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Restoration of Capitol rathskeller reveals long-hidden art

Cafe Hours: (Open during the Legislative Session ONLY)
8 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. Mon - Thurs. 8 a.m. - 2 p.m. Fri.

The Minnesota State Capitol's rathskeller cafe has been restored restored and furnished to match architect Cass Gilbert's original design after being hidden for 70 years. A small exhibit marks the room's restoration and details its turbulent history.

The rathskeller restoration project was awarded a Preservation Honor Award by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota at the Alliance's annual meeting in November 2000. Special plaques went to the rathskeller itself and to the various consultants and architects involved.

Visitors to the rathskeller now see reproductions of original light fixtures, chairs and tables, walls painted in warm olive brown, and a stunning array of painted mottoes, scrolls, animals and vines. Some designs contain the year 1849 when Minnesota Territory was founded and 1858 when Minnesota became a state. The rathskeller was restored by using analysis of paint remnants and the two known photographs of the original room.

Art conservator Dan Tarnoveanu of Renaissance Art, Restoration and Architecture Inc. in St. Paul meticulously removed 22 layers of old paint. He used scalpels and tweezers to recover what he could of the original designs, and he then documented them.

He sent old paint chips away for chemical analysis to match the colors and, in a year-long effort, most of the designs were restored onto a new layer of plaster. Seven designs were saved on the original plaster. In a process similar to the restoration of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel and the frescoes of Pompeii, the missing paint on these designs was filled in with a lighter tone. Visitors can see the difference between the original work and the restoration.

"The restoration is part of a long-term project, begun in the 1980s, to restore this Beaux-Arts style Capitol to its 1905 appearance while still maintaining it as the seat of state government," says Carolyn Kompelien, the Society's site manager at the Capitol. "The masterful interior design of the rathskellar will both surprise and delight visitors and perhaps prompt them to compare it with other restored spaces in the Capitol."

"The restored room evokes emotional and historical feelings," says Loris Connolly, curator of the rathskeller exhibit. "It seems peculiar to us that the rathskeller was ever covered up and changed, but now visitors can recognize its tremendous art value and elegance."

Rathskellers originated in Germany as restaurants in the basements of town halls. Many German rathskellers of the 19th century were decorated with painted mottoes and murals.

Architect Cass Gilbert designed rathskellers in two of his other buildings: the Montana Club in Helena and the Woolworth Building in New York City.

A German theme was appropriate in 1905, because Minnesota's 361,000 Germans were the largest group of foreign-born immigrants. When it opened that year, the Capitol rathskeller served as a full-service restaurant, and true to the rathskeller tradition, the walls bore 29 painted mottoes in German.

Twelve years after it opened, Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist ordered the mottos painted over as anti-German fervor swept the state during World War I. In 1930, Gov. Theodore Christianson ordered them restored, but temperance leaders lobbied successfully to have three of them altered. For instance, "Better be tipsy than feverish" became "Temperance is a virtue of men."

In 1937, the rathskeller was converted into a cafeteria. A serving line replaced some of the dining area and, over the ensuing years, the mottoes again disappeared. Over the next six decades, the Capitol rathskeller lost its German character and acquired many layers of new paint.

All the results of the 1937 remodeling have been removed and the rathskeller now presents the original design, plus a new kitchen and serving area that have been constructed under the north steps of the Capitol.

The rathskeller is one highlight for the 131,000 people who visit the Capitol annually.

A Society historic site since 1969, the Capitol hosts a full schedule of daily tours, special events and school programs.

Kenneth Schwartz of Miller Dunwiddie Inc. of Minneapolis was architect for the project, which was overseen by the Society, the Division of State Building Construction and the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board.