MINNEAPOLIS -- If Wilbur Foshay's spirit is flitting around the top of his famed tower, surely he is smiling as he looks down on what his dream has wrought.
Not that Foshay gleaned much enjoyment from it in his lifetime. The entrepreneur had built and sold two empires and was working on a third before his conviction for running a massive pyramid scheme earned him a 15-year prison sentence. True, he served only three and received a presidential pardon, but still. Let's just say, it put a damper on Foshay's enthusiasm.
Timing was not on the businessman's side. He built the Foshay Tower -- now the W Minneapolis Hotel -- as a shrine to his success. At 32 floors (185 metres including its antenna), it was for years the Twin Cities' tallest building, modelled on the Washington Monument, in the Art Deco style, with lux interiors of African mahogany, Italian marble and terrazzo and gold-plated doorknobs and ceilings.
It was the pinnacle of Foshay's empire, to be his home as well as his place of business. Construction cost $3.75 million in 1929.
Yes, check that date.
The tower's grand opening, days after the stock market started its historic plummet, saw 25,000 guests who listened to a brand-new John Philip Sousa march -- commissioned by Foshay for the princely sum of $20,000. (The cheque bounced.) As the horror that was the great stock market crash unfolded, Foshay's empire tumbled. He never lived in his beautiful tower. (And the march was not played again until 1988 when a group of Minnesotans finally repaid Foshay's debt to Sousa's estate.)
The building still towers over downtown Minneapolis, now renowned for its innovative urban renewal and emphasis on green spaces and active transportation.
The seed for that was planted back in the day by Charles Loring, the father of Minneapolis' impressive park system. Loring, a wealthy flour miller in the late 1800s when the city was the milling capital of the world, encouraged city council to work with the best landscape architects to create what has been called "the best-located, best-financed, best-designed and best maintained public open space in America."
The goal was to ensure Minneapolitans could easily enjoy the natural beauty of their city, famous for its share of the state's thousands of lakes. Currently, 93 per cent of city dwellers live within six blocks of a park. That concept was top of mind when city council set out an ambitious plan for a 1970s urban-renewal project of about 26 acres downtown. The jewel of that is Loring Park, an area known for its diversity and its many arts and cultural events and surrounded by apartments from the early 1900s as well as new townhouses and condos. The Loring Greenway, running from the park to Nicolette Mall, downtown's pedestrian main street, provides the well-used active transportation link.
It makes for not just a great place to live, but a great place to visit. Just park the car and walk most places downtown. Be sure not to miss:
THE FOSHAY TOWER
THERE are three spots to enjoy in the Foshay Tower once you've finished gaping at the beauty of the lobby.
The Living Room Bar offers what may be the best deal in town with its 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. happy hour when drinks and small plates are $5. Bartender Kate recommends the Summer Solstice, a drink of tequila, watermelon, agave nectar, fresh lime and pomegranate puree that arrives steaming (thanks to a little dry ice.) The small-plates menu is changed regularly; the king crab egg salad slider is a standout.
The Prohibition Bar offers similar fare, but 27 floors up (originally to be Foshay's home) overlooking the Twin Cities' skylines. Do a full circuit of the lookouts, then settle into one of the many nooks around the bar to enjoy the refreshments.
Manny's isn't just a place to eat; it's an experience. A classic American steakhouse, it's perhaps what Sinclair Lewis envisioned when George, in the great American novel Babbitt, spoke of "the thing that hits me best is a great big beefsteak." (Lewis was a Minnesotan and the locals insist the Midwestern city skewered in Babbitt was modeled on Minneapolis. Academics aren't so sure, but Minneapolitans are -- even though the depiction is less than flattering.) Waiter/ entertainer Paul can match up your personality with your ideal steak. It turns out I am a rib-eye gal. He will serve the salmon if you insist, but as he points out, when you're in one of the great steakhouses of America, ordering the fish is just plain wrong on so many levels. Also impressive is the handy blackboard listing the $100-plus bottles of wine and the price per glass.
