History of Minnesota's Second State Capitol (1883 - 1938)

Minnesota Then

View of St. Paul showing second Capitol building.Photo byMNHS

ST. PAUL, MN - The March 1, 1881 fire of Minnesota’s first state capitol left the structure in ruin and necessitated a new building to take its place. A second capitol, designed by architect Leroy S. Buffington - the self-proclaimed inventor of the modern skyscraper, opened for legislative business in 1883. However, it was not held in the same high regard as its predecessor, and within a decade calls had begun to replace the state’s second seat of government.

Initially Governor John S. Pillsbury appropriated $75,000 to rebuild the first capitol, integrating the standing walls of the former structure into the construction of the state’s next seat of government. It was soon determined that the old walls were unsafe and had to come down. A new foundation was laid at the same location the first capitol once stood in the summer of 1881. In November an additional allocation of $100,000 to build the new capitol was approved by the legislature.

After a harsh winter in which little work was done, Pillsbury’s replacement, Governor Lucius F. Hubbard, learned the project was underfunded by an additional $61,000. The initial estimate was made at a time when labor and materials were less expensive, and the architect had planned to cut some features later considered important – including fire-proofing and the building’s centerpiece tower. The private citizens of St. Paul, without stipulations, donated $40,000 to help close the funding gap.

Additional monies were approved during the 1883 legislative session, bringing the total cost of constructing the state’s second capitol building to nearly $360,000.

On January 4, 1883, legislators met in the yet-unfinished second capitol of Minnesota, a multi-story, red brick structure with sandstone molding. It was built in the shape of a Greek cross with a central dome that reached two hundred feet into the air. The Senate and House chambers, as well as the Supreme Court, were located on the upper floors.

Fire safety was a key component of the building's construction. Concrete and ash slabs covered the walls and floors. Concrete tiles covered the hallways to prevent potential fires from spreading. There were iron stairways leading from the rotunda to the second floor. The boiler was housed in a nearby separate building. Heat was pushed from there through tunnels to radiators located throughout the Capitol.

There were major issues from the outset, none bigger than space itself and the way it was ventilated.

Minnesota’s quickly growing state government soon expanded beyond the capacity of Capitol. The building’s lack of suitable space inhibited the political process. There weren’t enough meeting rooms, and legislators soon began holding official meetings in nearby hotel rooms. Furthermore, stored documents soon packed the building’s every nook-and-cranny. The cramped space took on an ever-increasing musty odor.

Ventilation issues were exacerbated by a system considered state-of-the-art at the time. Four large air shafts moved air from the basement to the roof. The mechanism contributed to the poor air conditions found inside the building. In fact, they were so bad that (albeit years later) the secretary of the state board of health deemed it unsafe for human beings.

The capitol was Buffington’s last major commission in St. Paul.

By 1893, the building’s small size – and noxious odor – had become too much to overcome. Only a decade after the second capitol building took on its role as the state’s seat of government, conversations had begun in earnest to build a new capitol – a grand structure more indicative of the growing greatness of Minnesota.

The new capitol, Minnesota’s third, opened in time for the 1905 legislative session. Legislators and state staff quickly moved their offices up the hill and into the “People’s House.”

Interestingly, this did not spell the end for the (now) old capitol. It housed a number of state offices for many years. The construction of a new State Office Building near the third capitol in the 1930s spelled its end.

The state’s second capitol, opened in 1883, was unceremoniously razed in 1938. The land on which the building and its predecessor stood for nearly ninety years (at least initially) became part of an expanded parking lot.


  • Cameron, Linda A. "Minnesota's Second State Capitol." MNopedia | Minnesota Encyclopedia. Last modified August 9, 2017. https://www.mnopedia.org/structure/minnesotas-second-state-capitol.
  • El-Hai, Jack. Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
  • Keefe, Jack. "Old State Capitol Now is Regarded as Eyesore." Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 14, 1937, 19.
  • The Minneapolis Journal. "Will Raze Old Capitol." June 24, 1938, 29.
  • The Saint Paul Globe. "New Capitol is Aglow with Light." January 3, 1905, 9.
  • St. Paul Daily Globe. "Annual Message of Gov. Lucius F. Hubbard." January 5, 1883, 2.

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The author is an experienced historian and researcher with a passion for uncovering untold stories of the past, particularly in Minnesota. Their deep knowledge and enthusiasm make them a valuable contributor to the Minnesota Then history project.

Hugo, MN

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