The Foshay Tower may be one of the most iconic buildings in downtown Minneapolis, but few people may know that they can score a bird's-eye view from the top.
More than 400 feet above the city streets, an observation deck on the city's first skyscraper offers panoramic views year-round. The Art Deco landmark — which was modeled after the Washington Monument and was the city's tallest office building for more than four decades — is unique for its design and dramatic history that traces the rise and fall of a flashy millionaire in the 1920s.
On a clear day, you can see for more than 30 miles, including the St. Paul skyline and a sliver of the Mississippi River as it weaves through the city. A plaque boasts that it's one of a half-dozen open air observation decks in the U.S.
"It's a discovery to the city," said Trina Anthony, marketing director of the W Minneapolis hotel that opened in the Foshay in 2008. "No matter the seasons, there's always something to look at."
Inside, a museum displays the history of the 32-story tower. In 1915, New Yorker Wilbur Foshay moved to Minneapolis, in debt from the collapse of his first venture, according to records. Three years later, he launched W.B. Foshay Co., which quickly brought him from rags to riches as the company expanded within a decade to a $22 million public utilities empire in 30 states.
Foshay needed a headquarters for his company and wanted to pay tribute to the nation's first president after a trip to Washington, D.C., left him wowed by the Washington Monument. At 9th Street and Marquette Avenue, he set out to build a close replica of the historic building, which would be the "crowning achievement" of his company, he told the Minneapolis Journal in 1928.
"It will be more than an office building," he said. "It will be a monument to American business, to Minneapolis and the prosperous northwest." An ad in the Minneapolis Tribune that year proclaimed it was the "beginning of the new skyline of a still greater city to come."
For more than two years, crews built the 447-foot-tall tapered tower, faced with Indiana limestone. It sported high-speed elevators etched with the Foshay family crest, 750 window bays and a "motor park." Foshay spared no expense for the $3.7 million project (about $64 million today), decking his office in African mahogany with gold-plated knobs while other areas flaunted Italian marble and gold- and silver-plated ceilings. At the top, cut in stone, was his name in lights 10 feet high.
Foshay, a skillful promoter, drummed up publicity every step of the way. When the work wrapped up Aug. 30, 1929, he threw an elaborate three-day party that would have cost about $2 million today, inviting 25,000 people and hiring famed composer John Philip Sousa to write a march. Dignitaries from around the world arrived and the festivities concluded with fireworks and a parade on Nicollet Avenue.
Foshay — whose name was derived from the French word for "broke" — planned to live at the obelisk tower, too. But two months later, the stock market crashed. At 47, Foshay lost his fortune — and his tower.
Soon after, Foshay was charged with federal mail fraud for a pyramid scheme, advertising and selling overvalued company stock. He served three years of a 15-year sentence, until President Franklin Roosevelt commuted it.
Minneapolis kept growing and the Foshay Tower was surpassed as the city's tallest building by the IDS Tower in the 1970s. The Foshay still cemented itself in the history books; it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The Minnesota Historical Society wrote in its nomination form that the building "remained not only as a distinctive architectural statement, but as a grandiose promotion stunt for not only Foshay's utilities companies, but for the city of Minneapolis."
Today, about 10,000 people a year visit the Foshay's caged observation deck — a fraction of the 850,000 visitors who trek to Minnehaha Falls or the estimated 40 million visitors drawn to the Mall of America each year.
It's become a popular Instagram spot and has hosted everything from fashion shoots to the Harlem Globetrotters and even a "Sleepless in Seattle"-inspired marriage proposal.
"His vision was this should always be open to the public," Anthony said. "We've seen a dramatic increase in interest in the last two years."
On a sunny afternoon, visitors in Vikings sweatshirts scanned the horizon with telescopes. Below, cars zigzagged on streets like miniature toys as bells chimed. A search on TikTok for hidden gems in Minneapolis led Parshva Shah and Meghana Patel of Chicago to the viewing platform.
"It lives up to the hype," Shah said. "I always look for secret spots."
Foshay, who had lived for publicity and pizazz, went on to live a quiet life in the Southwest after prison. He later returned to Minnesota and 28 years to the day of when his tower opened, in 1957, the 76-year-old died at a nursing home in sight of the landmark.
He died without notice or fanfare, but the tower that symbolized the success and prosperity he once had will forever immortalize Foshay, his name in lights shining brightly each night.
If you go
To visit the Foshay Tower observation deck, check in at the hotel's front desk (821 Marquette Av., Mpls., marriott.com). It's open daily; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. the rest of the year. Cost is $10, free for 12 and younger.