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St. Paul Building (Germania Bank), St. Paul

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Color image of the exterior of the St. Paul Building (previously the Germania Bank), 2012.

Exterior of the St. Paul Building (previously the Germania Bank), 2012.

Since 1890, the tall brownstone building at the corner of Fifth and Wabasha has been a symbol of resilience in a changing world. Only ten years after building it, the Germania Bank was forced to liquidate. Renamed the Ernst Building, then the Pittsburgh Building, it finally became the St. Paul Building in 1934.

The young capital city was booming when the Germania Bank was chartered in 1884, with Alexander Ramsey as its president. The corner of Fifth and Wabasha Streets was a prime downtown location, and a design competition was held for the new building. From the eleven entries received, judges chose the design submitted by J. Walter Stevens, architect of several elegant Summit Avenue homes and Lowertown warehouses.

Like many pioneer architects, Stevens’ only training had been a few years as an apprentice in his father’s office. But he became successful with the help of talented draftsmen who moved from city to city, following the money to construct their elaborate designs. Harvey Ellis, one of the finest architectural artists of the period, worked sporadically for Stevens after arriving in the city in 1886. Based on the evidence, some architectural historians believe that Ellis worked on the winning entry.

An unsigned pen-and-ink rendering of the Germania Bank, dated 1888, was reproduced in American Architect in 1892. The design is a hybrid of the popular Richardsonian Romanesque style, incorporating an Italian Renaissance-style top story. This transitional style was becoming popular in Boston and Chicago, contributing to the evidence that the wandering Ellis helped design it.

At eight stories, the building was much taller than its neighbors. Three other multi-story office buildings, however, were built downtown that year—of brick. Germania Bank was the last high-rise brownstone.

The building’s cavernous entries and windows are supported by Roman arches in massive walls of rusticated red Lake Superior sandstone. Stone masons carved fanciful designs into the soft sandstone columns as well as the window and door trim. The upper third of the façade features a multicolored checkerboard pattern and colonnettes inspired by an Italian palazzo. Built by Lauer Brothers, the structure’s final cost was more than $165,000.

The bank occupied the entire second floor, which featured a coffered wooden ceiling, intricately carved moldings and recessed arches, marble floors, and ornate iron grillwork at the tellers’ windows. In a “sketch for interior of a bank by Harvey Ellis,” published in Western Architect in 1904, J. Walter Stevens is identified as the architect. The Germania Bank building is the only bank Stevens is known to have designed.

By 1902, the former bank had become the Ernst Building, taking the name of its new owner, Caspar Ernst. Five years later, it was renamed the Pittsburgh Building, perhaps because Penn Mutual Life Insurance held the note on the mortgage. The building became known as the St. Paul Building in 1934.

Office tenants have included doctors, dentists, lawyers, and a dressmaker as well as Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. Shops selling books, gloves, jewelry, cigars, candy, and shoes have occupied the street-level storefronts.

According to historian David Page, F. Scott Fitzgerald may have rented a writing room in the building in the winter of 1921. On that visit home—his last—Fitzgerald kept the location a secret so he could write undisturbed. Soon, he started writing the short stories that would evolve into The Great Gatsby.

Many of the bank’s design elements were lost to remodeling over the years, including after World War II, when the storefronts were “modernized” to attract trend-conscious customers. In 1977, however, the structure was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the mid-1980s, its storefronts were restored to their original nineteenth century appearance.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Germania Bank. Historic Sites Survey, St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, Ramsey County Historical Society, 1981.

Germania Bank Building. National Register of Historic Places nomination file, reference number 77000764.
http://www.mnhs.org/preserve/nrhp/nomination/77000764.pdf

BF1/.G373
Germania Bank Minute Book, 1884–1899
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Minutes of the meetings of the Germania Bank board of directors.

Hess, Jeffrey A., and Paul Clifford Larson. St. Paul’s Architecture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Kennedy, Roger G. “The Long Shadow of Harvey Ellis.” Minnesota History 40, no. 3 (Fall 1966): 97–108.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/40/v40i03p097-108.pdf

Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to Downtown St. Paul. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.

——— . Lost Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.

National Trust for Historic Preservation. All About Old Buildings: The Whole Preservation Catalog. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1985.

Nord, Mary Ann. The National Register of Historic Places in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003.

Page, Dave, and John Koblas. F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Toward the Summit. St. Cloud, MN: North Star Press, 1996.

Polk’s St. Paul City Directory, 1890–1891.
https://mplus.mnpals.net/vufind/Record/001695471

Weber, Deanne Zibell. “The Saint Paul Building and Its 108-Year History.” Ramsey County History 31, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 20–22.

Related Images

Color image of the exterior of the St. Paul Building (previously the Germania Bank), 2012.
Color image of the exterior of the St. Paul Building (previously the Germania Bank), 2012.
A design sketch by Harvey Ellis for the interior of a bank, probably the Germania. The sketch was published in Western Architect (February 1904) and reproduced in Minnesota History 40, no. 3 (Fall 1966): 101.
A design sketch by Harvey Ellis for the interior of a bank, probably the Germania. The sketch was published in Western Architect (February 1904) and reproduced in Minnesota History 40, no. 3 (Fall 1966): 101.
Drawing of the Germania Bank’s exterior.
Drawing of the Germania Bank’s exterior.
Black and white photograph of the Germania Bank Building, 6 West Fifth Street, St. Paul, ca. 1895.
Black and white photograph of the Germania Bank Building, 6 West Fifth Street, St. Paul, ca. 1895.
Black and white photograph of the St. Paul Building, Fifth and Wabasha, St. Paul, 1980.
Black and white photograph of the St. Paul Building, Fifth and Wabasha, St. Paul, 1980.
Black and white photograph of the Pittsburgh Building, Fifth and Wabasha, St. Paul, ca. 1926.
Black and white photograph of the Pittsburgh Building, Fifth and Wabasha, St. Paul, ca. 1926.

Turning Point

Only ten years after opening its new building, the Germania Bank fails to recover from a run on its accounts caused by the failure of the nearby Savings Bank of St. Paul and must liquidate its assets.

Chronology

1884

The Germania Bank is chartered with Alexander Ramsey as president.

1887

Germania Bank’s board of directors approves the purchase of property at Fifth and Wabasha Streets.

1888

St. Paul architect J. Walter Stevens wins a competition to design the bank building.

1880 or 1890

Completed by Lauer Brothers Construction, the eight-story brownstone towers over its neighbors and costs $165,000 to build.

1899

The Germania Bank liquidates its assets after the failure of the neighboring St. Paul Savings Bank causes a run on its assets.

1902

The building is renamed the Ernst Building after the new owner, Caspar Ernst.

1907

Becomes the Pittsburgh Building.

1921

F. Scott Fitzgerald may have rented a writing room in the building for the winter.

1934

It begins to be called the Saint Paul Building.

1977

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mid-1980s

Wold Architects restores the building’s historic storefront and completes a ninth-story addition.

2004

The Building Consulting Group restores structural elements of the 115-year-old building.