St. Paul Minnesota

25 Jan

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It’s late September, we’re on our way to Minnesota’s capital city, St. Paul; it’s our first visit to the L’Etoile du Nord (The Star of the North) and we’re pretty excited. We have always wanted to visit; when the wedding invitation of a dear friend arrived in the mail it sealed the deal–we’re going to Minnesota! We have a reservation at an airbnb, a cooler in the backseat holds food and drinks, the car is loaded, we’re off. In order to maintain the feeling of being on vacation Kris is heading north, we’re taking I-75 straight through to the Upper Peninsula; I never get tired of seeing the Mackinac Bridge and the spectacular view it affords me. Once in the U.P. we head west on 2 following the Lake Michigan shoreline. Right where the lake practically meets the road Kris pulls over, we eat sandwiches, Better Made potato chips and apples standing on the sandy beach, the temperature hovers in the low 80’s. The next several hours are spent driving through the U.P, crossing Wisconsin and finally entering Minnesota. We arrive at our airbnb about 13 hours after we have left home.

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In the morning we are refreshed and ready to go. I have done a little research before our trip, I learned that St. Paul’s location on the east bank of the Mississippi River turned it into a bustling steamboat city, it became the provincial capital, later a railroad boomtown. In the late 19th Century the affluent moved to an area atop the bluffs where they could escape the dirt and pollution of the city; this provided a spectacular view of the capitol, downtown and Dayton’s Bluff, today this area is called Cathedral Hill. Let’s start at the top. The Cathedral of St. Paul is the 1915 Roman Catholic, copper-clad, Beaux-Arts-style creation of Archbishop John Ireland and architect Emmanuel Masqueray. It literally sits on the top of the hill. The monumental structure is magnificent; exterior walls are made of Rockville granite from St. Cloud MN, the dome rises 186′ into the sky, a rose window is placed front and center, dozens of concrete steps lead you to the dark-wooden door entrances; the amount of detail and decoration is astounding.

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Inside, our eyes immediately focuses on the altar. The architect was Emmanuel Masqueray, he designed the building specifically so all visitors had unobstructed views of the altar and pulpit. There are a few other visitors inside the cathedral as well, the space is so vast we hardly notice them. Making my way to the front, my head is tipped up, I must be careful not to run into anything. While there is so much to look at, the sanctuary is still the center of attention. The High Altar itself is marble surrounded by an ornamental structure called a Baldachin; 6 columns of black and gold marble, each 24′ high, a bronze latticework canopy, 2 angels and a sculpture of St. Paul rest on high pillars, glorious, breathtaking. At the top of the dome is a painting of the Holy Spirit, below it the 7 gifts; the color palate is warm, light shimmers off the gold leaf, massive bronze grilles surround the sanctuary. The central dome is 96′ in diameter and ascends 175′ high, 24 stained glass windows allow natural light to fill the space, yellow sections remind me of the sun,  the 8-pointed chandelier is gorgeous.

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The Ernest Skinner organ was installed in the sanctuary in 1927, the Aeolian-Skinner organ was put in the loft in 1963. Soaring spaces, arches, murals, columns, angels, marble, metalwork and statues fill the 3,000-seat cathedral. Stained glass windows are everywhere, the largest, the Rose windows are in the north and south transepts; created by Charles Connick he described his windows as “Spiritual beauty in lyric color”, I couldn’t have said it better. Bright and colorful, today they glow with images of the angelic choirs, Christ, saints and Christian history, stunning. Lighting was not installed until 1940. The Shrine Of Nations forms a semi-circle behind the altar, each of the 6 chapels is dedicated to a Patron Saint. There are 4 more chapels dedicated to St. Joseph, St. Peter, Mary and Sacred Heart. The space goes on and on, one hallway leading to another, it’s like a small city inside. Large marble statues of the 4 evangelists sculpted by John Angel are set into niches; each statue is 11’6″ and weighs 8 tons, seriously.

