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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.

Above: A postcard depicts the University of Minnesota in 1907.
Above left: Cass Gilbert in 1907.
Above right: Clarence Johnston in 1919.
Photos courtesy of University Archives

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.

An early Cass Gilbert drawing from 1910, in which he considered a domed structure for the future Northrop Auditorium.

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.

Above: the construction of Walter Library in 1922, with Smith Hall in the background.
Below: The nearly completed exterior of Morrill Hall in 1924. All three were designed by Johnston.

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 Manhattan.

Tim Brady is a freelance writer who has contributed many history pieces to Minnesota Alumni.

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