south, providing the essence of its
20th century growth along Northrop Mall and across Washington Avenue. In recent years, interest in Gilbert’s original
plans have echoed the southern focus of the renovations
at Coffman Memorial Union, as once more, the U of M
stretches out toward the Mississippi.
In 1908 the University of Minnesota Board of Regents
had announced a competition for the design of a new campus addition. Not only was the number of students at the U
of M growing every year, but trends in academic instruction
had dramatically increased the number of colleges, departments, and professional schools needed for turn-of-the20th-century students. The expanding University required
an expanded campus, one that could fill the burgeoning
requirements of the school for years to come.
Some members of the Board of Regents already had
a good idea who might be the person for the job: Cass
Gilbert. Raised primarily in St. Paul, Gilbert was already an
architect of national renown and had established his first
architectural firm in his home city in the 1880s. He built his
reputation while building churches and mansions in the
neighborhoods on and surrounding Summit Avenue. His
early career culminated in the design and construction of
the Minnesota State Capitol in 1898, a project that won him wide acclaim and one he would always consider a great
highlight of his career.
With seemingly nothing left to prove as a Minnesota
architect, Gilbert took off mid-career for New York,
and continued a long professional life that included the
design and construction of a series of monumental buildings around the nation, including the Alexander Hamilton
Custom House in Manhattan, statehouses in West Virginian and Arkansas, the St. Louis Art Museum, the United
States Supreme Court in D.C., and perhaps most notably,
the Woolworth Building in Manhattan. The Woolworth
Building, completed in 1913, was at the time the tallest
structure in the world and earned Gilbert the reputation
as the father of that most modern of early 20th century
architecture, the skyscraper.
Through all his advances, Gilbert maintained his connections to Minnesota. And when he was contacted in
1907 by a couple of members of the Board of Regents to
talk about plans to expand the campus, he was more than
willing to meet and sketch out some ideas.
At the time, the Minneapolis campus of the University
consisted of about a half a dozen buildings huddled near
University Avenue. Burton, Shevlin, Pillsbury, and Eddy
Halls, lined up along Pillsbury Drive facing the campus
knoll, were the buildings that greeted most visitors. The
newly built Armory was nearby on Church Street. It
didn’t require a futurist to envision what might eventually
become the sprawling, two-river-bank campus of 2021
(along with a whole other campus in St. Paul) and to see
that big changes were needed to get there.
After discussions with his contacts at the Board of
Regents, Gilbert went back to New York and, along with
his staff, created six initial studies for a campus plan that
suggested an expansive and dramatic vision for a new
University. Done in a Beaux-Arts fashion, the renderings
envisioned a campus sweeping south of its current location, all the way to Washington Avenue (and ultimately
beyond, to the Mississippi River).
Recognizing that what he was suggesting was a monumental undertaking, Gilbert hoped his ideas would be understood as a decades-long project. “Gilbert was concerned that he might be frightening the Board with the scale and complexity of what he was envisioning,” says architectural historian and Gilbert expert Barbara Christen. Not only were those concerns justified, but further opposition to Gilbert arose from then-Regent Pierce Butler, who had a personal enmity toward the architect, and thought, for good measure, that Gilbert’s fees were too high.
To slow the process down and appease Butler’s concerns,
it was decided to open the creation of a campus plan to
a general architectural competition, a decision that left
Gilbert a bit shocked, according to Christen. “All of sudden
he was competing for a job that he thought he already had.”
Through his own talents and the fact that his allies on
the Board supposedly supplied him with early copies of
the competition rules, Gilbert got a head start, won the
contest, and got the contract. The concern over his fees,
however, was not done.
Over the next year and a half, in multiple drawings and
sketches, Gilbert fine-tuned and expanded his ideas. His
grand vision for the University now swept south from a
space designed for a large auditorium structure (where
Northrop Hall would be constructed in about 20 years),
down a mall with parallel rows of buildings housing new
academic departments and professional schools, toward
Washington Avenue, which would be subsumed in a
subterranean scheme to house auto and trolley traffic
beneath a green space. A campanile (bell tower) was
planned for the space currently housing Coffman Memorial Union and below it, a terraced subset of campus buildings, with Greek gardens featuring two amphitheaters
and stretching all the way down to the Mississippi.
All beautiful, but a giant gulp for Minnesotans thinking
of the cost of all this Grecian-style grace. Gilbert also
announced he planned to oversee not only the design of
the campus but construction, as well. At this juncture, the
Board of Control, the state agency that would actually be
paying the proposed construction bills, stepped in.
There was, as it happened, another highly regarded,
well-established architect in the area willing to do the job
for considerably less than Cass Gilbert. Clarence Johnston had bona fides that nearly matched Gilbert’s. He, too,
was raised in St. Paul, and like Gilbert, was educated at
MIT before returning to build a career in the capital city.
They were friends and correspondents growing up; their
first firms were located in the same building in downtown
St. Paul. Though they competed with mutual ambition for
many of the same mansion- and church-building jobs in St.
Paul, there was no evident bitterness between them.
While Gilbert had the higher national profile, in many
ways, Johnston was the winner of the parochial competition. His mansions are not only thick along Summit Avenue
(including the Pierce Butler Mansion), but include the
famed Glensheen Mansion in Duluth. Though he lost a
competition for the design of the state Capitol to Gilbert in
the 1890s, Johnston was selected to be the official Minnesota state architect in 1901. This post gave Johnston a hand
in virtually every building constructed using state funds.
Johnston was already wondering how he might fit into
the campus planning project when complaints about
Gilbert’s fees reached critical mass with the Board of
Regents in 1910. In simple terms, Gilbert’s fees were
suggested and structured by standard rate tables from
the American Institute of Architects; Johnston’s fees
were considerably lower. When it came time for the
state of Minnesota and the Board of Regents to award
contracts for the actual construction of the first buildings
on the new campus, it was Johnston’s firm that got the
work. Cass Gilbert headed back to New York, assuming,
perhaps rightly, that there would be bigger fish to fry in
Tim Brady is a freelance writer who has contributed many history pieces to Minnesota Alumni.