St. Paul’s Rice Park: Part Catalyst, Part Message

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St. Paul boosters have long sought to present the Rice Park area as a symbol of life here, to audiences near and far. A brief historical retelling reveals how the park and the urban activity that
envelops it have always been inseparable, and why.

Rice Park as Catalyst

Nearly ten years before Minnesota gained statehood in 1858, Rice Park was donated to the City of St. Paul as a public square by Henry Rice and John Irvine. The park’s first years were modest in many respects – accounts recall its use for cows’ grazing and as a place to hang linen to dry. With James
J. Hill’s Great Northern railroad monopoly in place, lumber and grain enterprise thriving and the city booming by the 1880s, developers erected a panoply of prominent buildings throughout downtown including the Ryan Hotel (1885-1962) and the Pioneer Building (1889-). Rice Park increasingly became a center of the city’s economic and civic life.

The Panic of 1893, as I mentioned
in a previous post
, represented the most severe economic depression in the nation’s history to date, effectively halting construction downtown. Following recovery, development came to resume in downtown St. Paul – with the Rice Park area in particular focus.

Between 1910 and 1920, three signature structures appeared around the park: The St. Paul Hotel,Landmark_center
the Minnesota Club, and the St. Paul Public Library / James J. Hill Reference Library. These joined the Federal Courts Building (now the Landmark Center, pictured), finished in 1901. A report commissioned
for historic designation in 2001 noted that

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, business
leaders worked toward enhancing St. Paul’s attractiveness for business…Business leaders, including James J. Hill, were active in focusing downtown development on the Rice Park area and ensuring that architecturally designed buildings enhanced the vision they promoted. (St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, "Rice Park Historic District Study,” 3).

So committed were business boosters to creating noteworthy space around the park, the Business League – forerunner to the chamber of commerce – raised $125,000 to purchase the site for the St. Paul Hotel, a sum equivalent to over $2.7 million in today’s dollars.

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, Rice Park and its surroundings endured a period of neglect, during which both the park and the buildings were threatened and saved. In the 1970s and 1980s, activists saved the Federal Courts Building from demolition, and a major renovation of the hotel moved the main entrance to face the park rather than the core of downtown. Again, capital from the private market and public sector followed a path to the park’s perimeter. The construction of the Ordway Center and a recent renovation of the St. Paul Public Library have reestablished the Rice Park area in the mold envisioned by Hill and others in the early twentieth century.

Rice Park as a Message

Braided into the narrative of Rice Park’s inception and development, its period of decline and restoration, is the notion of the park as a physical message to audiences beyond downtown, beyond city limits, around the country.

One hundred years ago, the grand opening of the St. Paul Hotel
was attended by the governors of both Minnesota and North Dakota, the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis,
magnate James J. Hill, Archbishop John Ireland and others. Clearly, the hotel’s parkside construction was viewed as a significant statement to a broader audience.

In September, the park will transmit a message to the nation when 45,000 Republican activists and reporters come to St. Paul for the party’s national convention, to be held in the Xcel Center, located just one block from Rice Park.

Anthony Andler is the proprietor of Heimie’s Haberdashery, a men’s clothing store located in the historic Hamm Building in the Rice Park area. Said Andler this week, “when I started my business, I asked myself, ‘what do I love about this city and how
can I help others experience that?’” When I heard these words, I imagined the same sentiments exchanged at Business League meetings one hundred years ago. At that time, boosters answered this question by leveraging a public space and investing heavily in the design and construction of the buildings
around it.

“Windows say something: They say, ‘here we are and here’s what we do’,” Andler says about Heimie’s. Rice Park is itself a window, through which residents and visitors view how St. Paul pictures itself – characterized by lasting and traditional architecture, a meeting of public and private sectors. It also suggests that after a hundred years, the people of St. Paul continue to be inspired by the place created by this combination of open space and buildings, by the joining of past and present.

Photos:  Courtesy of Maggie Osterberg and H. Head, Flickr.

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