Rathskellers originated beneath German town halls. These restaurants and beer halls let parties debate upstairs, then come downstairs for a few drinks and restoration of camaraderie. German immigrants brought the tradition to the United States, including a striking example that lies hidden beneath the Minnesota State Capitol. Recently, architects and consultants have employed paint remnant analysis and two photographs to restore the 114-year-old beer hall.
After an art conservator removed 22 layers of old paint from the rathskeller walls using a scalpel and tweezers, designs emerged that had been hidden for 70 years. This included 29 German mottoes, such as “Drink, but don’t indulge in drinking; speak, but don’t pick quarrels” and “Today for money, tomorrow for nothing.
Architect Cass Gilbert designed the building in 1905 with Minnesota’s German immigrants—the state’s largest foreign-born population at the time—in mind. He also added rathskellers to two of his other projects, including the Woolworth Building in New York City.
But between the anti-German sentiment that resulted from World War I and the onset of the temperance movement, German drinking holes took a hit. In 1917, Minnesota’s then-governor had the walls painted over. In 1930, a new governor attempted to restore them, but temperance leaders lobbied to have slogans such as “Better be tipsy than feverish” be replaced by “Temperance is a virtue of men.” Seven years later, the rathskeller became a cafeteria—serving line and all. Evidence of German heritage once again disappeared from the space.
Today, visitors see the rathskeller as it was in 1905, from the light fixtures to the furniture to the olive-brown wall paint. All traces of the 1937 cafeteria remodel were erased. Most notably, the artwork, which includes text, animals, plants, and scrolls, has been restored. Original paintings reference the founding of Minnesota, both a territory in 1849, and a state in 1858. A small exhibit offers insight into the room’s tumultuous history.
In 2000, the professionals who took on the restoration project (which began in the 1980s) were awarded honorary plaques by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. The rathskeller itself also received special distinction. And as a functioning restaurant, the Rathskeller Café seems to be performing well. One reviewer described the setting as charming and unexpected, mentioned friendly and helpful staff, and absolutely raved about the cheeseburger.