UPDATE: Mystery solved! Of course, whether the tower was ever there wasn't a mystery - but the exact date of its removal seemed hard to find. Thanks to our ingenious readers, we now have proof - with pictures - that it went down in May of 1941. (Cq) But there's a bit more to the story, and we'll follow up in a few weeks with the details, and some recollections about the storied structure. Thanks again! James Lileks
The pleasure of researching historical questions in the newspaper archives is available to all.
Once you had to feed brittle microfilm into a machine and scroll through scratchy copies of bygone journals. Now anyone with a subscription to newspapers.com or the patience to wade through the Library of Congress' collection can investigate old mysteries, and find a satisfying answer.
This is not one of those stories.
The mystery: When did the top of the Milwaukee Road Depot tower get shaved off?
First, consider the building at 3rd and Washington Avenues, downtown's only surviving train station. It's now The Depot, a hotel and meeting place, with a perfectly preserved train shed that was used for skating until 2017.
It's the second depot on the spot. Its predecessor was a slightly fussy Italianate building with an overbearing cupola atop a squat two-story tower.
The building we know as The Depot, finished in 1899, was designed in the Renaissance Revival style, a term for an eclectic assortment of Italian idioms. The tower was "modeled after" the Giralda, the bell tower of the Cathedral in Seville, Spain — and by "modeled after" I mean "lucky for the architect there aren't any plagiarism suits in 19th-century architecture."
The top of the tower is gone now, and the skyline is poorer for the loss. There would have been nothing like it downtown. The tower isn't ugly without its decorative Spanish hat. The flat-topped tower has a certain sturdy, practical appeal. We're used to the way the tower looks, especially since it has spent more years without the frilly hat than with it.
But exactly how long has the cupola been gone? And what happened to it?
Good questions. And here our troubles begin.
According to Wikipedia, the top was removed in 1941 after it was damaged by heavy winds. Ask CSM, the company that renovated the depot between 1999 and 2001, and they'll tell you: 1941. Ask the staff of the Renaissance Minneapolis hotel that's part of the depot complex, and you'll get the same answer: 1941. But if you ask how they know, they'll point to ... Wikipedia.
It must have been a sad day when the elegant top was shaved off the tower. Surely, members of the local press were present. Perhaps they dragged out an old-timer who remembered when the station opened. Maybe the article would note where the rubble went, or whether a few carvings had been saved and sold to citizens who wanted a piece of history in their backyard. Was there a fragment of a balcony in a garden in a Lake of the Isles mansion?
As you can imagine, searching old papers for "heavy winds" generated a lot of hits. It seems as if 1941 had two big storms. One in March, which mauled a broad swath of Minnesota, but doesn't seem to have pounded the metro area. There also was a twister on Sept. 4, which "raked Minneapolis from north to south," as the Minneapolis Tribune put it. Four dead, 50 hurt.
Nothing in that paper — and several others — about the depot.
The front page of the Tribune did have a photo with the headline "Twister Made Shambles of Railroad Shops." Could this be it? No. This was a coach repair facility in Shoreham, Minn.
Well, surely there'd be something in the coverage over the next few days, discussing the damage to the cupola. No. Perhaps something in the weeks that followed noted that the landmark building would be losing its crown. And no.
There is nothing in the 1941 newspapers concerning the loss of the top of the tower. There are 209 mentions of Milwaukee Road in the 1941 papers. Not a word about the damage.
There are four possibilities.
1. The date is wrong.
The tower may have been damaged in a storm in 1941, but didn't come down until later. While that may seem like a reasonable explanation, I searched the local newspapers for not just all of 1941, but also 1942 and 1943.
The damage and removal might have happened earlier than that, but a 1997 Star Tribune article on the depot said: "Until the 1940s, the depot had an ornate cupola atop the brick tower. It eventually was damaged in a storm and removed."
2. The removal didn't warrant mention in the local papers.
This seems unlikely, given the molecular level of coverage the papers of the day provided. It seems impossible that the removal of a landmark wouldn't get mentioned. Especially when considering that when the dome atop the old Donaldson's Glass Block store on Nicollet Avenue and 6th Street was dismantled in 1942 for conversion into war supplies, it was a front-page story — with a photo.
3. The search index for the newspaper database is insufficient to the task.
Unlikely. The term "Milwaukee Depot" returns everything from splashy railroad promotions to want ads for the cafeteria's dishwasher.
4. The depot never had the cupola in the first place.
This is the most disturbing theory because it suggests we live in a computer simulation, and at some point they rebooted Minneapolis, but the entire tower didn't load.
This is not likely, you say. OK. You have a better idea? I'm open for solutions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have to figure this out, if only to make sure Wikipedia doesn't have it wrong.