Wrath of the Keller

Of Course Germans Drink in City Hall!

The current Capitol is Minnesota’s third and was constructed from 1896–1905. When Gilbert designed a new Renaissance-style building to replace the stunningly ugly second Capitol, he included a Rathskeller in the basement. The term Rathskeller means a cellar (keller) beneath City Hall (Rathaus). Before any obvious jokes are made about rodents in politics, in German, rat means advice or council. According to Brian Pease, Minnesota Historical Society Site Manager for the Capitol, Gilbert likely was inspired by his extensive travels in Europe, and used the rathskeller to celebrate the German cultural contributions to the state. Painter Elmer Garnsey, best known for his work in the Library of Congress, designed the artwork in the keller. Along with paintings of state symbols and local flora and fauna were more than two dozen German expressions—all of them dispensing traditional advice and many of them praising alcohol (see below). The outlines of the vaults and arches were marked with paintings of hop bines. The atmosphere was intended to add some warmth and comfort to the otherwise overwhelming neoclassical forms. Despite traditional claims, it cannot be proven that alcohol was ever served in the keller in its early years.

Related Post:  Lager, Liquor and the Law

Last Call

While the design of the Capitol is timeless, the Rathskeller was a victim of bad timing. When the building was finished in 1905, the state already faced a rising tide of temperance and prohibition activism. When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, anti-German and anti-alcohol sentiments combined to make prohibition a patriotic imperative. A state which had until recently taken pride in its German heritage immediately began to purge itself of any trace of Germanic influence under the leadership of the Minnesota Commission on Public Safety. Of course, the presence of German texts in the State Capitol was unacceptable, and Governor J.A.A. Burnquist, after first declining, bent to public pressure and ordered the mottoes painted over. Interestingly, they were uncovered for a few years in the early 1930s. Since Prohibition was still the law of the land, temperance advocates made changes in several of the mottoes to remove positive references to imbibing.

 

The reprieve was short-lived. The Rathskeller was converted into a cafeteria in 1937 and the desire to give the place a fresh coat of paint trumped any interest in preserving a unique cultural landmark. Several other architectural features were either plastered over or removed entirely. The bland cafeteria décor, if one could call it that, persisted for the next sixty years.

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Rediscovery

The restoration of the original features of the Rathskeller was led by two important people: Carolyn Kompelien, who was the Minnesota Historical Society site manager during the 1990s, and Dan Tarnoveanu, a Romanian-born architect who specialized in historic preservation. Kompelien worked for fifteen years to secure the funding for the project, and Tarnoveanu began the painstaking research and excavation to reveal the original features and designs in 1998. Getting down to the original designs required removing twenty-two layers of paint—often using scalpels and tweezers. Paint chips were chemically analyzed to produce exact matches of the colors. The original chandeliers and furniture were lost long ago, so reproductions were commissioned. By early 2000, the restored Rathskeller was ready to delight the public again. But one critical element was still missing, one which any good German would immediately notice.

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