Bridges of Ramsey County – The Robert Street Bridge

Now the Robert Street Bridge? That’s Saint Paul.

The Robert Street Bridge, completed in the mid-twenties, has something for everyone – history geeks, engineering geeks, aesthetics geeks, you name it.
From the Minnesota Historical Society:

The Robert Street Bridge is a reinforced concrete, multiple-arch bridge. The Robert Street Bridge is historically significant as an outstanding example of an unaltered, monumental, multi-span, reinforced concrete arch bridge. It is the product of a very complex engineering design process to enable this bridge to be built in this location with its established vehicular, railroad, streetcar and river-navigation demands. The resulting bridge includes a monumental reinforced concrete rainbow arch, by far the largest in Minnesota. The bridge is outstanding not only for its engineering, but for its aesthetic effect in the overall design of the bridge.

As someone who has to design things (or at least software), I can imagine those engineers back in 1921, getting all tingly at the challenge; to fit a bridge over an existing road (Shepard), and the all-important barge channel, and the Greasy Black Railroad Lift Bridge, and make it aesthetically work and serve as a monument to the wisdom of the people who were paying for it.

It’s another one of those roads…:

…where you can almost imagine Al Capone rolling down the street on his way to the Wabasha Caves speakeasy.

But you have to imagine pretty hard, at least on parts of Robert Street. Because in addition to a monument to Saint Paul’s glory years – from James J. Hill through the thirties – it and the street it carries are a tour through all that is wondrous and strong and quirky and all that is depressing and ugly about Saint Paul.

Start on the West Side (for non-Saint-Paulites, the “West Side” is actually south of downtown, and sits astride the hypothetical north-south line that bisects the city; it’s the part of Saint Paul on the west bank of the Mississippi), on the bluff high above the river, up at Robert and Annapolis. The neighborhood seems to have changed since the twenties only to make a nod to the fifties; it’s a close-knit neighborhood of corner markets and neighborhood bars, where “TV repair shops” still repair televisions for frugal locals. In a city that’s been called “fifteen small towns with one mayor”, it’s one of the originals.

Go down the monumental double ramp on Robert, down the bluff, past Concord Street Cesar Chavez Boulevard. You’re in the heart of the second-latest of the city’s great immigrant neighborhoods, centered around Nuestra Señora De Guadalupe church, which have welcomed wave after wave of newbies and their stores, bars, parties and passions to Saint Paul.

Keep going, over the West Side Flats, past the drab warehouses and offices, including the Palace of Incompetence Comcast office and the big USBank Westside Flats office, a huge building that started to reverse decades of architectural rot by at least taking a nod at the area’s past (paid for by tax increment financing that, ironically, emptied USBank employees out of several downtown offices, contributing to downtown’s spiral).

Then, over the bridge, and into downtown.

You can see hints of Saint Paul’s heritage – the City Hall skyscraper, the Pioneer and Endicott buildings – and some of its downfall, the detritus of the “Capitol Center” concept. “Capitol Center” was an Urban-Renewal-era “vision” document from the mid-fifties that, in keeping with the tenor of the era, sought to gut downtown to save it. It guided downtown’s “redevelopment” – some might say “destruction” – from the fifties through the eighties. So between Fourth Street and Seventh, from Wabasha to Sibley, the old downtown that had seen James J. Hill and Al Capone’s glory days – 3-5 stories tall, brownstone and limestone – was gutted. In its place came…progress. Excrescences like the Dayton’s/Marshall Fields/Macy’s building, with all the charm of a Brookdale anchor tenant – a big tan cube that’s more parking ramp than store. White elephants like Town Square and the World Trade Center and Galtier Plaza, and cold, oppressive misfires like the American Bank Bremer tower, mixing it up with gems like the Osborn/Ecolab tower, the Saint Paul Hartford, and so on.