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We marvel at opulent sconces and fixtures, elegant candlesticks, beautiful ceilings and frescoes. We head downstairs to check out the  museum. In one area historic photographs and artifacts tell the story of the building. The cathedral was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, the copper dome was renovated in 2002 and in 2009 the Cathedral of St. Paul was declared a National Shrine. If you visit St. Paul this is one place not to be missed. 

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We descend the hill on Selby into one of St. Paul’s prettiest neighborhoods. Quiet streets, small parks, Queen Ann homes give this area a small-town feel even though it’s on the edge of downtown. Restaurants, boutiques and tons of historic buildings make this area very walkable. On the right we see a quaint stucco and brick building, the vintage neon sign reads St. Paul Curling Club. Curiosity leads us around to the back door where a member kindly invites us in. Off-season for curling, renovations are being made, still we are welcomed to have a look around. With temperatures again in the 80’s it feels good to be inside, even better when we step into the rink! Curling is played on artificial ice, the playing surface is called a sheet, at the end of each sheet is a target, called a house, the center of the house is called the tee. The object of the game is to get your stone closer to the tee then the other team gets theirs, we’ve all watched this during the Winter Olympics right? The building was built in 1912, the first incarnation of the St. Paul Curling Club was incorporated in 1885! From what we’re told the club is still going strong; Minnesotans continue to pass the tradition down through the generations, I love that.

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We’re having lunch at Moscow On The Hill, a Russian restaurant and vodka lounge. The decor is gold and red, the vodka bar is pretty busy for the middle of the day. The menu is filled with Russian delights from Beef Tartar to herring and borscht. We are having the Kasha, think of over-size, really delicious Grape-Nuts with fresh blueberries, a wonderful salad of fresh greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, the dressing is really good. The beef and cabbage piroshki are excellent too! We continue our walk through the Cathedral Hill Business District, old-fashioned street lamps line Selby, the architecture is amazing, extraordinary. As is the case with many Mid-Western cities, this area went into rapid decline in the 1970’s, population dipped drastically, grand buildings were slated for demolition. Modern structures fill the gaps where majestic buildings once stood.

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The building at 374 Selby stops us in our tracks, the Richardson-Romanesque Dacotah Building is a red-brick, 3-story, dark-trimmed beauty. Built in 1879 grandeur W.A. Frost set up his pharmacy in the building’s ground floor, it closed in 1950–that’s quite a run. The building was vacant and forgotten until the Rupp family swooped in, restored it and opened the W.A. Frost bar and restaurant in 1975, they are credited with having the foresight to stabilize and redevelop the Cathedral Hill Business District, thank goodness! The bar is open, we’re thirsty, let’s go in. The interior is fabulous, look at this place; tin ceiling, antique light fixtures, the back bar is outstanding. The bartender tells us to take a look around so we do. The lower level is charming, it has that speakeasy feel; brick walls, arches, decorative wainscoting, cozy seating areas, this place is a gem. Upstairs we sit at the bar, a Guinness for me, whiskey for Kris; the staff is super-friendly, they are happy to give us suggestions of places to see while we’re here.

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Our walk down Selby takes us past cute sidewalk cafes, bakeries, bars, restaurants and shops. When the streetcars came to Selby the area experienced the greatest boom in residential and commercial construction. The first stop of the westbound Selby street car was at the corner of Selby and Western, which brings us to The Blair Flats, another incredible 5-story, Italianate building that’s been here since 1887. Once a residential hotel, it was re-named the Albion in 1893, the Angus in 1911. The Angus re-opened in 1985 as a mixed-use complex  of apartments, offices and retail, it operates in the same fashion today. The streetscape here is wonderful!

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Up ahead we see a sign for Claddagh Coffee Shop, their sandwich board says they have cold press coffee, that sounds good about now. Located in a historic building, we sit at the front window overlooking the street, drinking our coffee. I think about Detroit and the many other Mid-Western cities we like to visit, we have all followed the same pattern, growth, decline and now rebirth. It’s exciting, isn’t it? I’m so glad we’re here, I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover tomorrow.

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