Dakota Datebook

Cass Gilbert, Architect

Monday, November 29, 2004

A number of wonderful restorations have saved many worthy historic buildings around the state during the past several decades. Among these nick-of-time projects was the restoration of Fargo’s Northern Pacific Depot. Construction of the building began in 1898 and was finished in 1900. The architect was Cass Gilbert, who was born on this date in 1859 in Ohio.

The style Gilbert used for the depot was called Richardsonian Romanesque. The structure used dark brown St. Louis pressed bricks, and the trim was Lake Superior Brownstone wood. The roof has red Spanish tile, and the deep overhang of the roof is supported with decorative brackets. Landscaped parks to the east and to the west used to fill out the entire block but had been paved over for parking. Now, the park to the west has been restored and a large circular fountain added.

Gilbert is also credited with a jewel in Moorhead, St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was added to the National Historic Register in 1987. (HELP! Any others in the state?)

Cass Gilbert is considered the skyscraper pioneer; he got his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – or MIT – in Boston and settled in St. Paul. Among his many highly regarded works were the state capitols of Minnesota, West Virginia and Arkansas and the George Washington Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River in upper Manhattan, New York City.

Gilbert had an enormous influence on the development of architecture in the United States and is perhaps best known for his gothic (New York) skyscraper, the Woolworth Building. In Master Architects, writer Jackie Craven writes, “…Gilbert spent two years, drawing thirty different proposals, for the office building commissioned by Frank W. Woolworth, owner of the dime store chain. Soaring 792 feet high, it was the world’s tallest building until the Chrysler Building was erected in 1929.”

Craven says, “Gilbert was highly regarded by politicians and other luminaries of the day. President Theodore Roosevelt made him chairman of the Council of Fine Arts, and President Wilson reappointed him.”

Gilbert received many gold medals in the U.S. and Europe, including one from the Society of Arts and Sciences, in 1931, for inaugurating the age of skyscrapers. He didn’t let his success go to his head, however. Among some of his memorable quotes are: “In conducting business (especially for the office) never forget that the greatest danger arises from cocksure pride.” Another of his sayings was, “Beware of over-confidence; especially in matters of structure.”

Gilbert’s name slipped into obscurity by the 1950s with the advent of Modernism, with its sleek, boxy, unornamented forms. Buildings like those that Gilbert designed were soon dismissed and some suffered from neglect. But a new appreciation for historic styles of architecture has recently reawakened interest in Cass Gilbert’s work.

Cass Gilbert died in May 1934, one year before his last project reached completion. That project was the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. The New York Historical Society holds some 63,000 of his drawings, blueprints, watercolor renderings, and business papers. Jackie Craven quips, “In linear footage, the Society’s Gilbert collection is about as high as his celebrated Woolworth Building.” The Society has also recently published a book Gilbert’s work called, Inventing the Skyline: The Architecture of Cass Gilbert.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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