Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Part 5: Building in the Saint Paul Context

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 Saint Paul.

The first four posts in the Minnesota Mutual series can be found here.

International Style Corporate Architecture

According to architectural historian Leland Roth, after World War II, “American corporations, flush with profits earned during the war…wished to demonstrate their faith in the future and progress. The ideals of the International Style…were perfect for expressing this confidence in American know-how...”[1] Roth further argues that “Commercial architecture became an increasingly important form of public relations” and that the International Style, specifically, was “co-opted by corporate America as a form of advertisement and aggrandizement.”[2] 

The architectural language that would eventually be called the “International Style” emerged in Europe in the 1920s. While the style would not gain traction in the United States until after World War II, it was introduced to American audiences by a 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art presented by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock—“Modern Architecture: International Exhibition”—and the accompanying book, The International Style: Architecture in 1922.                                  

Horizontal lines, rectangular volumes, flat roofs, strip or ribbon windows, regularity of openings, and a lack of applied ornament characterize the style. International style interiors are marked by large volumes of open floor space, which made adoption of the International Style ideal for American post-war corporate office buildings, since the country’s white collar workforce more than doubled in the post war period.[3]

International Style office buildings in the United States played an important role in postwar corporate identity construction. According to architectural historian Dell Upton, “for…a business corporation, a striking building created an impression of power and stability and gave it a memorable image or logo…” and “expanses of glass now spoke of modernity and cultural authority.”[4] As the first office building constructed in postwar Saint Paul, it was particularly important for the Minnesota Mutual building to communicate “modernity and cultural authority.” The building was to be located on a highly visible site, and municipal and business leaders hoped that it would revitalize the urban core and inspire reinvestment in the city. Minnesota Mutual and Ellerbe and Company combined the hallmarks of the International Style—rectangular massing, horizontal emphasis, regularity across the facades, ribbon windows, a flat roof, and an open floor plan at the interior—with panels of Minnesota’s yellow Kasota stone, successfully situating the modern building in its regional environment.

The Minnesota Mutual building made the most of its site—rising only eight stories but stretching the full length of the city block that had been Victory Square, thereby maximizing its street front presence. It is the Minnesota Mutual building’s emphatic horizontal orientation that sets it apart from the other modern buildings that would be constructed in Saint Paul in the 1960s. The next new downtown construction following the Minnesota Mutual building took place in 1961, when the YWCA built a new facility at 65 East Kellogg Boulevard. The YWCA building has a horizontal central block with a north south orientation, but also lower side wings that give the building a competing east/west orientation as well. Buildings with square massing are the most common modern style buildings to be found in downtown. The Dayton’s department store (1963), Farm Credit Banks building (1965), Federal Courts Building (1966), Minnesota Department of Employment Security building (1968), and First National Bank addition (1971) are all notably square. By contrast, some office towers from this era, including the Osborn Building (1968) and the Degree of Honor building (1962), capitalized on their urban lots by reaching skyward rather than hugging the horizon in the manner of the Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company Building. However, no other midcentury modern buildings repeated Minnesota Mutual’s horizontal design emphasis.

[1] Leland M. Roth, American Architecture: A History (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001), 411-412.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dell Upton, Architecture in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 222.

[4] Ibid.