City Hall's stories

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September 12, 2005 // UPDATED 1:57 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

Tales of ghosts, grotesques, spurned icons and 100-year-old personal ads

It might be easy for visitors or city employees to take Minneapolis City Hall for granted as they run mundane municipal errands or arrive for yet another workday. But the building stands as one of Downtown's most historic places.

There is the architecture -- from the green, reaching spires, clock tower and grand rotunda to minute details, such as the worn depressions in the marble steps near the hand railings. And there are the people living, dead -- or both! -- hidden away in torn pages in the city's archives.

This summer, the Heritage Preservation Commission and Municipal Building Commission -- formed in 1904 to manage City Hall -- hosted tours. The following is a recap of what the building commission's Melissa Milless showed attendees, including something extra they didn't see -- a visit to the vacated municipal library at the base of the clock tower.

Building history

Construction of the Minneapolis City Hall/Hennepin County Courthouse began in 1887 on the site of the first schoolhouse west of the Mississippi, and was completed in 1906. Architects Long and Kees also designed the Grain Exchange, nearby on 4th Avenue South.

The county moved in first, in 1895, and the city followed in 1902.

In the early days, there was much excess space in the building -- it was rented to a blacksmith's shop, horse stable and chicken hatchery, among others. As the century passed, growing governmental agencies swelled inside the building until, in 1975, Hennepin County moved into its own building across 5th Street.

Over the decades, renovations have transformed the building -- and not always for the better. Recent projects have tried to restore City Hall to some of its original splendor.

Fourth Street entrance

You might miss the high vaulted ceiling as you hurry through the 4th Street entrance, but pause in the cavernous foyer and you might find it hard to believe that the space once housed the fire department's wagons and horses, or that, during the 1950s, the entryway was partitioned and used as offices and the beautiful heights were hidden behind a false ceiling. During the 1990s, the entrance was returned to its 1911 state -- sans horses.

The Rotunda

Upon entrance from the 4th Street foyer, the Father of Waters demands the attention of visitors to City Halls' main lobby. The nude granite giant would stand 15 feet tall if upright. Instead, the Father has relaxed in the rotunda since 1904, surrounded by symbols of the Mississippi's journey down America's midsection. The relevance of the cornstalk, fish net, turtle and alligator belie that the sculpture was bought second-hand after the city of New Orleans -- for whom it was commissioned -- took a pass. A Minneapolis legend: rub the statue's big toe for good luck.

The grand white marble rotunda opens behind the Water Dad. The space is brighter after a $950,000 renovation in 2003 cleaned the walls, skylight and 37 stained-glass windows, discolored by time and 70 years of cigarette smoke. The windows were dismantled, and each of the 72,000 panes cleaned separately. A mid-century addition blocks one side of the window bank. Six stories above, the elaborate skylight is lit by artificial, not natural light, as is the stained-glass window above the main staircase that depicts three women -- which some believe represent Justice, Peace and Freedom.

A caf/ is currently under construction, and City Hall's most recent wedding will be held in the rotunda later this month. Mayor R.T. Rybak will officiate.

The hallways

Up the ancient, ornate elevators or marble steps from the ground floor rotunda, wide halls form a rectangle around City Hall's unused, inner open courtyard. The first floor features by far the building's oldest artifacts -- million-year-old fossils set into the red marble walls near the 5th Street entrance. A horse-and-buggy brought the stone 160 miles from Ortonville, Minn. Through the window, one can see the statue of former Minneapolis Mayor and U.S. Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey, seemingly frozen mid-joke during a stand-up routine.

Ghosts of the past

City Hall hosts remembrances of long-dead individuals. Names and spirits remain -- ghostly spirits, in one case -- after faces are forgotten.

Near the mayor's office, the name "Miss Lillian Cross" is written on one of the five million hand-installed floor tiles. Miss Cross was one of the unmarried women who laid the tiny tiles during the building's construction. Other less obvious tiles bear names -- and sometimes addresses -- around the building, reportedly an early form of the singles ad.

In 1898, John Moshik, a member of the Rice Street Gang, was convicted of murder and robbery and hanged on the building's fifth floor. He was the last person to be hanged in Hennepin County and the only person ever at City Hall. In the past, when the juvenile detention center was still housed on the fifth floor, detained kids reported a man dressed in black walking past their cells and laughing at them. Flickering lights and falling picture frames have also been reported, as well as accounts of people in Victorian dress sitting in a former cafeteria.

Amidst the long row of Hennepin County Board Presidents is a frame with the gray silhouette outline of a face above a nameplate for Edward P. Sweet, who chaired the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners from 1901 to 1902. "Please help find my photograph," implores the faceless Sweet, in text written on his missing forehead. "I was a pioneer druggist with stores on Western Avenue and lived at 1709 Irving. I died in 1907."

City Council Chambers

Edward Sweet's visage is not the only thing to have gone missing from City Hall. The ornate brass door handles, pendant light fixtures and even the two murals that bookend the City Council chambers are reproductions of originals that disappeared during renovations of the room. Originally with three-story-high ceilings, the chambers were converted in the late 1960s to a single-story room with a false, "plastic dome" ceiling and paneled walls. The 14-foot windows were covered, creating a "dark room with terrible acoustics," according to Meliss. A $14 million, 2002 renovation returned the room to its 1923 state.

Library

At the bottom of the City Hall clock tower hides the former municipal library -- open to the public from 1971 until 2003, when it was closed. Although many of the periodicals went to the University of Minnesota and the Central Library's Minneapolis Collection, some books remain in the square, three-story room, where movies have been filmed.

City Council proceedings from the 19th century and city directories from the 20th occupy small sections of the mostly bare bookshelves that are the walls of the library. Directory listings were by name, phone number and street, and included occupation.

Assistant City Clerk Steve Ristuben called the collection "invaluable. Amazingly, some people still use this stuff."

Council actions are researched, or people look back for information about dead relatives -- or living neighbors who might remember them.

Ristuben hopes that the library will be renovated one day. People may still visit the library with a city escort.

Archives

Above the library's ceiling is an identical space that holds some of the city's archives -- uncatalogued and set haphazardly around the room.

There are gigantic, century-old ink-drawn plat and parcel books that show Minneapolis, block by block; glass plate negatives and 16 mm films -- such as one of the Farmers' Market from 1936; handwritten records from the municipal cemetery at East Lake Street & Cedar Avenue South; scrolls of building plans from the turn of the century; and City Council proceedings from 1858, hand-written in steady, flowing cursive.

Among the thousands of books rests a canvas "civil defense pack" from 1952, and a 4-foot-long tin tube leans against the wall. Inside is rolled a Minneapolis height districts map from 1912, with restrictions that would make today's developers cringe: 12 stories -- or 170 feet -- was tops in Downtown's core.

Above that room: more archives, 15,000 boxes of records dating back to the 1850s.

"The problem is that it's all uncatalogued," Ristuben said. "It would be a huge effort to catalogue all this, just huge."

Farther up, the 345-foot tower tapers to the clock with its 14-foot-long, 350-pound minute hand and its face larger than Big Ben's, and the 14 tons of "carillon" bells, played in the tower on pedals from 1912 to 1962 by Joseph Auld but now rung electronically by volunteers in the rotunda.

For more information

For more history or information about tours -- beginning at noon in the rotunda every third Wednesday -- call

596-9512 or go to www.municipalbuildingcommission.org.