Clarence Johnston

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Clarence Johnston
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Clarence Howard Johnston, St. Paul
Personal information
Name Clarence Howard Johnston
Nationality United States
Born August 26, 1859; Okaman, Waseca County, Minnesota, United States
Died December 29, 1936; Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States
Practice name Willcox and Johnston, Clarence H. Johnston
Significant buildings Chapel, St.Paul Seminary; Congdon Mansion (aka Glensheen), Duluth; State Historical Society Building; Anoka State Hospital; Walter Library and Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota

Although born in rural Minnesota, Johnston spent the bulk of his life and career in St. Paul. He was educated in the city's public schools and began his career in the office of local architect, Abraham M. Radcliffe, in 1874 while still a student at St. Paul High School. There he met and befriended fellow-apprentice Cass Gilbert. In 1878 the friends both entered the new MIT Department of Architecture, led by the prominent American architect William Robert Ware. There they joined James Knox Taylor, another St. Paul native. All three began a two year course intended for students who could not afford the full four-year program. Johnston excelled in his course work, but financial circumstances forced him to withdraw before graduation.

He returned to St. Paul and began working with the firm of E. P. Bassford. In 1880 he left town once more, this time to take a position with Herter Brothers in New York, on the recommendation of his former MIT professor, Robert Ware. The Herters were nationally known interior decorators and Johnston spent the next two years working in the center of Gilded Age culture for such clients as the Morgan and Vanderbilt families. This experience served him well when he returned to St.Paul in 1882 to begin his own firm.

With good local connections through James Power, an associate of Railroad magnate James J. Hill, Johnston soon gained a number of important commissions to build homes for prominent Minnesotans, including Power, William R. Merriam, Chauncey Griggs, and Addison Foster. By 1883 Johnston was well enough established to take a long-anticipated tour of Europe, Italy and the Mediterranean. On his return he continued to design many prominent homes, influenced by the romanticism of classical european architecture. In 1885 he married May Thurston, daughter of C.B. Thurston.

From 1886 through 1889, Johnston worked in partnership with William H. Willcox, an older, established architect, known for church designs in New York and Chicago. The firm of Wilcox and Johnston designed many prominent buildings, notably Shumway Hall at Shattuck School, Macalester College, the Aberdeen Hotel and St. Luke's Hospital.

In 1889 Wilcox moved on to the West Coast and Johnston, with a growing family and firmly established in St. Paul, continued building homes. He was also drawn more and more into institutional design, becoming adept at producing attractive, functional buildings adapted to the constraints of a client's budget.

Starting in the late 1890s this led to a long association between Johnston and the State of Minnesota, which saw the architect design many buildings for state institutions, particularly state hospitals, the state university system and the University of Minnesota. Some of the latter work was done in collaboration and occasional conflict with his old friend, Cass Gilbert. This institutional work gained Johnston a national reputation, although the bulk of his commissions remained in Minnesota.

Johnston never really retired from practice and his firm, which included his son, Clarence Howard Johnston, Jr., continued to design prominent buildings throughout the early decades of the 20th century. By 1930 his son, Howard, had taken over most of the running of the firm. Clarence Johnston died in 1936.

Sources: Larson, Paul Clifford. Minnesota Architect, The Life and Work of Clarence H. Johnston. Afton Historical Society Press, Afton, Minnesota 1996.

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