Part 4: The Architecture of the Degree of Honor Protective Association Building

The Degree of Honor Protective Association Building was one of the earliest Modern style buildings constructed in downtown Saint Paul, second only to its neighbor to the north, the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Building. This building, designed by firm of Bergstedt, Hirsch, Wahlberg, and Wold, is historically significant under National Register of Historic Places Criterion A as the national headquarters of the Degree of Honor Protective Association. In case you missed our previous posts in the series:

Bergstedt, Hirsch, Wahlberg, and Wold Architects

The architects behind the firm of BergstedtHirsch, Wahlberg, and Wold played a key role in shaping the St. Paul skyline. In addition to the Degree of Honor Protective Association building, these local masters of mid-century modern design were also responsible for the twenty-two-story Osborn Building (now Ecolab Center and Plaza) on Wabasha Street North. The Degree of Honor Building was the “first post-Depression—and air conditioned—office building in downtown St. Paul” and, according to Jeffrey Hess and Paul Larson, “was a harbinger of the upright, rectangular high-rises that would soon typify the central development” of downtown St. Paul.[1]

Bergstedt, Hirsch, Wahlberg, and Wold came together in the mid-1950s. After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1931, Milton Bergstedt spent a year studying architecture at Harvard University and worked at several architectural firms—including Mather and Fleishbein, the offices of Edwin Lundie and Clarence Johnston, and Ellerbe & Co.—before joining William Ingemann’s St. Paul office in 1941. Ingemann and his architect wife, Dorothy, had built a reputation after designing the Lowell Inn in Stillwater and had been designing buildings out of a St. Paul office since the 1920s.[2] 

Bergstedt partnered with James Hirsch in 1951; Lloyd Berquist, Charles Wahlberg, Clark Wold, and Fritz Rohkohl all joined the firm in the mid-1950s. Milton Bergstedt was a social activist—particularly with regard to the Civil Rights Movement—and the projects that his firm pursued often aligned with his politics.[3] Bergstedt and Edna Dugan were colleagues through a shared social circle, and it is not surprising that when the leaders of the Degree of Honor Protective Association sought an architect for their new headquarters, they selected Bergstedt’s firm with its commitment to social causes.[4]

After completion of the Degree of Honor building, the firm went through a few reorganizations. James Hirsch left to start a practice in Hudson, Wisconsin in 1961 and Wahlberg, Berquist, and Wold became partners. Wold started his own firm in 1968. In 1974 Fritz Rohkohl joined the firm leadership and Bergstedt, Wahlberg, Berquist and Rohkohl—or BWBR—was formed. BWBR continues to office in St. Paul.   

The Degree of Honor Protective Association Building

The DOHPA Building is a mid-century modern style office building with a tripartite composition. The building’s first and tenth levels are recessed, exposing the building’s skeleton. The first level extends further to the southwest than the building’s upper floors; this single height portion of the building originally housed the DOHPA’s ritual room.

The recessed first level is clad in black granite. Two sizes of rectangular granite pieces are used to create both texture and a sense of verticality for the building. The smaller pieces of granite stand proud of the rest of the façade, imparting a tactile quality to the building. A series of square columns, also clad in black granite, support the upper levels of the building, while further emphasizing the building’s verticality.

The upper levels are clad in white granite and glass. Here, the cladding repeats the pattern and texture of the first level on a larger scale. Bands of granite mark each floor plate, while bands of alternating granite and glass mark the habitable space. Windows at these levels are fixed, metal frame with single lights. A double band of granite is located at the top of the ninth level, marking the floorplate for the penthouse and also a partial-height wall that surrounds a roof deck at the tenth level.

The tenth level echoes the first level. The habitable portion of the building is recessed while a second set of black granite clad square columns support the flat roof. A partial-height wall stretches between the columns and an open-air walkway loops the building. At this level, the recessed portion of the building and interior face of the partial-height wall are both clad in a black brick.

The building’s primary entry fronts Cedar Street. The entrance is composed of a glass and metal storefront type system, which invites street life into the building’s lobby, a convention typical of midcentury office buildings. The black granite cladding of the first level continues inside the building, covering the walls of the first floor public lobby.

The upper floors of the building were historically (and currently) used as rental office space. The building was originally designed with “flexibility in rental space due to a four-foot module system that will permit movable partitions to be erected at any four-foot interval.”[5]

The Degree of Honor Protective Association published an information brochure about the building shortly after its construction. The brochure included comments about the building by both Bergsted, Hirsch, Wahlberg, and Wold, and Steenberg Construction Company. In the words of the building’s architects and builders:

The white Vermont granite ten-story tower and black Minnestoa granite first floor and penthouse, together with the stainless steel windows and trim, give the simple lines and attractive proportions of this building a refined dignity and rugged richness seldom achieved.
The attractive design, function plan, flexibility of arrangement, high quality materials, built-in year around air-conditioning and superb location makes it one of the most modern and desirable buildings of its type in the Upper-Northwest!

[1] BWBR, “History,” www.bwbr.com/people/history; Jeffrey A. Hess and Paul Clifford Larson, St. Paul’s Architecture (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 209.

[2] “Milton Bergstedt, “Dorothy Ingemann,” and “William Ingemann” in Alan Lathrop’s Minnesota Architects: A Biographical Dictionary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 21, 108-109.

[3] In 1985, Bergstedt was the recipient of the AIA’s Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award, which “is the namesake of the late civil rights activist and head of the Urban League…who made the oft-quoted remark at the 1968 AIA national conference in Portland, Ore: ‘You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.’” The Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award is awarded annually to an architect or firm that “contributes significantly to fulfilling the profession’s responsibility to society.” BWBR, “History,” www.bwbr.com/people/history; “Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award,” http://info.aia.org/aiarchitect/thisweek02/tw0628/0628tw4whitneyyoung.htm.

[4] Chuck Wahlberg, interview.

[5] “Degree of Honor Plans Expanded - Work Begins on Loop Building,” Pioneer Press (Saint Paul, MN), A1, February 27, 1960.

Degree of HonorLaurel Fritz