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Twin Cities: One of a Kind

It doesn’t take long to break any preconceptions of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Even at the airport, the city begins to reveal its uniqueness: it is a city with an incomparable disposition.


Minnesota Capitol Building, designed by Cass Gilbert. Credit: 1999, Eric MillerKnowing the region had a reputation as one of the "whitest" cities in the United States, it quickly became clear that not only were the Europeans who settled the region actually incongruous, but the current residents of the Twin Cities are a diverse group as well.

While the racial diversity of Saint Paul may be changing, bringing it to resemble other American cities from Toronto to New Orleans, the local character of this isolated mid-western metropolis is solid.

One glimpse of downtown Saint Paul reassures visitors that the city is its own. The buildings both new and old, the clothing styles and the character of the people say that the city takes fashion and renewal with a grain of salt and its past as a serious part of its future.

A cab driver courteously declines a fare if another car has been called. A waitress apologizes for lines created by a lack of seats in a diner and a sign makes a meal with friends and neighbors a priority by declaring that take-out orders are not available.

Saint Paul is a beautiful city, making up for any deficiencies in cosmopolitanism with charm and eccentricity. Beautiful isn’t an empty descriptive either. Flowers, trees, parks, ponds, clean streets and a general attention to detail grace a street layout that presents grand and carefully preserved buildings on great stages in the horizon.

From almost any point downtown the Cathedral of Saint Paul, with a dome that would make many state capital buildings blush, can be seen sitting atop a green hill.

The ubiquitous Cathedral of Saint Paul. Credit 1999, Eric MillerStanding at the cathedral to the right is a downtown skyline blending the old and the new. And straight ahead, the Minnesota State Capitol – a building equally grand, if not slightly lower than the Cathedral, placing God forever above State.

At the Capitol a gold Calvary stands guard over a green mall, in which are found the offices of one of the most unusual governors in United States history, Jesse "the mind" Ventura.

Inside, the city’s second great dome branches off into separate marbled chambers. Official tours are offered, but wandering and wondering alone through the halls can mean stumbling upon the Attorney General and his dog, who have been known to offer personal tours of the offices.

Extending in the opposite direction from Saint Paul Cathedral is one of the few remaining Victorian residential boulevards. The street is graced with both the Governor’s Mansion and the former home of James Jerome Hill, an industrial pioneer not so bold as to name himself after Napoleon Bonaparte, but sure enough to take the name of the military leader’s brother, Jerome.

The rooms in Hill’s Richardson Romanesque house sprawl across some 36,000 square feet and encompass 22 fireplaces, a hot-water heating system, interior security gates, an art gallery complete with pipe organ, and 13 bathrooms. This monolith was built at a time when most homes in Saint Paul didn’t even have running water.

Hill House, the largest home in Minnesota. Credit: 1999, Eric MillerIn downtown Saint Paul, the complex street layout gives rhyme if not reason to an interesting intersection called Seven Corners.

Perhaps the signature building of the city, Landmark Center seems equally odd because it has two fronts, one with a graceful clock tower and the other with a heavy university cathedral-looking facade.

The building seems to anchor the city to its history. Built by the federal government, it served a dual purpose as both court house and post office.

In the 1920s during prohibition, many gangsters were tried in the elaborate mohogany-lined court rooms – gangsters brought to Saint Paul by a program which offered them amnesty from deportation in exchange for a promise not to commit crimes within the confines of the city.

 A quiet Sunday downtown, just outside the Orpheum. Credit: 1999, Eric MillerFurther downtown, park-lined Kellogg Boulevard overlooks the origins of the north-south Mississippi River, which together with Hill’s proud, unsubsidized east-west Great Northern Railroad made Saint Paul a transportation crossroads for a growing nation.

River boats still make the trip from New Orleans. The busy lines of the Great Northern still follow the river, and children still look and wonder what lies at the end of the rails.

In many ways, though, Saint Paul has changed. A new ice arena is going up, and a modern convention center brings countless others to know Saint Paul. A few new buildings line the horizon, light-rail shuffles commuters underground and some buildings have been razed to make way for the uniquely American, but somewhat fading notion of progress that never quite took hold in Saint Paul.

The city has enough of its own notions to make it unlike other cities, confining it to be itself. As many locals would contend, Saint Paul is not even a twin city. It is one of a kind.