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Tuesday
Jun182019

The Tallest Skyscraper in the Northwest

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

Dominating Minneapolis’ skyline for many decades, the Foshay Tower is one of the most iconic buildings in the city, and state for that matter. While its tenants have changed throughout the years, its stoic and distinguished look has been a constant in this ever-changing city.

Photo Wilbur B. Foshay from 1929Before the Foshay Tower was ever a thought, Wilbur B. Foshay traveled the U.S. from the East Coast to the West working various jobs for utility companies. Electricity was starting to reach a much broader audience after the turn of the 20th century, and Foshay noticed this trend. After working many years in the utility business, he eventually bought and operated three companies one right after another, and each was more successful than the previous. In 1915 he settled his family in Minneapolis and worked for Page and Hill, a manufacturer of electric-light poles and telephone poles. A year later, he bought a utility company in Nebraska and continued to grow his empire.

By 1927, his company, the W. B. Foshay Company, owned utilities in 32 states, the territory of Alaska, Canada, and parts of Central America. After years of apparent success, he decided that his company needed its own world-class headquarters. He spared no expenses when making his building, and it was the most elaborate structure the region had seen up until that point. Wilbur Foshay was heavily inspired by his trips to Washington D.C. and modeled his tower after the Washington Memorial. In order to successfully recreate this obelisk structure, Foshay’s architects, Magney & Tusler, Inc., developed a new construction method by utilizing hot-riveted fabricated steel with reinforced concrete. The exterior of the building is made from Indiana limestone, and the interior is decorated with African Mahogany, Italian Siena marble on the walls, terrazzo on the floors, gold-plated doorknobs, a silver- and gold-plated ceiling, and ornamental bronze entrances. This 32-story Art Deco building was made for a king with a final cost of $3,750,000, or over $56 million after inflation.

Foshay Tower, 1935

On August 30th, 1929, the Foshay Tower opened to much fanfare. Wilbur Foshay went all out and organized and three-day long festival to commemorate the opening of the Foshay Tower, which ended up costing him $116,500, or almost $1,750,000 after inflation. He sent out 25,000 personal invitations, which included various governors, senators, congressmen, and foreign dignitaries, and the main address was made by Secretary of War James W. Good who represented President Herbert Hoover. Possibly the most noteworthy events that happened during the celebration were the eight concerts performed by John Philip Sousa and his seventy-five-piece band. Here Sousa debuted a song he wrote specifically for the event titled “Foshay Tower-Washington Memorial March.” In order to persuade Sousa to do this, Foshay gave him a check for $20,000, or almost $300,000 after inflation. There’s no wonder why Sousa went all out for this celebration.

Only months after the openings of the Foshay Tower the stock market drastically crashed, and the U.S. entered the Great Depression. This was bad news for Wilbur Foshay as his company immediately failed, so quickly in fact that his $20,000 check to Sousa bounced when he tried to cash it. This made Sousa so furious that he refused to play the “Foshay Tower-Washington Memorial March” until he was fully paid, and even wrote it in his will that the song shall never be played. This was not resolved until 1988 when a group of Minnesota investors repaid Foshay's debt to Sousa's estate, and the march was finally permitted to be played in public once again.

Foshay’s company failing also lead to a very serious legal issue. In 1932, he was convicted of conducting a pyramid scheme and mail fraud, and was sentenced to 15 years at the Leavenworth Penitentiary. Eventually, President Franklin D. Roosevelt cut his sentence to only five years, but Foshay only ended up serving three years and was released early for good behavior. Later in 1947, President Harry Truman granted Foshay a full and unconditional pardon.

Even though Wilbur Foshay may have been a crook, his building was a success. When it was completed it became the tallest building in Minneapolis, beating out City Hall, and was billed as “the tallest skyscraper in the Northwest.” It took 43 years before the Foshay Tower was dethroned by the IDS Center when it was completed in 1972. The building has been home to many radio stations, including WTCN and WCCO, Café Un Deux Trois, where Andrew Zimmern was executive chef, the Norwegian Consulate, and now the W Hotel and Prohibition Sky Bar. A famous building with an extraordinary past, the Foshay Tower has been, and will always be, a part of our city’s identity.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also an intern at the Hennepin History Museum and a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 6+ years.

He can be reached at mrainvillejr@comcast.net.

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