So as you cross the river and drive up Robert, you pass horrors like the Kellogg Square apartments (with all the external charm of a bridge abutment), the Securian tower (a cement bunker of a skyscraper), the Met Council building, and the USBank Center – the worst detritus of the Capitol Center plan. But, like the Robert Street Bridge, there are holdouts; the nineteenth-century splendor of the Pioneer and Endicott buildings, empty (their USBank employees fleeing down Robert to the West Side Flats) as they await the Republican National Convention and the hordes of media, flaks and party functionaries that’ll fill it for a hopeful couple of months; the Golden Rule, a shiny, highly renovated art-deco holdout that has done unto downtown and should have good done unto it; the 401 Building, a shiny new edifice that at least tries to take a nod to the past.

And thence, past parking ramps and blah (or, like the dark-blue aquariium-like Metro Square, atrocious) government offices to its terminus on Capitol Heights.

It’s everything Saint Paul was, a bit of everything bad that’s been done to it, and a shard or two of hope.

9 thoughts on “Bridges of Ramsey County – The Robert Street Bridge

  1. Ah, Robert Street. I’ve probably driven 10,000 miles on Robert Street over the past 20 years or so, mostly in half-mile increments or less. I used to live near the Annapolis intersection, across the street from what had to be the signature symbol of the avenue: Morgan’s Mexican-Lebanese Deli. It was a great place to stop in for a pan of enchiladas or a pint of hummus, or both at the same time.

    The Miracle Mile it is most definitely not, but it might have a little of Thunder Road. Going south from Morgan’s it’s mostly fast food joints and auto parts stores, along with a certain dojo we frequent, until you get to the section where Menards, Home Depot and Lowe’s stake out their turf almost within spitting distance of each other, though Langula’s Hardware is still the place to go to get that odd bolt or your mower blades sharpened.

    The Robert Street bridge is a classic, and I’ve often imagined trying to walk up those arches. It’s a fun bridge to drive over, but the stone balustrades block most of the views of the river and of another of your bridge faves, the Wabasha.

  2. I wonder what hides beneath the dark blue glass surface of the Metro Square building. You can see some decorative window ledges, but it would be interesting to see what the big picture once looked like.

  3. Isn’t there a hideous “Luggage” store on Roberts right across from a Key’s? I always wonder, while sitting there eating breakfast, who would go there?! It’s so large-is there really that much call for a luggage only store? We’ve seen people actually sitting outside in their cars waiting for it to open. Odd.

  4. Troy,
    The Metro Square building is actually the Emporium Department store (built 1911). Back in the day, the two biggest department stores in St. Paul were the Golden Rule and the Emporium, and they faced each other across Robert at Seventh. From the pictures in Larry Millet’s books on Twin Cities architecture, the Golden Rule was the better looking of the two (at least to my taste). After the hideous makeover of the Emporium, the Golden Rule REALLY looks better now.

  5. the Golden Rule was the better looking of the two (at least to my taste)

    It’s a neat buiding, although to me it’s always colored by the fact that one of the worst jobs I ever had was there, about the time my youngest was born.

  6. Isn’t there a hideous “Luggage” store on Roberts right across from a Key’s?

    I think that’s on Robert, yes. Pedro Luggage. I buy all my luggage at Goodwill, so I have no idea what the fuss is, but I guess that in the world of luggage, Pedro is the shizznit.

    That, or they deal drugs out of the back room. Not sure.

  7. Yah, Pedro’s. It’s pronounced “Pee-drohs”, according to my wife. One time, after being grievously over-served with Key’s roast beef hash (one time? hah – it’s a regular occurence), I ventured into Pedros to look for one of those rolling suitcase/garment bag thingies for an upcoming business trip. They were a bit…pricey. I think they cover their overhead by getting kick-backs from the towing companies that strictly enforce their “customers only” parking policy. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

  8. Cool! I used to work in the Golden Rule building and I always wondered what was “under glass” next door. Golden Rule is a nice building, and it does have skyway access.

  9. I got a wallet at Pedro’s. It was a good deal at 1/2 off, but I don’t know if I would have paid full price for it.

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