PUBLIC ART TREASURES grace parks, plazas, and buildings across the Twin Cities. But without a doubt, one of the most thrilling is the 55-ton “peace statue” in the magnificent Art Deco lobby of the St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse.
Installed in 1936 , the 36-foot-high statue is by renowned Swedish sculpture Carl Emill Anderson Milles. The crown jewel of a sleekly beautiful Art Deco lobby, the statue—set on a base that revolves slowly from left to right—is a stirring work that depicts a “God of Peace” rising from the smoke wafting from the pipes of five figures crouched around a fire.
It’s a mythic and romantic depiction of a Native American peace-pipe ceremony, which Milles often said was inspired by a New Year’s Eve celebration of “brotherhood and understanding” that he had observed a few years earlier among the Ponca of northern Oklahoma.
Originally titled “God of Peace,” the work was retitled “Vision of Peace” in 1994. For reasons that are unclear, people who work in the building call the statue “Onyx John.”It originally honored Ramsey County’s casualties of World War I, but now stands as a memorial to the fallen of all 20th-century wars. Milles himself wished the statue to symbolize world peace. As a monument to fallen soldiers, though, his mythic/spiritual/pacifist work seems not to have been exactly what some locals had hoped for. A Time magazine article of June 8, 1936, described “startled citizens and American Legionaries [sic]” contemplating its “arrestingly different conception for a U.S. War memorial.” (No heroic soldiers … and all those vaguely pinko peace pipes!)
The colossal sculpture—the world’s largest carved onyx work—also drew wide acclaim, however, and landed Milles a big architectural prize. And it put St. Paul on the map for great public art.
Architectural historian Larry Millett, in his AIA guide to the Twin Cities, describes the “hushed magic” of viewing Milles’s sculpture—”schoolchildren on tour grow quiet and even adults find themselves whispering in the presence of the great onyx god, who rotates on his mirrored base.”
It’s not just the sculpture that’s so thrilling, but its beautiful venue. Built in 1932 (and nicely restored in 1994), the 21-story St. Paul City Hall/Ramsey County Courthouse (15 W. Kellogg Boulevard) is a much-lauded masterpiece of Art Deco/Streamlined Moderne design. A walk through the building is a visual orgy: gorgeous marbles and woods, elegant details of bronze and glass, lovely lights and striking murals.
The building welcomes oglers, who are invited to tour the building everyday between 8 and 4:30. The city/county folks even provide a great self-guided tour guide). Oh, and if you time your visit right, you can wrap up by strolling just two blocks to another landmark, the St. Paul Hotel (on lovely Rice Park), to enjoy a nosh and a drink in the St. Paul Grill’s handsome bar.