Architecture MN marks the centennial of the death of Emmanuel L. Masqueray with the story of how the French architect came to design the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary at nearly the same time

By Joel Hoekstra
Photography by Morgan Sheff

On May 25, 1917, a French immigrant riding the streetcar to work in St. Paul collapsed and fell into a coma. Rushed to the city hospital, he revived only briefly and died the following morning. He was buried next to his mother in Calvary Cemetery.

The funeral of 55-year-old Emmanuel Louis Masqueray was attended by dozens of dignitaries and presided over by no less a figure than St. Paul’s foremost prelate, Archbishop John Ireland, who said of the architect: “His mind was well stored with the fruits of long reading and correct thinking. A charm it was to meet him—a charm that grew the sweeter as one drew nearer to him and knew him in closer intimacy.”

Indeed, Ireland and Masqueray had developed a close bond over the previous decade: They had collaborated on more than a dozen projects that forever changed Minnesota’s architectural landscape. Commissioned by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to design a cathedral and a basilica, numerous chapels, several parish churches, a school, and three buildings that ultimately became part of the University of St. Thomas, Masqueray saw his career flourish largely because of his close association with Ireland.

One hundred years after his death, his legacy remains strong. The Cathedral of St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis are now iconic landmarks, well known to locals and often ogled by tourists. Both structures have undergone significant refurbishment, and the Basilica congregation is planning interior renovations that will begin in 2021. In January, an exhibit titled “E.L. Masqueray, Architect” will open at St. Thomas, highlighting the designer’s campus contributions as well as providing context for his other buildings (see event details below).

“Ireland put Masqueray in the right place at the right time,” says Victoria Young, chair of the art history department at the University of St. Thomas. “Once he got here, he never really had to worry about where the next commission was coming from.”

Masqueray was born in Normandy in 1861 and raised in Rouen and Paris. At 17, he was accepted by the École des Beaux-Arts, the world’s leading art school. The boy’s talent led to prizes and ultimately a period of study in Italy, where Masqueray developed an appreciation for Renaissance architecture. In 1887, he accepted an invitation from an acquaintance to come to the U.S. and work for the New York firm Carrère and Hastings.

Five years into his American adventure, Masqueray switched to the office of Richard Morris Hunt, who designed homes for the Vanderbilts and other American elites. Masqueray also began teaching, setting up a school modeled on the École des Beaux-Arts.

But the connection that most dramatically changed the course of Masqueray’s career was made in Missouri. In 1901, Masqueray was chosen to be the chief designer for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, to be held in 1904. Over the next three years, the architect oversaw the design of the Fish and Game Palace, the Colonnade of States, monuments, landscaping, statuary, bridges, and bandstands. Forced to work exclusively in the Neo-Baroque style, which clashed with both his classical training and his personal interest in Renaissance styles, Masqueray must have been desperate for a new commission when he was introduced to one of the fair’s most distinguished guests, Archbishop Ireland.

His flock having outgrown its home in downtown St. Paul, Ireland had set his sights on a large property on what was then called St. Anthony Hill. A committee tasked with selecting an architect to build on the site had developed a list of 11 firms for consideration, but Ireland quickly whittled that list to one: In 1905, Masqueray set up an office in St. Paul and began drawings for what would become the Cathedral of St. Paul.

Masqueray laid out a plan in the form of a modified Greek cross—its arms almost equal, with a shorter nave and wider transepts. The 96-foot-diameter dome that towered over pew seating for 2,500 was enormous, giving the structure an oversized appearance not unlike the Sacré-Coeur in Paris. The architect later wrote that he hoped the structure, “while being entirely of the 20th century in feeling and purpose,” would also have secondary features like the ones that “gave so much charm to the old churches of the Middle Ages.”

Ireland must have approved, because he awarded the architect a second commission before the first was barely begun. Perhaps hoping to lay claim to more souls in mostly Protestant Minneapolis, the archbishop announced plans to build a pro-cathedral on swampland just west of downtown. For this church, Masqueray produced a plan based on the Roman cross but without transepts.

The masonry exterior suggests that the entire structure is stone, but in fact the Basilica of St. Mary, as the pro-cathedral was later named, is made largely of steel and concrete. Five sets of pillars support five girders, from which hangs an interior that is mostly painted plaster. Like the cathedral in St. Paul, the basilica is capped with a copper dome—albeit a smaller one. “It’s by far the most highly decorated building that I’ve ever worked on,” says Chuck Liddy, FAIA, a principal with Miller Dunwiddie Architecture, which has overseen renovations and restorations of the building since the early 1990s.

Johan van Parys, the basilica’s director of liturgy and sacred arts, who has worked in the parish for 22 years, says the church’s beauty isn’t the only thing that makes it remarkable. “It’s rare that a bishop ever gets to build a building of this size,” says van Parys. “But the idea that the archbishop would build two at the same time is exceptional.”

Under Ireland’s patronage, Masqueray went on to produce numerous churches and chapels throughout the Twin Cities, including the exquisite Church of St. Louis, King of France, in St. Paul; the Church of the Incarnation in Minneapolis; and the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas on the St. Thomas campus.

His talents helped him win work from Protestants as well; standout projects included Bethlehem Lutheran Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the Hill, both in St. Paul. “These,” architectural historian Alan Lathrop has noted, “were almost always Gothic in style in contrast to his Catholic churches, which were usually executed in Romanesque, Renaissance, or Baroque styles.” As his reputation spread, Masqueray landed commissions for three more cathedrals: in Wichita, Sioux Falls, and Winnipeg. (Only the first two were built.)

But much of the architect’s work remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1917; a number of projects had to be completed by his acolytes, including famed Minnesota architect Edwin Lundie. Ireland, who died a year later, also never saw the Cathedral of St. Paul or the Basilica of St. Mary interiors in finished form.

Cass Gilbert, one of the 10 architects who lost out to Masqueray in the bid to design the Cathedral of St. Paul, was gracious enough to acknowledge the talents of his former rival when he observed: “If the dome of the Cathedral of St. Paul and that of the new State Capitol were part of the skyline of a city in Europe, they would be world famous.”



Exhibition Panel and Reception

Location: O’Shaughnessy Education Center, University of St. Thomas
Date: March 13, 2017, 6 p.m.
Panelists: Alan Lathrop, Larry Millett, Celeste Raspanti, and Johan van Parys
Moderator: Maria Wiering Pedersen