An Opportunity for Architecture

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Apparently, the United States – along with the rest of the world – is mired in what many economists, politicians and unemployed young people call a “recession.” While preservation and development may not figure prominently in many headlines or stump speeches, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about their short-term futures when finalizing budgets is like pulling teeth. However, history shows that economic downturns are not only a great time to invest (and reinvest) in infrastructure, but an opportunity to develop timeless, world-class architecture.

The Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building is said to be the most ornate structure in Washington, D.C., with its elaborate reading room and Court of Neptune fountain serving both as landmarks and travel brochure stalwarts. And yet its construction was hardly an overly positive process. First suggested in 1871, the project wasn’t authorized until 1886 (before this, the Congressional library was held in the Capitol’s rotunda). Once a design was selected, it was immediately opposed by Capitol landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who felt that such a towering structure would ruin views of the Capitol itself. But the builders pressed on, and with a budget of around $6.5 million, they could do so in style.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

1893 was a decisive year for the Jefferson Building. The Panic of 1893 tore apart the railroad and banking industry (although not St. Paul’s Great Northern), making that $6.5 million go further than it would have in a healthy economy. Even more, as the World’s Columbian Exposition descended on Chicago, it did so with hundreds of architects, sculptors and artists hungry to showcase their abilities. According to the Library of Congress’ website, at least 42 of those artists were brought on to add embellishments, gold leaf and architectural flair to a building that would ultimately feature murals, countless statues and massive bronze doors. After all this, construction of the Jefferson Building still came in under budget. Although almost all of the Beaux-Arts pavilions lining Chicago’s World’s Fair fell, the legacies of those artists live on atop Capitol Hill.

Fast forward 25 years, and a similar situation was unfolding in downtown St. Paul.  In 1928, the city collected $4 million in public bonds to build a new city hall and courthouse. A year later, the Great Depression dismantled the U.S. economy. Suddenly, the fiercely modest St. Paul could afford to build a monument to Art Deco, and it did so, using black marble to line the walls of the grand entrance and bronze to accentuate elevators, light fixtures and doorknobs.

The focal point of the building – if one with 20 types of stone and countless relief sculptures can be said to have a focal point – is the 36-foot Vision of Peace statue. Carved out of 98 onyx blocks, it is a tribute to those who fought to preserve peace abroad and at home. Walking through the Memorial Hall and seeing the Vision of Peace reflect off the black walls and glass ceiling is an experience that transports one back to an age when St. Paul – and St. Paul’s favorite son, F. Scott Fitzgerald – thrived.

Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

In times of hardship, pieces like the Jefferson Building and St. Paul City Hall serve not only to employ construction workers, engineers, designers and artists, but to rally the community around art and architecture. These buildings survived because they became  essential parts of their communities, but not all communities have such long memories. The question remains: how will we take advantages of unique opportunities created by the recession, and what buildings borne out of this recession will we recognize as impactful 75 years from now?

Sean Kittridge is the digital media intern for PAM. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Here are two helpful sources for information on the Jefferson Building and St. Paul City Hall (PDF).

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