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Mr. Foshay's Legend
by Bill Buzenberg
February 1, 2000
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The Foshay Tower in Minneapolis has a new owner today. Basant Kaharbanda , a Minneapolis engineer and entrepreneur, purchased the 32-story tower from the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. The Foshay Tower was opened in 1929 just before the Wall Street stock market crash. For more than 40 years - 1929 to 1971 - the Foshay was the city's tallest building; the civic symbol of Minneapolis. Often promoted as "the best address in the Northwest," the Foshay Tower is an important part of the architectural heritage of the Twin Cities.

The Foshay Tower was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
WILBUR FOSHAY'S TOWER was meant to look like the Washington Monument. It does, sort of, though it has 750 window bays, and 10-foot-tall letters shouting out "Foshay". Young Wilbur so much admired the Washington, D.C. obelisk, that he vowed as a teenager that if he ever had enough money he would build his own office building obelisk as a memorial to the first President.

The W.B. Foshay Company was doing quite well in the 1920s. Foshay had turned a $6,000 loan in 1916 into a profitable, if questionable, enterprise. He made his money largely by buying up utility companies and then selling stock in his public utility empire. By 1927 Foshay had enough money for a new headquarters building. He would spend $3.7 million on a building with gently sloping sides, where each floor was slightly smaller than the floor below. He planned his own office and home on 27th and 28th floors; a suite lined with African mahogany, bathrooms with gold-plated faucets, and outside stone balconies

The Foshay Tower became the fist skyscraper west of the Mississippi. It is made of steel and reinforced concrete, and clad in a cream-colored Limestone. With a basement buried deep in bedrock, the building can withstand winds of 400 miles per hour. There is no other office building-obelisk like it in the world. In Minneapolis, Foshay's tower became the skyline icon for the city. Indeed, it was the city's trademark, the way it was recognized. What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.

Charles Nelson, historical architect at the Minnesota History Center, remembers, as a student, traveling by train to the University of Minnesota with a older man who lived in Minneapolis. As Nelson tells it, the train came around a bend from St. Paul, headed up the Mississippi and...
Nelson: There on the horizon is Minneapolis. This elderly gentleman, I could see his eyes get wide and gets very very animated and he points out the window, "Look, look the Foshay tower, we're home."
Foshay's tower represents its era well — the roaring 1920s. According to Larry Millett, editor and architectural critic at the Pioneer Press, the Foshay was built at about the same time as the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building in New York. All were built at a time when the economy was booming.
Millett: Skyscrapers tend to be like spikes on the stock market: when things are going well, they get built; as they are being built now in Minneapolis, as they were built in the '80s. Every other decade or so we build skyscrapers because the money is there to do so. So it really does sum up the '20s, I think, perfectly.
In August 1929, Wilbur Foshay spent a little extra money - $116,000 - on a three-day celebration to mark the opening of his tower. The secretary of war came. And there was music. The Minnesota History Center's Charles Nelson.
Nelson: One of the things he did, which was probably one of the most significant PR ploys of all time, is that he got John Phillips Sousa to write a special march that was played only one time at the grand opening of the Washington Monument of Minneapolis, if you would.
All together, John Phillips Sousa's band played eight different Minneapolis concerts for the Fohsay Tower celebration.

But then, just two months later, the stock market crashed, and Foshay's $20,000 check to Sousa bounced. Wilbur Foshay's empire had been built on paper profits, and he lost everything in the crash, including his tower.

At the time it was built, Foshay's Tower seemed jarring, even insulting to many Minneapolis business leaders. Not only had Foshay used all-union construction crews to build the tower — a threat at the time — but it was seen as too presumptuous; out of scale with the rest of the community, and too personal for taciturn Midwesterners.

Planning consultant Tom Martinson, former national director of the Society of Architectural Historians, says Wilbur Foshay was a salesman; not quite the right breeding, for the Minneapolis establishment. Martinson says Foshay tried to buy acceptance in the community, but never succeeded. He compares Foshay to F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictional Jay Gatsby.
Martinson: Wilbur Foshay could have been successful, wealthy, comfortable living person, but he pushed it. He wanted to be something he couldn't be. Gatsby the same way. And both of them ended up in a sense tragically.
The Great Gatsby was shot.

Foshay eventually went to Leavenworth Penitentiary for his financial misdeeds. He was convicted of mail fraud in 1932. He served three years, before his sentence was commuted by President Franklin Roosevelt. He was finally pardoned in 1947 by President Harry Truman. Wilbur Foshay died in relative obscurity in 1957 in a Minneapolis nursing home.
" Wilbur Foshay could have been successful, wealthy, comfortable living person, but he pushed it. He wanted to be something he couldn't be. Gatsby the same way. And both of them ended up in a sense tragically."

- Tom Martinson
Planning Consultant

Today, Foshay's building is still a popular address of distinction. To visit the Foshay's elegant art-deco lobby is to walk back in time to the 1920s and '30s. Marble from France, Italy, Belgium, terrazzo floors, etched glass and shiny bronze. Architect David Shea worked on a multi-million dollar restoration of the Foshay Tower in 1992.
Shea: The lobby itself is one of those incredible spaces that is articulated with marble, bronze, terrazzo, the unique floor patterns within it, with fluted marble columns, etched glass, cut glass.
The outdoor observation deck atop of the Foshay Tower is one of only a few public viewing spots like it in the nation. It's somewhat like the Empire State Building, only on a smaller scale. And the view is now only waist-high in the city. The IDS building surpassed the Foshay in height about 1972, and now the Foshay is only mid-level high in a city with 60-story buildings. But Architect David Shea says it still affords a commanding view.
Shea: You can still see the river going by; you can still see the airport off to the side; you can still see the city lakes and the parkway systems. But you're also looking into the center of a number of office buildings that are part of the space around you.
People who work in Foshay Tower offices think of it as a special place, with a sense of intimacy, and history. Each floor plan is tiny in comparison to today's office buildings. Windows are never far away. You can circle an entire floor in barely a minute. Too often, today's corporate world of cubicles lack personality. Creative people seek inspiration from their environment which they say they find in the Foshay.

Like many older buildings, the Foshay Tower has its ghosts. Julie Canny, a security guard, thinks its probably haunted.
Canny: I believe in part because of what I've seen. There was one night when I was working on a floor and I turned around, and it was like a shadow of a man and he darted around the corner. That was about the best manifestation I ever saw.
Mort Levy, who runs the Foshay museum on the top floor, is the building's historian and guide. Levy says he doesn't think there is a ghost of Foshay, or anyone else. But there have been some unusual incidents, and he recognized people do like to tell stories.
Levy: There are many people who have thought that Foshay committed suicide after the crash. They wanted to know if he jumped off the building. I like to kid a lot. There is only one elevator that comes up to the 30th floor and sometimes that elevator makes an unscheduled stop and the doors open. I tell people Wilbur's ghost must want to get on.
Architectural historian Tom Martinson sees irony in the fact that Wilbur Foshay, who could never buy acceptance in his own era, is well remembered in our's.
Martinson: Today we look downtown, we see the Foshay Tower, everyone knows the name. You may not be able to name the other buildings downtown but you always know the Foshay Tower. So he has retained a kind of lasting memory where none of us could name any of the business leaders who were the big deals of the 20s and 30s…In the end, we remember it…we're talking about Wilbur Foshay and the people who had what he wanted have disappeared from history.
Today, the Foshay Tower has about a 90-percent occupancy rate. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Minneapolis now has taller buildings; fancier buildings, but none of them has became the civic symbol the way the Foshay tower did; And it is still an architectural treasure for the Twin Cities. The new owner says he has no plans for any major changes to the building.