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Wigington, Clarence (1883–1967)

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Black and white photograph of Clarence Wigington, c.1940s.

Clarence Wigington, c.1940s.

Clarence Wigington, the nation’s first African American municipal architect, served as lead architect in over ninety St. Paul city projects. His legacy in brick and stone has lasted well into the twenty-first century. He designed both the enduring (schools, fire stations, park buildings) and the ephemeral (five Winter Carnival ice palaces).

There are at most four architects whose names are associated with St. Paul and widely remembered: Cass Gilbert for the State Capitol; Emmanuel Masqueray for the Cathedral; Clarence Johnston Sr. for many Summit Avenue and Cathedral Hill mansions; and Clarence W. Wigington. Though Wigington is the least accomplished of the four, he has three buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. He is also the only architect to have a St. Paul building named after him.

Born in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1883, Clarence “Cap” Wigington grew up in Omaha. As a teenager he won three first-place certificates in drawing at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1899—Omaha’s World’s Fair. This may have attracted the attention of Thomas R. Kimball, a distinguished Omaha architect and chief architect of the Exposition. When Wigington graduated from high school in 1902, Kimball hired him.

Wigington spent six years with Kimball as a draftsman, then began a long stretch of searching for his own professional identity. He designed a simple residence in Omaha—his first commission—and a potato chip factory in Sheridan, Wyoming. He moved to Sheridan and managed the factory until it failed. Back in Omaha in 1912–1914 and working on his own, he designed houses, apartments, academic buildings, and the Zion Baptist Church. In 1914 he moved to St. Paul.

Wigington’s lack of formal training—he never got a degree or certification in architecture— probably held him back, but he did have skills. In 1915, at the urging of his wife, Viola, he took a qualifying exam as a senior draftsman in the then-new office of St. Paul City Architect. He received the highest score in his cohort of eight. He then began a city career that spanned, with occasional breaks, thirty-four years.

Upon taking the position of “senior architectural draftsman” in November 1915, Wigington became the first African American municipal architect in the nation.

The work did not offer much opportunity for imagination or creativity. City government was tight-fisted in the teens and twenties, and then came the Depression. Wigington had to take the assignments he was given. Schools, fire stations, and park buildings marked the top of the line. He also did park benches, toboggan slides, and water fountains. He took two breaks from the city, in 1916 and 1922, to go out on his own, but neither lasted long.

Wigington emerged as a leader of St. Paul’s African American community during World War I. In 1917 he successfully petitioned Governor J.A.A. Burnquist to form a “colored” battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard. His appointment as a captain earned him the nickname “Cap”.

The same Depression that suppressed local government spending encouraged federal spending that funded the best work of Wigington’s career. The Wigington designs most enjoyed by St. Paulites in the early twenty-first century were all WPA (Works Progress Administration) projects. They include the Hamline and Minnehaha playground buildings, Harriet Island Pavilion (since renamed the Clarence W. Wigington Pavilion), and the Highland Park Water Tower. Both pavilions were added to the National Register of Historic Places. The third of Wigington’s National Register buildings is the Holman Field administration building. They have in common a restrained moderne style and sandy-colored Kasota limestone.

Wigington’s enduring creations conceal his imaginative side. He let that part of himself show much more in his ephemeral works: the St. Paul Winter Carnival ice palaces of the late 1930s and 1940s. Ice palaces had been essential features of the early, exuberant Winter Carnivals but had gone out of fashion during the 1920s and 1930s. The WPA brought them back starting in 1937.

Wigington’s career wound down after World War II. He retired from the city in 1949 but kept a private practice going in St. Paul and Los Angeles, where he lived, with his wife Viola, from 1949 to 1958. They returned to St. Paul in 1958, then moved in 1963 to be with their daughter Muriel. Clarence Wigington died on July 7, 1967.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to the Twin Cities: the Essential Source on the Architecture of Minneapolis and St. Paul. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2007.

