Minn. State Capitol shines anew as special event honors workers who built it, unionists who renovated it

By Steve Share, Editor, Minneapolis Labor Review

ST. PAUL, Minn.—With three days of festivities August 11-13, Minnesota celebrated the grand re-opening of the newly-restored State Capitol building. Workers who participated in the recent renovation work — as well as the workers who originally built the State Capitol — were honored at a special event on August 13.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton noted the $310 million renovation involved 1.4 million hours of construction work. “What you did is just phenomenal,” he told the unionized construction workers who toiled on the project. “For all of Minnesota, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those of us who work in the trades,” said Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council. “We want to say thanks.”

Melander reflected the State Capitol restoration project was the type of project you drive by “and tell your kids and grandkids” about your work there.

And 40 percent of the work involved in the all-union Capitol restoration was performed by women and minority workers, reported Matt Massman, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Administration.

“Tradeswomen and tradesmen left their mark here,” said State Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis. “It makes this building work for the 21st century.”

“Putting modern-day systems in a 1905 building — it’s not easy,” said Jeff Callinan, project executive for general contractor JE Dunn Construction. “It was really amazing to see the personal pride in everybody’s eyes as they worked on this building,” added Kimberly Sandbulte, project architect for HGA.

She said today’s workers were well aware they were restoring the “personal handwork” of the original craftsmen. “Everyone working here wanted to honor and preserve that history,” she said.

Some 200 descendants of the workers who built the Capitol during 1896-1907 attended the August 13 gathering. They were identified as part of research by the University of Minnesota’s Labor Education Service. That research led to a multi-media project and school curriculum, “Who Built Our Capitol?”

“Today we celebrate the story of workers,” said 6th grade teacher Jen Hansen of Owatonna’s Willow Creek Middle School, who helped develop the curriculum. “It’s the story of labor and the risks they took. It’s the story of immigrants and where the workers came from.”

Hansen’s students, who studied the curriculum in 2015, asked, “Why aren’t the workers recognized and memorialized in the building that they created?”

The students began a drive to support such a memorial, collecting signatures on petitions, meeting with legislators, and ultimately helping to pass a bill that led to a memorial plaque, now part of the newly restored State Capitol.

Located outside Room B-15, the plaque lists the names of workers who died during the 1896-1907 erection and reads: “In honor of the six workers who lost their lives during the original construction of the State Capitol Building, and in special thanks to the thousands of workers who helped construct and restore this beautiful symbol of Saint Paul and Minnesota.”

Near the plaque are photographer Tom Olscheid’s black and white images of workers engaged in the recent State Capitol restoration work.

The August 13 ceremony honoring the current and original workers drew a standing-room-only crowd in the Capitol’s L’Etoile du Nord Vault Room. Special buttons identified people descended from the Capitol’s original builders.  The “Who Built Our Capitol?” initiative tracked them down.

“I’m looking at these bricks, I’m wondering, is my great-grandfather here?” said Penny Utecht of Victoria, a descendant of bricklayer Michael Nickle. “We were shocked,” said her sister, Sherry Ritten, also of Victoria, when researchers contacted them and said their great-grandfather had helped build the state capitol. “They went through payroll records and worked their way back to us.” Added Utetcht: “It was such a great story, finding our great-grandfather. We didn’t even know his name.”

Another group of family members, descendants of stonecutter John Kuettel, included a grandson who knew him. “It was my grandfather who worked here,” said Norb Adelmann of Eagan. “He lived with us for a short time.” Added Karen Dahl, Kuettel’s great-granddaughter: “The family still has tools that have his name on them.”

“He came from Switzerland,” Adelmann reported. “I know he worked on the Capitol as a stonecutter but not much more than that.” Adelmann added, however, he believed his grandfather was one of the original union organizers in St. Paul. That’s significant to Adelmann, a retired member of Plumbers Local 15 who worked 39 years in the trade.

Several dozen descendants of John Kuettel — all wearing t-shirts with his likeness — came from as far away as Colorado and California to the August 13 event and a family gathering the day before. “It was great,” Adelmann said. “I met cousins I had never met.”

Descendants of stonemason and Swedish immigrant Axel Peterson shared stories, too. His great-great-granddaughter, Maria Benson of Lindstrom, said family members have stone hearts and pendants Peterson fashioned from scrap marble from the Capitol. She said Peterson, his wife and family “lived a few blocks from here. The kids would bring down lunch to him” — and, according to family lore, play amidst the construction.

Source: PAI