St. Paul's Landmark Center: A Cultural Destination

My first experience with the Landmark Center in St. Paul was during my junior prom 14 years ago (holy smokes, time flies!); hundreds of high schoolers dancing to a DJ on the main floor of this historic site in our capital city. Well, it’s prom season once again and it makes me think back to that day. It was a pretty cool place to have prom, especially when other schools just held them in their gymnasiums. The main floor, lined in marble columns, looks up several gorgeous stories to an amazing skylight-filled roof; it’s quite breathtaking.

But there’s so much more to the Landmark Center than hosting proms (or other events and weddings). The building, which anchors Rice Park (one of America’s Top Great Places), opened in 1902 as the official federal courthouse and post office of the Upper Midwest, a place where people bought stamps, came for immigration papers, stood trial, gave speeches, and signed bills into law. The spot is probably most famous as the place where St. Paul’s notorious gangsters, like Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and “Ma” Barker, plus John Dillenger’s girlfriend, Evelyn Frechette, were convicted for their wrongdoings, and as the legend goes, had a shootout on the front steps against J. Edgar Hoover’s men.

Photo by Todd Buchanan

By the 1960s, the Landmark Center had seen better days; everything important had moved to other locations. But concerned citizens worked to restore the building so it wouldn’t be torn down, and now it sits on the National Register of Historic Places and acts as a cultural center for events, the arts, exhibits, tours, a home to the Ramsey County Historical Society, and so much more.

As a visitor, you could spend all day at the Landmark Center and learn about the past 100 years (as well as the present day, too). See contemporary art pieces designed completely from wood at the American Association of Woodturners Gallery of Wood Art; learn about instruments from all over the world at the Schubert Club Museum of Musical Instruments; discover all about immigration, prohibition, federal courts, and more in the Uncle Sam Worked Here exhibit; listen to a free concert in a former courtroom; or travel to another country without leaving St. Paul in the recurring, free Urban Expedition series (go to Norway on April 29!).

If you’re a tour taker like me, don’t miss one or all of the tours offered at the Landmark Center. Learn about the history and architecture of all the buildings surrounding Rice Park on a Rice Park Tour. Tour the building itself to learn all about its restoration and preservation during public tours (Thursdays & Sundays). Or, take the Gangster Tour and let costumed guides tell you all about the criminal justice system back in the day of Dillinger and his counterparts.

The Landmark Center wouldn’t be a true historic site without its own ghost story, too. The spirit of Jack Peifer, a carnival worker, bellhop, and gangster crony, supposedly committed suicide in his cell after receiving a 30-year sentence for kidnapping two well-known local citizens. Visitors to Landmark Center have felt Peifer’s presence in bathrooms, elevators (particularly on the third floor), and during events (drinks go missing). 

With art, history, ghosts, architecture, family-friendly events, plus a few excited brides and prom goers on the weekends, Landmark Center truly lives up to its name.

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