Taylor, David Vassar, with Paul Clifford Larson. Cap Wigington: An Architectural Legacy in Ice and Stone. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2001.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Clarence Wigington, c.1940s.
Black and white photograph of Clarence Wigington, c.1940s.
Newspaper portrait of Clarence Wigington from the St. Paul Appeal, September 18, 1915.
Newspaper portrait of Clarence Wigington from the St. Paul Appeal, September 18, 1915.
Black and white photograph of the Holman Field Administration Building, c.1940.
Black and white photograph of the Holman Field Administration Building, c.1940.
Color postcard of the 1937 Winter Carnival Ice Palace.
Color postcard of the 1937 Winter Carnival Ice Palace.
Black and white photograph of the 1937 Winter Carnival Ice Palace, looking west toward State Office Building.
Black and white photograph of the 1937 Winter Carnival Ice Palace, looking west toward State Office Building.
Black and white photograph of the 1940 Winter Carnival Ice Palace at Como Park.
Black and white photograph of the 1940 Winter Carnival Ice Palace at Como Park.
Black and white photograph of the 1941 Winter Carnival Ice Palace.
Black and white photograph of the 1941 Winter Carnival Ice Palace.
Color image of the front entrance of Como Park Elementary School, designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1916. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 5, 2014.
Color image of the front entrance of Como Park Elementary School, designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1916. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 5, 2014.
Color image of the front entrance of Cleveland Junior High School (now Farnsworth Aerospace Pre-K-8 School) in St. Paul designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1924. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 15, 2014.
Color image of the front entrance of Cleveland Junior High School (now Farnsworth Aerospace Pre-K-8 School) in St. Paul designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1924. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 15, 2014.
Color image of the front entrance of Marshall Junior High School (now Webster Elementary School) in St. Paul designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1924 and 1925. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 15, 2014.
Color image of the front entrance of Marshall Junior High School (now Webster Elementary School) in St. Paul designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1924 and 1925. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 15, 2014.
Color image of the front entrance of Wilson Junior High School in St. Paul designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1924 and 1925. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 15, 2014.
Color image of the front entrance of Wilson Junior High School in St. Paul designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1924 and 1925. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 15, 2014.
Color image of St. Paul’s Hamline Playground Building designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1940. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 4, 2014.
Color image of St. Paul’s Hamline Playground Building designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1940. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 4, 2014.
Color image of St. Paul’s Minnehaha Playground Building designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1940. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 14, 2014.
Color image of St. Paul’s Minnehaha Playground Building designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1940. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 14, 2014.
Color image of the Monroe Junior High School auditorium in St. Paul designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1940. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 14, 2014.
Color image of the Monroe Junior High School auditorium in St. Paul designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1940. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 14, 2014.
Color image of the Harriet Island pavilion in St. Paul designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1941. Since its construction, the building has been renamed the Clarence W. Wigington Pavilion. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 5, 2014.
Color image of the Harriet Island pavilion in St. Paul designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1941. Since its construction, the building has been renamed the Clarence W. Wigington Pavilion. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 5, 2014.
Color image of the exterior of St. Paul’s Highland water tower designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1928. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 4, 2014.
Color image of the exterior of St. Paul’s Highland water tower designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1928. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 4, 2014.
Color image of a detail view of the exterior of St. Paul’s Highland water tower designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1928. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 4, 2014.
Color image of a detail view of the exterior of St. Paul’s Highland water tower designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1928. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 4, 2014.
Color image of St. Paul’s Wilder Playground Building designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1941. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 15, 2014.
Color image of St. Paul’s Wilder Playground Building designed by Clarence Wigington and built in 1941. Photographed by Paul Nelson on August 15, 2014.

Turning Point

In the fall of 1914, Wigington leaves his home town and private practice in Omaha to move to St. Paul.

Chronology

1883

Clarence W. Wigington is born in Lawrence, Kansas, on April 21.

1899

Wigington wins three first-place certificates for drawing at the 1899 Omaha (Trans-Mississippi) World’s Fair.

1902

Wigington graduates from Omaha High School in the spring. Soon thereafter he finds a job with architect Thomas R. Kimball. He rises to the position of junior draftsman.

1908

Wigington opens his own practice in Omaha. In July he marries Viola Williams. The house he designs for Isaac Bailey is reported to be the first in Omaha designed by an African American.

1912

After a brief sojourn in Sheridan, Wyoming, Wigington designs houses, apartment buildings, and Zion Baptist Church in Omaha. The work continues into 1913.

1914

Wigington and his family move to St. Paul in November.

1915

On August 23, Wigington takes up a position as senior architectural draftsman, making him the nation’s first African American municipal architect—despite not having a degree or certificate in architecture.

1916

Como Park Elementary School, the first St. Paul building ascribed to Wigington, goes up.

Fall 1916

Wigington leaves the St. Paul City Architect’s office for private work, first in Iowa, then back in St. Paul.

1918

In the winter, Wigington returns to the City Architect’s office. He begins work on the design of Homecroft Elementary School.

1922

Wigington resigns from the City Architect’s office on August 15 to go into private practice. He returns to the city on November 24 as senior draftsman and is given charge of school designs.

1930

Wigington designs the exterior of the city auditorium (now Roy Wilkins Auditorium.)

1937

Wigington designs his first St. Paul Winter Carnival ice palace (he will go on to design the ice castles for the carnivals of 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1947).

1949

On August 29, Wigington retires from the City Architect’s office.

1967

Wigington dies in Kansas City on July 7.