Today, a remarkable architect. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
St. Paul, Minnesota, gave
mixed messages to a child of the 1930s. The schools
were integrated, and classes preached racial
equality. But then we black and white kids went off
to our respective neighborhoods. Brotherhood ended
when school let out.
That's how it went in my Webster Grade School and
in Marshall High School. Now a remarkable book
casts new light on all that. It is
Cap Wigington: An Architectural Legacy in Ice
Cap Wigington was a very important architect. He
designed both my schools. And he was black. Indeed,
his office was located right in the area where my
black schoolmates went home each night. And we had
no idea who'd designed our schools.
Wigington was born in 1883 in Lawrence, Kansas. His
family moved repeatedly, and he had to struggle to
get schooling. He finally finished high school in
Omaha and, owing to a remarkable artistic talent,
found work as an apprentice to an Omaha architect.
By the age of 31, he'd designed homes and churches
in Omaha. Then he moved to St. Paul, where he felt
prospects might be better.
And they were. As the result of a competitive exam,
he became America's first black municipal
architect. Soon after, he got his name, "Cap." His
given name was Clarence, but just after America
entered WW-I, Wigington petitioned the Governor of
Minnesota to form a black battalion of the
Minnesota Home Guard.
The governor saw that this was a way to promote
racial equity without paying a huge political
price. He granted the request. As captain of the
new battalion, Clarence soon became "Cap."
So Wigington kept designing my city. It's all
there: The lovely Highland Park Water tower we used
to visit. The warming house at St. Clair Park where
I'd collect myself between toboggan runs. The first
air terminal I ever entered. The Como Park Zoo. He
created the clean collegiate-Gothic designs of
those schools that were trying to show us what
racial equity might look like.
But that was the stuff of everyday life. Another
St. Paul landmark lay in off in a special dream
world. Each winter, cold St. Paul puts on a huge
Winter Carnival. And a weather-dependent part of
that fair is building a great life-size Ice
Wigington designed those colossal Camelots during
my school years. Strange and otherworldly, they
lasted only until the spring thaw. Yet, long after
Wigington's creation of a real world is forgotten,
we'll still see those grand crystalline fairylands.
Cap Wigington himself lived in an unreal
world -- one stained by racism, yet completely
accepting of his genius. As an old man, he wrote
Each night ... I thanked Almighty God for
granting me some degree of ability [and a] liberal
appreciation of my good neighbors ... .
Well, a good neighbor he was. He built my town. He
created the texture of my childhood.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Taylor, D. V., Cap Wigington: An Architectural
Legacy in Ice and Stone (with Paul Clifford
Larson). St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Library, for suggesting the topic and
providing the Taylor book.
For images of Wigington, his ice palaces, and other architecture,