The Minnesota State Capitol Rathskeller Cafe

The Minnesota State Capitol Rathskeller Cafe
Cafe (Rathskeller) in the basement with German decor, State Capitol (1905) MNHS

After nine years of construction, the Minnesota State Capitol opened its doors to the public on January 2, 1905, one day before the 34th Legislature convened. Designed by architect Cass Gilbert, the magnificent new building, constructed with care and elegance throughout, was deemed the crown jewel of Minnesota. The German-themed rathskeller located in the capitol's basement was a hidden gem within the grand structure.

Gilbert modeled the space, located at the north end of the Capitol's North Wing, after a typical German beer hall. It was the only space in the basement part of the architect's initial design. The capitol's chief decorator, Elmer Garnsey, and his assistants adorned the walls with freehand paintings and German language mottoes – many extolling the virtues of drinking.

One of its intended uses was to give legislators that had fiercely debated politically-charged topics upstairs a place to bury the hatchet over a meal and cigar.

Anti-German sentiment during World War I brought about the first in a series of changes to the space. In 1917, Minnesota Governor J.A.A. Burnquist, leader of the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, ordered the removal of each of the German slogans from the rathskeller.

They were summarily painted over.

In 1930, with the negative opinion of Germany having waned in the years after the Great War, Governor Theodore Christianson called for the mottoes and motifs to be returned to the rathskeller walls. There was immediate public pushback. The state — and country at large — was entrenched in National Prohibition, and many believed having "sayings" (German or otherwise) that glorified drinking was unbecoming of the state's seat of government.

Temperance groups, led by the Women's Christian Temperance Union, balked at the governor's decision and lobbied to see the mottoes changed. Christianson compromised, agreeing to have three of the sayings updated to reflect the "dry" sensibilities of the time.

Among the changes —

"Better tipsy than feverish," became "Temperance is a virtue of men,"

and

"Cheerful disposition and noble wine may often meet here for a happy combine." became "Cheerful disposition and noble food may often meet here for a happy combine."

In 1937, the rathskeller was converted into a traditional cafeteria. The mottoes - along with other artwork — were once again painted over. They remained covered for more than 50 years.

By 1988, the space was a mere shell of its former self. Few people remembered it as it once was. Negligence and a series of changes over the years had turned the rathskeller into a beige-walled, bland cafeteria. A tunnel linking the capitol to other state buildings was constructed alongside the space, taking over a part of Gilbert's original design. Water damage caused a section of the wall plaster to fall. A layer of asbestos covered the ceiling to soundproof the area. Years of food fumes and cigar smoke had discolored the walls.

Plans to restore the rathskeller, part of a grand conversation to return several amenities in the capitol building to their former glory, began that year.

Architectural conservator Robert A. Furhoff was first brought in to rediscover the original colors used to paint the walls and art pieces that adorned the capitol — including the rathskeller. With a six-inch scalpel in hand, he carefully chipped away at layers of paint until reaching the original coat. Furhoff saved wall motifs whenever he could and looked to recreate those he couldn't.

Unfortunately, funding ran out, and the work was halted.

In 1996, the legislature appropriated 1.2 million to restore the rathskeller. Legislators made an extra 1.04 million available the following year.

A second attempt to renovate the space began in May 1998. Under the guidance of Carolyn Kampolien, the capitol's historic site manager and art conservator Dan Tarnoveanu and a team of conservators, artists, and preservationists picked up their scalpels and tweezers to scrape and tweeze their way through twenty-two layers of paint.

The restoration was completed in 1999, and officials reopened the Rathskeller Cafe in 2000. Today it stands as a publicly accessible view of life in the capitol more than one hundred years ago.

Image of the renovated Cafe (Rathskeller) 2022 (Matt Reicher)

Bibliography

  • Hoverson, Doug. "Wrath of the Keller." Growler Magazine. Last modified April 6, 2018. https://www.growlermag.com/wrath-of-the-keller/.
  • Keubelbeck, Amy. "Minnesota's Capitol, at 100, far more than architect Cass Gilbert." Minneapolis Star-Tribune, May 5, 1996, B2.
  • Meier, Peg. "Capitol's Painted-Over Art Uncovered." Minneapolis Star-Tribune, November 13, 1988, 1E.
  • Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Mottoes Stage Comeback, but There's no Beer." December 14, 1930, 8.
  • Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Wonderful." February 13, 1905, 5.
  • Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "House OKS limited beer, wine sales at Capitol." May 8, 2001, B5.
  • "MNHS.ORG | Minnesota State Capitol." Minnesota Historical Society. Accessed March 3, 2022. https://www.mnhs.org/preserve/rathskeller.php.
  • "Restored Rathskeller is Setting for Special Society Event." Cass Gilbert Society 1, no. 4 (December 1999).
  • "There's a 115-Year-Old Restored German Dining Hall Hidden Beneath the Minnesota State Capitol." Atlas Obscura. Last modified April 23, 2019. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/minnesota-state-capitol-rathskeller-cafe.