Rise and fall of the man behind the iconic Foshay Tower

Nestled in the skyline of downtown Minneapolis, the Foshay Tower is a monument to Art Deco architecture.

When it opened 90 years ago, it changed the face of Minneapolis and is now a lasting testament to the ambition of the man who built it: Wilbur Foshay.

"It's a symbol of conspicuous consumption," said Dennis Gardner of the Minnesota State Historical Preservation Office. "We are in the Roaring ‘20s. You have a lot of folks living the high life. Foshay was one of those. He built this wonderful building, so it's kind of a symbol of that time period as well."

Foshay moved to Minneapolis from the East Coast in 1915 and was $150,000 in debt. Within 10 years, his fortunes turned around in the city of lakes. Soon the W.B. Foshay Company had utilities in 23 states and five foreign countries and he wanted a place to house his growing empire.

"He wanted to show that he had arrived," said Gardner. "He went from rags to riches to rags again at the end, but it was his way of showing he'd arrived."

Foshay idolized George Washington, so he decided to build a tribute to him in Minneapolis in the shape of the Washington Monument. The 32-story tower would not only be the tallest building in the city, it would be the tallest building between Chicago and the West Coast. It also would be the first to be built with all union labor.

The building's dedication over Labor Day weekend in 1929 made international news with 25,000 people turning out for the three-day celebration. "Stars and Stripes Forever" composer John Phillip Sousa and his 75-piece band were even on hand to perform a march he wrote in honor of the city's first skyscraper.

"A lot of Italian marble, French marble, gold plating, African mahogany, lots of wood oak and teakwood," said Gardner. "He had a crest of the Foshay family around, letting people know I did this."

But less than two months later, Foshay's empire came tumbling to the ground with the stock market crash that started the Great Depression. He lost everything and couldn't afford to pay the people who built his life's dream.

"At the dedication, Foshay gives Sousa a check for $20,000, Sousa gives him the march he wrote a signed copy," said Gardner. "But then the check bounces. As the story goes, Sousa forbids Foshay from playing the march until he gets paid and it's my understanding is the Sousa family was not paid until after Sousa passed away. Then at that point, it was ok to play the march."

Not only was the tower auctioned off, Foshay and his right-hand man at the company, Henry Henley, were convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to 15 years at Leavenworth Prison. They only served three years because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt commuted their sentences and President Harry Truman pardoned both men, officially clearing their names.

After getting out of prison, Foshay lived in Colorado and Arizona. Without a penny to his name, he eventually moved back to Minneapolis, where he passed away in the shadow of the local landmark that bears his name.

"He did live until his mid 70's," said Gardner. "He ends up dying in a convalescent home and ironically he dies on August 30, 1957, the 28th anniversary to the day of the dedication of this wonderful building."

Since 2008, the Foshay Tower has been the W Minneapolis, a 229-room luxury hotel. Some of Foshay's over-the-top touches, like the original elevator doors, floor and ceiling in the lobby, remain untouched by the hands of time. Prohibition Bar sits on the 27th floor where Foshay's office used to be, complete with the original woodwork and a special staircase to an unfulfilled dream.

"He had built the office space for his office, but he also had plans to build a residence on the floor above, so he had a stairway built," said Kelly Newman, the general manager of the W Minneapolis. "But the residence was never built, so we have a stairway to nowhere is part of the Prohibition Lounge."

On the 30th floor, a museum features a collection of pieces from the past about Wilbur Foshay and his folly. The observation deck continues to be a popular place for the public to get a 360-degree bird's eye view of the city.

Even though the Foshay Tower surrendered its status as the tallest building in Minneapolis in the ‘70s, its remarkable history puts it heads and shoulders above the rest.

"There was a time when you wondered if this building would last," said Gardner. "The fact that it's still standing, it is a great piece of Minneapolis history. A great piece of Minnesota history."