Medieval history of Tenth Street & its Mansards
Not that Rhenish castles fortify St Anthony Hill or Dayton’s Bluff; not that campaniles sanctify the pleasant places over against Lake Como. But there is architecture in St Paul that represents the city’s middle age; that stands for neither the classic period of the ’50s nor yet for that dull time called nowadays.
This fine medieval era, abounding in the towers that its name suggests, may be fixed in the early ’70s — the decade between 1868 and 1878.
St Paul was then as prosperous as a mining town. The Civil War, like most successful wars, had scattered speculative fortunes throughout the country. St Paul and Minneapolis — a healthy suburb — were picking the first fruits of agriculture from the new Northwest. Railways, the tentacles of commerce, were stretching north and west and south. Lines were building which eventually became the St Paul & Duluth, now the Northern Pacific; the St Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba, now the Great Northern; the St Paul & Sioux City, now the Chicago, St Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha.
It was a time to make money; and, “by the same token.” it was a time to build new houses, establish new homes.
Ideal dwellings of the ’70s
And what was the ideal dwelling in those days? Nothing colonial — by no means; houses with columns supporting a front portico were not unfamiliar along Eighth street and out on Fort street (now West Seventh). But they were old-fashioned houses; they were Southern houses, too, such as the hateful planters had filled with slaves and pride “befoh de wah.” The North was too intensely Northern in the ’70s to spend its money on an “Ole Ferginny” mansion. The colonial style and its related changes upon the helpless Grecian being quite impossible, nothing would serve.
Society turned instinctively to Europe. Americans were learning more of Europe than they will learn again. A multitude of families, enriched by the war, were exploring the continent and astonishing their relatives at home with information. Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad,” a title unintentionally comprehensive, spread more facts European throughout the States than Baedeker can ever hope to contradict. Society talked of Paris with and without an “s.” The Empress Eugenie and her mustached cavaliers were the dream companions of “our daughter” in all Columbia. Even after France had lost her battlefields to Germany, she became, as often happens, still more influential on the fields of art and fashion.
Must have Mansard roof
Thus every successful American wishing to enthrone himself within a stylish dwelling agreed with his wife that they must abide beneath a Mansard roof. For Mansard roofs were French, are French, will continue to be French until Paris herself is transformed.
It wasn’t a new style upon the Seine; old Mansard had been dust for half a dozen generations. But in St Paul, his stately roofs were novelties to be sighed at — “just the very same kind that they’ve put on the new Palmer house down in Chicago, and you know it’s the biggest and grandest hotel in the world; everybody down there’ll tell you so.”
Having agreed upon the roof as the foundation of his new house the affluent man, and his wife, proceeded to put up the walls. The walls must be brick — stone was so old-fashioned, it went With the big columns of those horrid old houses. And the brick must be Milwaukee brick. Not because Milwaukee was yet famous — though some of the brands were popular — but because Milwaukee brick was pressed brick of a rude sort, and its color was a picturesque suggestion of foam-tinted amber; yet chiefly because Milwaukee brick had been selected for their house by the most artistic representatives of Chicago prosperity.
The general shape of the new houses approximated to the squares. The design fitted that Mansard roof, no doubt, and suggested those strange French flats in Paris, where half a dozen families actually lived in the same house — very respectable families, too. And the American people, so long familiar with the rectangular dwellings of their ancestors, had not yet begun to understand that small, irregular rooms, uninhabitable nooks, stairways ascending to the top of stairways going down, can give much comfort to a decorator’s life.
Had to have large panes
Finally, the tall windows must have large panes in contrast with the little panes that mark all antebellum houses; the exterior “trimmings” of the dwelling must be wood — brown, sanded wood, offensive to the touch — and tho whole two stories must take on baronial dignity from a dominating three-story tower.
Becker House, 612 Lafayette Avenue. Usually the tower was square. Always — to borrow Mary MacLane’s one literary mark — always it was capped with a Mansard roof; and always, too, its upper windows cast back the sunbeams from a multitude of tall and big-paned windows.
Who lived in the tower was a subject of gossip by the humble. Not the “hired girl,” or both of them — some families with Mansard roofs employed two “girls;” it would hardly be modest in that pinnacle of publicity. The passing schoolm’am may have called the tower a genuine “solarium,” or sunbath room; but even the blue-glass cure was yet to be exploited; golf hadn’t been imported; freckles were not esteemed a tonic.
This “palace” of the ’70’s, taken all in all, was a dignified house; aside from its “gingerbread” “trimmings” of wood it was unpretentious. Within it was convenient, roomy; it wasted no space, it served “the simple life.” It had then, it still retains, a personality, an impressiveness, of its own. It had not, indeed, the dignity, the aristocratic exclusiveness, that clothed the older, cheaper houses of the portico and the fluted column. But it is a fact not easily explained that, with few exceptions, the large, elaborate stone dwellings erected recently in American cities are much less dignified, much less individual, than were the wood and stucco temples of the early day, or even than the yellow Mansards of the ’70s.