Modern day St. Paul bears little resemblance to it’s 1906-self. Metal skyscrapers glint in the sunlight, casting shadows on the scattered red and beige brick buildings from a century before. Asphalt and light-rail tracks cover the old stone pavers and iron streetcar grooves. Gone is the horse and buggy. Gone are newsboys hawking the daily Pioneer. Gone are the gas streetlamps.
What remains are flashes—and old building here and there; a park, redesigned but still fitted within its original boundaries; and that which can never be undone: the mighty Mississippi, its blue-gray waters sauntering toward the distant sea. It’s enough for me to slip into my characters’ shoes and live for a few hours—with a hefty dose of imagination—as they did 107 years ago.
My first stop is the Landmark Center. Formerly the Federal Building, seat of the U.S. postal service, customhouse, and federal courts, this turret-crowned building still impresses. Now used for events, public exhibitions, and office space, much of the original detail has been retained and restored.
I walk into the five-story foyer and try to image the sound of boot heals clicking over the marble floor. Light spills in through the glass ceiling far above. Would Alma, the main character of my novel, have glanced up and admired the fine architecture just as I do now?
An old iron-gated elevator still stands at the far end of the room. Alma would have ridden inside to the third floor, probably holding her breath, both wary and awed at this new technology. Today, the elevator is no longer operational so I take the stairs.
The US District Court of Minnesota operated here on the third floor from the building’s opening in 1902 until the 1960s. A few of the old courtrooms have been restored and are open for tour. The floorboards creak beneath my feet as I take in the room. Richly carved wood paneling lines the walls. Brass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, wired from the building’s inception for both gas and electricity. In my mind, I’m Alma. My stomach knots and my hands sweat beneath my silk gloves as I await the murder trial of my oldest and dearest friend. Just down the hall, the words “Detention Room” are stenciled in gold lettering on a door. This is where my friend is waiting, seated with hands clenched, knowing, expecting the sentence of death.
I hate to leave the Landmark. Within its quiet walls, it’s easy to slip back in time to 1906. Outside, cars whir by. Businessmen and women lounge around fast food bistro tables. I walk four blocks northeast to a busy intersection. Office buildings crowd the square. A jackhammer roars in the hands of an orange-vested construction worker. I try to ignore the ruckus and blot the towering concrete buildings from my mind. A hundred years ago, the Ryan Hotel stood here. Alma and her husband would have rented one of its posh suites and dined in its elegant street side restaurant. I look back the way I’ve come. The pink granite Federal Building is easily visible. In my story, Alma takes a brougham cab from hotel to the trial. But I realize now she wouldn’t have. It’s an easy walk, even in lace-up boots and a floor-length dress suit.
Farther on, I arrive at Mears Park (formally Smith Park). Original to its design, diagonal pathways crisscross the greenery. In 1906, a fountain stood at the center. Today, two men throw a Frisbee on their lunch break across the empty square. Union Depot is only a block away. It’s largely quiet, but a century ago over 250 trains arrived and departed daily. Alma, seated on lip of the now-gone fountain would have heard steam whistles blare and hoot every few minutes. It’s a detail not yet in my story, but after this walk through the past, it’s something I’ll add.
I circle back to the Landmark and eat my lunch—a cheese sandwich, banana, and M&Ms—on a nearby park bench. Not exactly 1906 fare. My mind is humming and I feel more connected to my characters than ever before. This is why I write historical fiction, to live remotely in a past at once more beautiful and more tragic than the present. This too is the gift I give my readers. And the closer I get to the truth, the history cast in shadows and buried beneath asphalt, the richer the gift.