Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Part 3: Building A Home in Saint Paul
The Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company Building, located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was approved for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the Minnesota State Review Board in March 2017, and is currently awaiting final review and listing by the Keeper of the National Register. PVN worked with a developer to determine that the building is historically significant under National Register of Historic Places Criterion A as the home office of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company and under Criterion C as an early example of an International Style office building in Saint Paul. The building is currently being rehabilitated as housing. PVN is proud to be part of a team that is leading the way in the preservation and rehabilitation of Midcentury buildings in St. Paul.
Find the rest of the Minnesota Mutual blog series here.
A “Home” for Minnesota Mutual: 345 Cedar Avenue
Understanding that they had outgrown their current offices in the Builders Exchange Building, in 1950, Minnesota Mutual retained local architecture firm Ellerbe and Company to design an addition to the building. In August of 1950, the company announced that “plans [were complete] for a new four-story addition to its Home Office building at 6th and Jackson. The building [would] provide 40,000 square feet of additional office space and [would] be built adjoining the present building on ground already owned by the company.” A model of the proposed building was presented soon after the announcement, at the company’s yearly National Conference in September. This plan was, however, quickly scrapped in favor of constructing a single new building large enough to house all functions of the Home Office. After assessing available real estate in downtown, Minnesota Mutual quickly decided to purchase a piece of land at the corner of Cedar and 4th streets known as Victory Square.
Covering roughly half of a city block, Victory Square had formerly been the home of the old Saint Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse, which had been demolished in 1933. Following the demolition of those public buildings, the site was landscaped by the WPA, and then housed a Red Cross headquarters tent during World War II. At the time of purchase the property was jointly owned by Saint Paul and Ramsey County. Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company chose the site due to its “central location and convenient streetcar and bus facilities.” Redevelopment of the site also served the city and the county, as a new private office building put the parcel back on the tax rolls.
After purchase of the property, Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company instructed Ellerbe and Company to immediately begin designs for a new building. Following an 18 month design process, plans for the new $2,500,000 building were released to staff and the public in August 1953. Along with a rendering of the Cedar Street façade, the plans for the building were described as follows:
The new home office building will be eight stories high, 266 feet long, and 68 feet wide, with a full basement. Plans call for a steel frame construction with a red granite base and light-colored stone exterior… Special features of the building include:
- A reception lobby with large glass doors and walls covered with murals depicting scenes from Minnesota State history.
- Elimination of center pillars to provide an un-obstructed span of 42 feet across the building for general offices.
- 2 ½ times the usable floor space of the present home office building.
- Self-operated elevators.
- Complete air-conditioning.
- Acoustic ceilings and ribbon-type thermopane [sic] windows.
- Employees’ lunchroom and lounge on the ground floor.
The building was designed to house entire departments on single floors, thereby maximizing efficiency for the company. The lower level included an employees’ lunchroom and lounge, as well as an office for the building superintendent, storage, and mechanical rooms. The first floor held the supply department, outgoing mail department, printing and duplicating departments, personnel department, employee’s health services, and a purchasing agent. The second floor housed underwriting, the medical division, filing, and incoming mail. The comptroller and secretarial pool were located on the third floor; the actuarial and tabulating departments were on the fourth floor. The fifth and sixth floors were left vacant to facilitate future growth, and the eighth floor included the executive suite, agency department, advertising and direct mail department, investment department, and legal department.
The design changed very little following the unveiling of this plan, and construction began that winter. Groundbreaking took place on December 16, 1953 with Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company’s president Harold J. Cummings responsible for the first shovelful of dirt.
A carnival spirit was in the air as, accompanied by a band and a police motorcycle escort, the Minnesota Mutual employees marched through St. Paul streets… Arriving at Victory Square, the marchers were greeted by a battery of TV and newspaper cameras recording the ceremonies. A giant steam shovel decorated the site and a gilded spade was ready for President Cummings to shovel the first scoop of dirt from the frozen ground.
Representatives of the Minnesota Governor, St. Paul Mayor’s Office, and St. Paul Association of Commerce were all present for the ceremony.
The highlight of the event was a speech by President Cummings, in which he explained what the new building meant to Minnesota Mutual and how Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company understood their role in Saint Paul,
When we move into the new home office for which we are breaking ground here, we will be making our sixth move in the city. But we will live in a home built for ourselves for the first time. Then the Minnesota Mutual will just be starting to grow. Our organization does not feel that it has arrived. We start from here. We look forward, not back. In seven years – maybe less – we expect to have given St. Paul a two billion dollar life insurance company. And while the eight story building a full block wide which will rise here has been planned to take care of our needs for ten years, we will do our very best to make it inadequate before that time. … We are all proud of St. Paul and pleased to add our bit to the skyline of a fine city.
In a luncheon following the ground breaking ceremony, Saint Paul’s Mayor Daubney spoke, echoing Cumming’s sentiments about the appropriateness of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company building in downtown. “I am more proud to have a 3 million dollar Minnesota Mutual building in St. Paul than I would be to have a 6 million dollar Prudential building, because this company is truly a Minnesota organization,” asserted the mayor.
Following the auspicious groundbreaking ceremony, the city followed the construction of the new building with great interest. There was a consistent group of “sidewalk superintendents” watching the construction from across the street, and St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Paul Light went so far as to publish a poem about the construction:
It’s a mystery I can’t fathom
As they dig up Victory Square
To hear the work continues
On the days when I’m not there.
Who directs the roaring dozer
Bosses shovels and the crew?
Who is capable of planning
The next important things to do?
Maybe I should tell the builders,
When they find themselves at sea,
If they’re absolutely stymied,
They can always call on me.
The building’s cornerstone was laid September 7, 1954, again with the Governor, Mayor, and members of the Chamber of Commerce present and showing their support. A history of Minnesota Mutual, pictures of the previous home offices, biographies of some of the organization’s past presidents, and microfilm copies of the day’s newspapers were all placed in the cornerstone.
 Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company, “News,” Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance: News, August 29, 1950. Minnesota Historical Society Collections.
 Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company, “New Building Plans Announced,” Application (Official Publication of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company Saint Paul, Minnesota), September 1950.
 Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company, “News,” Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance: News, November 30, 1950. Minnesota Historical Society Collections.
 Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company, “Advance Showing – Our New Home Office Building,” Application (Official Publication of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company Saint Paul, Minnesota), August 1953.
 Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company, “We’ll Long Remember Ground-Breaking Day,” Application (Official Publication of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company Saint Paul, Minnesota), January 1954.
 Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company, “Notes on the New Building,” Application (Official Publication of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company Saint Paul, Minnesota), March 1954.
 Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company, “We Lay Our Cornerstone,” Application (Official Publication of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company Saint Paul, Minnesota), October 1954.