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Minnesota's First Capitol Building

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First Minnesota State Capitol, 1853–1872.

First Minnesota State Capitol, 1853–1872.

Minnesota became a U.S. territory on March 3, 1849. After much debate, the new territorial government chose St. Paul as the permanent capital city. The first capitol building was completed in 1853 and served as the seat of Minnesota's territorial and early state government until it burned in 1881.

Congress created Minnesota Territory when it passed the Organic Act of 1849. The act gave the president of the United States power to appoint a territorial governor, secretary, chief justice, and other officials; called for the election of a nine-member council and an eighteen-member House of Representatives; and provided for a temporary seat of government in St. Paul until a capital city could be determined. Congress approved $20,000 to erect government buildings in the new capital.

The territorial legislature set up makeshift headquarters in the Central House Hotel in September 1849 and continued to meet in temporary locations during the next three sessions. It wasn't until the second session that lawmakers turned their attention to the question of a permanent seat of government. After lively debate over an alternate location at St. Anthony, they chose St. Paul. The government accepted the offer from Charles and Annie J. Bazille of a building site bounded by Tenth, Wabasha, Exchange, and Cedar Streets for the token price of one dollar.

On February 7, 1851, the legislature approved "An Act to Provide for the Erection of Public Buildings in the Territory of Minnesota." The act created a Commission of Public Buildings to oversee finances and the hiring of contractors to build the capitol.

Architect N. C. Prentiss drew up specifications for the new capitol that included digging a foundation measuring one hundred and twenty feet by sixty-five feet and a stone foundation four feet high by three feet thick. Exterior details included brick work, cut stone floors and steps for the porches, a wood pediment, wood Ionic-style columns, and a well-framed roof covered with fireproof material. Interior work called for Norway pine flooring and staircases of oak and ash with oak handrails and turned balusters. The plan for the House of Representatives featured a viewing gallery on three sides of the chamber supported by columns. The specifications required the contractors to complete the work in a "good, substantial, workmanlike manner."

The commission received proposals in the summer of 1851 and chose contractor Joseph Daniels to do the work. Daniels agreed to the sum of $17,000 for materials and labor. The federal funding fell short, and in March 1853 Congress approved another $12,500 to complete the building. In May 1853, the commission hired more contractors to finish the dome and interior details, including all lathing, plastering, and painting. The total cost came to $31,642.81.

The legislature moved into the new capitol in time for the fifth territorial legislative session on January 4, 1854.

As more people moved to the territory, the number of lawmakers needed to represent them grew. The population boomed when Minnesota became a state in May 1858, and the small capitol building needed improvements. Gas lighting replaced candles in 1867. Four years later, steam heat replaced wood-burning stoves and new plumbing brought city water into the building. The capitol expanded with a new wing on the Exchange Street side of the building in 1873 and a second wing facing Wabasha Street in 1878.

Despite efforts to make the capitol fire-resistant, the threat of fire remained a concern. During repairs conducted a few days before the Minnesota Constitutional Convention in July 1857, a fire started on the west side of the cupola. There was little damage to the building, but the fire consumed some of the Minnesota Historical Society's collections stored there. While legislators met on the evening of March 1, 1881, another fire broke out in the dome of the capitol and quickly spread. Legislators and nearby residents rescued furniture, many important documents, and historical collections. No lives were lost, but efforts to save the building failed. Newspapers estimated the total loss at $180,000.

The newly completed Market House at Seventh and Wabasha Streets became the temporary home of state government the following day. The building housed government offices until the opening of a new state capitol in 1883.

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"A Big Blaze. Reviewing the Scene the Day After it Happened." St. Paul Daily Globe, March 3, 1881.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1881-03-03/ed-1/seq-1

120.J.3.1B
Annual and Biennial Reports, 1878–1881
Minnesota Treasurer's Office
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Annual (1858–1920, 1980, 1996–2001) and biennial (1921–1940) reports.

"Annual Message of Gov. John S. Pillsbury, Delivered to the Minnesota Legislature Jan. 9, 1879.” St. Paul Daily Globe, January 10, 1879.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1879-01-10/ed-1/seq-2

Annual Report of the State Auditor, to the Legislature of Minnesota. St. Paul: Wm. R. Marshall, Incidental Printer, 1861–1874.

Annual Report of the State Auditor, to the Legislature of Minnesota. St. Paul: Saint Paul Press, 1875–1879.

