Landmark Center in downtown Saint Paul, known historically as the “Old Federal Courts Building,” was completed in 1902 and served as the Federal Court House, Custom House and U.S. Post Office for the Upper Midwest. It took ten years to build at a cost of $2.5 million (in today’s dollars about $83 million). The building was designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, who served as Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury from 1891-1892, when building construction started. He designed and organized a body of public architecture, much of which, like this structure, was completed after his death in 1896. The building has a later addition that includes the imposing North Tower and the building’s largest historic courtroom. The addition was completed in 1908 from plans developed by Supervising Architect of the Treasury, James Knox Taylor, who served from 1897-1912.
The building was intended to be impressive and instill upon the people of the Upper Midwest the power of the Federal Government. It was described as “a work of art in architecture.” The exterior is pink granite ashlar from St. Cloud, Minnesota, with a hipped red tile roof, steeply pitched to shed St. Paul’s snows and the roof is enlivened by numerous turrets, gables and dormers with steeply peaked roofs; cylindrical corner towers with conical turrets occupy almost every change of projection. In addition to the North Tower, there is a South Tower, which has housed a chiming clock since 1978, funded by the family of former Postmaster, Charles Moos.
The interior features a five-story courtyard rising to a skylight and rooms with 20-foot ceilings, appointed with marble and carved mahogany finishes. Its Richardsonian Romanesque style is similar to the Old Post Office Building in Washington D.C., as well as several federal building throughout the U.S. (some of which have now been torn down).
Time and official government tenants were not kind to the building. The U.S. Courts moved out of the building in 1965 to a new building down on Robert Street. The Post Office, which remained in the building on the main floor until 1974, painted over the marble walls of the main entrance lobby with a #102A government green paint and cut down marble wainscoting to install mailboxes. Brown linoleum covered the maple floors, crude tile replaced marble mosaic and fluorescent egg-crate ceiling fixtures replaced the handsome old metal lights that had been wired for both gas and electricity. Corrugated asbestos covered the Cortile skylight. The beautiful stained glass skylight in Courtroom 430 was roofed over on the outside and painted over on the inside.
Throughout the 1960s, the Committee to Save the Old Federal Courts Building, made up of a group of determined citizens, worked alongside several mayors and county officials to save the building. In 1969, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the first structures in Minnesota on the register. Minnesota Landmarks was established in 1970 to ensure adaptive reuse of the building and secure its future through fund raising for an extensive restoration effort. It was saved from the wrecking ball and restored to its previous grandeur, reopening to the public as Landmark Center in 1978, after being transferred to Ramsey County ownership in 1975.
Today, Landmark Center serves as a cultural center for music, dance, theater, exhibitions, public forums, and hosts countless special events. Owned by Ramsey County, Landmark Center continues to be managed and programmed for the community by Minnesota Landmarks, a non-profit charitable organization. Landmark Center also houses Landmarket Gift Shop, the “Uncle Sam Worked Here” building-wide exhibit, five individual gallery spaces and a number of the area’s premier arts and culture organizations.
Eileen Michels, The Old Federal Courts Building: A Landmark Reclaimed, Minnesota Landmarks, 1977.
Billie Young, Landmark Center: Stories of a Place, Minnesota Landmarks, 2002.
Minnesota Landmarks, Inc. “Landmark Center: A Work of Art Serving People,” produced and directed by Woody Mueller, executive producer Peter B. Myers, from a script by Chris Jones, 2001.
There is an excellent summary of Landmark Center history on the Historic Twin Cities website: