Saint Paul Insider: Ted Lentz

Ted Lentz

An architect for over 40 years, Ted Lentz has been president of the Cass Gilbert Society and was on the commission that oversaw the restoration of the Capitol building. He’s lived on Summit Avenue since the 70s and was instrumental in the historic preservation of that area.

What brought you to Minnesota?

During the Vietnam War In 1969 I was drafted as a conscientious objector. I came to the Minnesota to work at Fairview Hospitals in Minneapolis as an architectural draftsman and planner.

What made you stick around?

In 1970, during a snowy, frozen weekend when my car wouldn't start, in a letter to my parents I surprised myself with the statement that, if possible, I would stay here the rest of my life. I liked the Twin Cities—they gave me hope. This was during the Vietnam War when there was a lot of anger and anguish about the future of the country, our cities, our social fabric. In Minnesota, I found that the same social and community problems I knew in Philadelphia, New York and other places I knew, but here everyone believed they were solvable. People honestly thought they could make a difference and they worked to make life better. I was stunned—I'd never known that was possible.

What is the vibe or feeling is in Saint Paul?

Saint Paul is a collection of small towns within a large city. The neighborhood focus creates manageable connections and local pride. I came here when I was 25. After a year or two I noticed that most of the people my age loved one of the two cities, but those who ached to live in Minneapolis were often from North Dakota, Iowa or Wisconsin and those who loved Saint Paul often came from Philadelphia, Boston, New York or other dense, older cities.

I wondered, “What was the difference?” The big difference is Minneapolis resident’s self-perception of where they lived as “40th and France” or “32nd and Dupont”. If you ask someone in Saint Paul, they cited neighborhoods—“Highland”, “West Seventh”, or “Summit Hill”. If Minneapolis sees itself as a big city that happens to be divided into small neighborhoods, Saint Paul is just the reverse. Saint Paul is a collection of small towns and neighborhoods that happen to be inside the boundaries of the city—the Capital City—and each of those neighborhoods has an identity and people are proud of what their neighborhood provides.  

Tell us a little about the Minnesota State Capitol and its restoration.

95% of the time we see the Cass Gilbert-designed Minnesota State Capitol, it's from the outside. Like most state capitols, the building was intended to be seen primarily from the outside. The Minnesota Capitol, when completed in 1905, was extensively described as the best American state capitol at integrating exterior and interior design.

The outside is very ornate and the inside uses similar details, but with additional color and materials to create a more intimate space. As opposed to the exterior’s white, crystalline Georgia marble, the interior palette used a tan Minnesota limestone as the basis for the other colors and materials in stone, wood, plaster and paint. The outside was supposed to be Minnesota stone. Gilbert had been assured we could get strong white marble in Minnesota—that didn't happen. The restoration, 2013-2017, replaced damaged white marble in several thousand of places across the exterior. The very white marble areas are brand new. The older marble (placed before 1905) is now darker, but the two will blend in coming decades. For the August 2017 grand re-opening, the Cass Gilbert Society handed out marble fragments from the restoration. We had lines of people—we handed out maybe 6,000 pieces of marble.

Minnesota’s Capitol has one of only four self-supporting marble domes in the world.  The other three are the Taj Mahal, St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and the Rhode Island State Capitol. It’s rare because the top is held up by the one below it, and that's held up by the one below it—not steel, not structural framing. The dome assembly weighs over 14 million pounds by the time it touches the roof. Minnesota’s Capitol dome is the second largest unsupported marble dome in the world at 87 feet. The largest in the world was designed by Michelangelo for St. Peter's. The next smallest is the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal, considered by many people to be the most beautiful building in the world, is on the same short list as our Capitol.  

What about all the art inside the Capitol?

The art at the Capitol was commissioned from the most highly regarded American artists of the early 1900s. Paintings and sculptures by these artists are eminently collectible. Their works sell readily at auction for up to millions of dollars. The Capitol paintings are priceless because they were all commissioned for specific sites at the Capitol. If for some reason we had to assess the art, the paintings alone would be valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars—possibly more than the $310,000,000 price of the entire restoration.

What makes Saint Paul a destination for architecture?

Saint Paul has one distinctive architectural structure—Summit Avenue—a feature no other American city has remained intact. This street of empire builders remains alone in the U.S. as a complete “Grand American Avenue”. From 1850 to 1900, every American city built a grand avenue for the mansions of the very wealthy. From New York City’s 5th Avenue, where the Rockefellers, Fricks & Vanderbilt’s built their homes, to Prairie Avenue in Chicago, Woodward Avenue in Detroit or even Park Avenue in Minneapolis—these former grand streets disappeared or were massively altered. In New York City, the few mansions that remain are all museums. Prairie Avenue in Chicago has a few houses, but most are gone. For various reasons, which is another whole lecture, Minnesotans kept the homes churches and schools on Summit—hey weren't torn down, the grandeur was not lost. 