Brown, Robert M. "A Territorial Delegate in Action." Minnesota History 31, no. 3 (September 1950): 172–178.
http://collections.mnhs.org/mnhistorymagazine/articles/31/v31i03p172-178.pdf

"Capitol Extension. Bids Opened for the Work, but No Awards Till Monday." Saint Paul Daily Globe, June 8, 1878.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1878-06-08/ed-1/seq-4

"The Capitol Extension. It Begins to Fall by Piecemeal, the Vault Going First." St. Paul Daily Globe, September 22, 1878.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1878-09-22/ed-1/seq-8

"City Globules." St. Paul Daily Globe, May 25, 1878.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1878-05-25/ed-1/seq-4

"The Defective Capitol. St. Paul Daily Globe, September 30, 1878.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1878-09-30/ed-1/seq-2

"Destroyed by Fire. The Capitol in Flames and Laid in Ruins." Princeton Union, March 10, 1881.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016758/1881-03-10/ed-1/seq-3

"Fire at the Capitol." St. Paul Daily Pioneer and Democrat, July 10, 1857.

Gorman, Willis A. "Annual Message of the Governor of Minnesota Territory to the Legislative Assembly at the Session Commencing January 4, 1854." St. Paul: Olmsted & Brown, Territorial Printers, 1854.

"Here She Spreads. Figuratively Referring to the Capitol Enlargement." St. Paul Daily Globe, March 14, 1878.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1878-03-14/ed-1/seq-4

"Historical St. Paul." St. Paul Daily Globe, December 31, 1882.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1882-12-31/ed-1/seq-9

"In Ashes. The State Capitol in St. Paul Burned Last Evening." Minneapolis Tribune, March 2, 1881.

"Incendiary Torch. The State Capitol Utterly Destroyed by Fire." St. Paul Daily Globe, March 2, 1881.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1881-03-02/ed-1/seq-1

Kane, Betty. "A Case Study in Lively Futility: The 1876 Legislature." Minnesota History 45, no. 6 (Summer 1977): 223–240.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/45/v45i06p223-240.pdf

"Market House." St. Paul Daily Globe, December 31, 1882.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025287/1882-12-31/ed-1/seq-23

Minnesota Legislature. Appendix. Minnesota Territorial Statutes, 1851.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes?id=Appendix&year=1851

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1851, Chapter V.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1851&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=5

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1852, Chapter XIII.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1852&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=13

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1853, Memorial 3.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1853&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Memorial&id=3

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1858, Chapter XXVI.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1858&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=26

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1867, Chapter CXXII.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1867&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=122

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1868, Chapter CXXII.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1868&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=122

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1871, Chapter CI.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1871&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=101

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1871, Chapter CII.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1871&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=102

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1873, Chapter CXXV. An Act to Provide for an Extension of the Capitol Building.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1873&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=125

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1874, Chapter CXXXI. An Act to Appropriate Money for Certain Purposes Therein Named. [A.M. Radcliff is named for services as architect in drawing plans and specs, and supervising construction of the capitol extension - $225.]
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1874&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=131

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1874, Chapter CXXXII.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1874&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=132

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1878, Chapter 104. An Act to Appropriate Money for the Enlargement of the Western Wing of the Capitol Building.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1878&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=104

——— . Session Laws of Minnesota, 1883, Chapter 170
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?year=1883&type=0&group=General+Laws&doctype=Chapter&id=170

Minnesota Secretary of State. Organic Act of 1849.
http://www.sos.state.mn.us/about-minnesota/minnesota-government/organic-act-of-1849/

Ramsey, Alexander. "Message of the Governor of Minnesota to the Legislative Assembly, Delivered January 7, A.D., 1851." St. Paul: J. M. Goodhue, 1851.

——— . "Message of the Governor of Minnesota to the Legislative Assembly, with Accompanying Documents, Delivered January 13, 1852." St. Paul: J. M. Goodhue, 1852.

——— . "Message of the Governor of Minnesota to the Legislative Assembly, with Accompanying Documents, Delivered January 26, 1853." St. Paul: J .M. Goodhue, 1853.

Records, 1851–1854
Minnesota Territorial Archives, Minnesota Board of Commissioners of Public Buildings
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Minute book, deed for territorial capitol site, receipt books, and other materials relating to the construction of the territorial capitol and prison.
http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00998.xml

Thompson, Neil B. "A Half Century of Capital Conflict: How St. Paul Kept the Seat of Government." Minnesota History 43, no. 7 (Fall 1973): 238–254. http://collections.mnhs.org/mnhistorymagazine/articles/43/v43i07p238-254.pdf

Related Images

First Minnesota State Capitol, 1853–1872.
First Minnesota State Capitol, 1853–1872.
Black and white photograph of the Central House (where the Territorial Legislature met prior to the building of the State Capitol) and First State Capitol, St. Paul, ca. 1850.
Black and white photograph of the Central House (where the Territorial Legislature met prior to the building of the State Capitol) and First State Capitol, St. Paul, ca. 1850.
Black and white view of St. Paul looking toward the first capitol building, 1857. Photographed by Edward Augustus Bromley.
Black and white view of St. Paul looking toward the first capitol building, 1857. Photographed by Edward Augustus Bromley.
Black and white photograph of St. Paul, showing the first state capitol, ca. 1868. Photographed by Benjamin Franklin Upton.
Black and white photograph of St. Paul, showing the first state capitol, ca. 1868. Photographed by Benjamin Franklin Upton.
Black and white panoramic view of St. Paul, showing the State Capitol, background left, ca. 1870
Black and white panoramic view of St. Paul, showing the State Capitol, background left, ca. 1870
Black and white view of St. Paul from Park Place Hotel, looking southeast toward the first State Capitol, ca. 1871.
Black and white view of St. Paul from Park Place Hotel, looking southeast toward the first State Capitol, ca. 1871.
Black and white photograph of the first capitol building, ca. 1873.
Black and white photograph of the first capitol building, ca. 1873.
Illustration of the first State Capitol, Tenth and Wabasha, St. Paul, 1875, showing the 1873 addition. From, Harper's Monthly, October 1875, p. 629.
Illustration of the first State Capitol, Tenth and Wabasha, St. Paul, 1875, showing the 1873 addition. From, Harper's Monthly, October 1875, p. 629.
Black and white photograph of the first State Capitol building showing enlargement of 1878. Painted by Alfred Palmquist & Company, 1879.
Black and white photograph of the first State Capitol building showing enlargement of 1878. Painted by Alfred Palmquist & Company, 1879.
Early scenes in St. Paul, 1841–1875: A Pictorial history of Pioneer Days. Photographs by Edward Augustus Bromley, 1904 (copyright date).
Early scenes in St. Paul, 1841–1875: A Pictorial history of Pioneer Days. Photographs by Edward Augustus Bromley, 1904 (copyright date).
Black and white photograph of New Market House, Seventh and Wabasha, St. Paul, 1883.
Black and white photograph of New Market House, Seventh and Wabasha, St. Paul, 1883.
Scan of the receipt of payment to John Daniels dated October 2, 1852 for work rendered on the capitol.
Scan of the receipt of payment to John Daniels dated October 2, 1852 for work rendered on the capitol.
Scan of examination of work done on the capitol building, 1853.
Scan of examination of work done on the capitol building, 1853.
Color image of keys from the first state capitol, found in the ruins of the burned-out building, 1881.
Color image of keys from the first state capitol, found in the ruins of the burned-out building, 1881.

Turning Point

On January 4, 1854, the Minnesota Territorial Legislature meets for the first time in an official capitol building.

Chronology

1849

On March 3, Congress passes the Minnesota Organic Act, creating the Minnesota Territory. The act authorizes $20,000, pending the location of a permanent capital city, for the erection of public buildings, including a capitol.

1851

On February 7, the territorial legislature approves An Act to Provide for the Erection of Public Buildings in the Territory of Minnesota and decides on St. Paul as the capital city.

1851

On June 28, the property where the new territorial capitol will be built is deeded to the Governor and Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Minnesota by Charles and Annie J. Bazille for one dollar.

1851

Joseph Daniels is contracted on July 16 to build the capitol and finish the first floor, House of Representatives hall, and Council rooms for the sum of $17,000.

1853

With the initial appropriation depleted, Congress approves another $12,500 to finish the capitol building.

1853

In May, Matthew Gnoff is hired to paint the capitol interior and outbuildings at 20₵ per square yard, John Downer and John Mason for carpentry finishing at $4,454, and Arthur Stevens and John Wallace for lathing and plastering at 27₵ per square yard.

1854

The territorial capitol is completed and the legislature meets there for the first time on January 4.

1857

A fire started by a stray coal from a tinner working on the cupola on July 9 causes some loss of Minnesota Historical Society artifacts housed at the capitol, but the building sustains only minor damage.

1857

Delegates gather at the capitol for the Minnesota Constitutional Convention on July 13.

1858

On May 11, Minnesota becomes the thirty-second state to enter the union.

1867

Gas lighting replaces candles in the state capitol at a cost of $673.25.

1871

The legislature appropriates $6,500 to replace the capitol's wood-burning stoves with steam heating, and $450 to plumb the building for city water.

1873

On March 10, the legislature appropriates the sum of $14,000 for a new capitol roof as well as a new wing fronting Exchange Street that will enlarge the Senate chamber. Abraham M. Radcliff is selected as the architect for the addition.

1878

An appropriation of $14,000 is approved by the legislature on March 8 for the addition of a second wing on the west (Wabasha Street) side of the building. Leroy S. Buffington is chosen as architect.

1881

On the evening of March 1, the first Minnesota capitol building burns while the legislature is in session.