A lot of these homes had ballrooms on the upper floors. It was a different time, there were no automobiles. Summit became a very gracious street, especially the first mile. From the Saint Paul Cathedral to the Mississippi River, there are still over 400 houses intact—it is an architectural wonder. Detroit’s Woodward Avenue required that single-family mansion remain in single-family use—they could not be divided into apartments, condos, commercial or institutional uses. As a result, one mansion after the other was torn down and replaced with a mixture of housing, commerce, parking and institutions. Everything was lost. That happened everywhere, except in Saint Paul. Summit is an exception to that. I believe it is truly the only Victorian promenade street remaining in the United States.

If a visitor has one day to experience Saint Paul’s architectural sites, where would you take them?

I’d drive up and down Summit. Start at the Cathedral—a half block from that is a monument to the veterans of the Civil War and four and a half miles later is a monument to the veterans of World War One. Every building in that stretch, with a few exceptions, was built between the Civil War and World War One. There’s a graciousness to that street. It's an architectural event, not just a single “look at that beautiful house”—it's the whole collection of the trees arching over the street and the different stories of the people. One major house on Summit, the James J. Hill House, frequently offers tours. That’s where I'd start.

Then, I would bring them to the Minnesota State Capitol and I would start at the front steps to look up at the marble statue of the Greek goddess—Winged Victory—as she symbolically places the laurel wreath of victory on everyone's head as they enter the Capitol. Everyone who enters the Capitol is a victor.

I would also take everyone to the Capitol’s Loggia balcony on the second floor, south side. The big patio doors that lead out to the loggia are now locked but, if you call the phone number on the door signs, the administration will unlock the doors within 10-15 minutes. You can then walk out into a white marble room with carved marble walls and ceiling that opens through massive columns on the south to look out over the Capitol’s South Mall.   

When you stand at the railing, look straight ahead. In front of you are the memorials in the mall. Beyond that, you see the slopes of the river valley. Below there is the Mississippi River—that's our history. That's where the state of Minnesota started. You can't see barges or railroad cars at the river’s edge, but you can imagine them. You can also imagine over a hundred 19th Century paddle wheelers arriving each day at Minnesota’s Saint Paul port, the shipping center for the entire upper west.

If you look off to the left, you see business. It's the downtown, the merchant center, the banks, the insurance companies—it's where we work. You look off to the right side and see the Cathedral, the place of faith. Immediately to the side of that is the Minnesota Historical Society and Saint Paul College—teaching technical training, education, high values. Straight ahead is our past, the left is how we make our living, the right how we make our life—that's a vision that Cass Gilbert intended from the beginning, I believe.

What I would then do, and this may seem silly to most people, is to tour the Alexander Ramsey House in Irvine Park. It’s only open odd hours, but everyone should arrange to tour this unique historic site. No other historic house I have ever toured can match the display of original furniture, kitchen and bathroom equipment from the 1880s. A visit to the Ramsey House is literally a step back in time to visit the exact house as it was furnished by Minnesota’s first Territorial Governor, Alexander Ramsey—not replicas or furniture of the era, but the actual original contents of his home. After Ramsey’s death, the home was occupied by his daughter and granddaughters.  Whenever anything was replaced, the original fixture was crated and stored.  Everything was kept. His granddaughters lived in the home their entire lives and, when they died, the building and contents were passed to the Minnesota Historical Society. The home provides a wonderful insight into the 19th century.

Anything other favorite Saint Paul spots?

Waldmann Brewery’s restoration is one of the great Minnesota stories. This 1857 saloon, now a brewery and restaurant, was restored using hand tools and historically appropriate construction methods. It's the original outside but, if they could justify it on the inside, they used hand tools to do everything—not machine tools. The food's pretty good (especially if you like German food), but the feeling of sitting in the several small dining rooms is just marvelous.

Another favorite restaurant is J. Selby’s on Selby and Victoria. I had heard it was a vegan restaurant, so while I was sure it would be healthy, I did not expect much.  I was dead wrong—the food was delicious. The single best wrap sandwich I've ever had was the beet wrap. When friends visit from out of state we take them to J. Selby’s because frankly, it explodes my mind to think we can eat vegan and have enjoyable meals that are fun and good for you. How often does that happen?

What’s your insider secret?

A visit to the second-floor balcony at the Capitol, mentioned before. I hope it will be opened more easily soon. The connection to Minnesota and the people of Minnesota from the Loggia is a profound experience.  

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