FAMOUS PEOPLE TO CHECK OUT
Minneapolis is a great place to be from: Charles Lindbergh was born north of the city and has the airport named after him; Charles Schultz was born in Minneapolis, but grew up across the river in St. Paul, (still a touchy subject for Minneapolitans. That not a lot of love is lost between the neighbouring cities stems, local lore has it, from the days John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and crew lived in St. Paul where crooked cops turned a blind eye as long as their crime spree was over the river in Minneapolis.) St. Paul native Loni Anderson is forgiven because she got her showbiz start in the theatre program at the University of Minnesota, an institute shared by the Twin Cities.
It's a great place to be buried, too: Hubert Humphrey, Tiny Tim and Forrest Mars, Sr. who created M&Ms.
But the city's possibly most famous resident never actually lived here. Mary Tyler Moore's landmark TV show was set in the Twin Cities. She may have been able to turn the world on with her smile, but when she walked around one of the famous lakes in the opening credits (Island Lake, say the locals) she was just visiting. The house shown in the credits, the one where Mary, Rhoda and Phyllis all lived? It's just blocks from downtown, but Mary never set foot in it while the show was filming. Once on a visit to the city, she was invited by the owners to drop by.
Hard-core fans can also visit the statue of Mary tossing her hat in the air, as she did in the opening credits, on Nicolette Mall just outside Macy's.
HYATT REGENCY AND PRAIRIE KITCHEN
The Hyatt Regency Minneapolis is a great place to stay. The just-completed multimillion-dollar reno and killer breakfasts at the Prairie Kitchen are just a couple of its great selling points, but it's the location that pushes this hotel over the top. Right at the end of Nicolette Mall, at the entrance to the Loring Greenway, it's the perfect base for exploring downtown. When you tire of walking, you can just hop on and off the free buses that constantly run up and down the main street.
MINNEAPOLIS INSTITUTE OF ARTS
A truly great art gallery, general admission is free. Famous pieces include Raffaelo Monti's the Veiled Lady, Do-Ho Suh's Some/One, a shell of a warrior built out of military dog tags, and Dorothea Lange's haunting photo, the Migrant Mother, which staff describe as the most famous photograph in the world. Check the website at www.artsmia.org for the gallery's many special events. A popular Dog Days at the gallery saw pooches in fancy costume creating art with painted paws. The gallery is a mere six blocks from downtown, has a terrific gift shop and is closed on Mondays.
MILL CITY MUSEUM
In the heart of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District, the Mill City Museum is known as the best-smelling museum in the world. It hearkens to the days when Minneapolis was the milling centre of the universe. OK, maybe that's a stretch, but the Twin Cities knew how to make the most of all that water power coming up the Mississippi and over St. Anthony Falls and created much of the area's wealth. The mill dates back to the 1870s and houses a museum focusing on the founding of Minneapolis. Do not miss the amusing film, Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat nor the Flour Tower tour which ends on the ninth floor overlooking St. Anthony Falls and the arched railway bridge, the only stone bridge on the Mississippi.
(Another great view of the river is from water level. River cruises -- yes, some with paddlewheels, but no poker games that we could find -- depart from the Bohemian Flats, a cab ride away from downtown. See www.twincitiescruises for an array of specialty cruises.)
For more stunning views, visit the Guthrie Theater, just down from the Mill City Museum. Try to score tickets to this theatre which was created in 1963 to produce performances of the classics away from the commercial pressures of the New York stage. But even if you can't catch a show, don't miss the building that has won a slew of awards, including being named one of the 10 most important buildings in the 21st century. Be sure to visit the theatre's Endless Bridge, a 55-metre cantilevered bridge to the Mississippi and check out the interesting mirrored tunnel windows.
THE WALKER ART CENTRE AND MINNEAPOLIS SCULPTURE GARDEN
The giant spoon and cherry sculpture is perhaps the most famous image of modern Minneapolis. But a stroll through the gardens turns up many more memorable pieces of public art. Not all are for the eyes. Listen closely for the tinkling of dozens of wind chimes hidden in the trees.
Julie Carl is the Free Press associate editor, engagement. Her trip was sponsored in part by the Meet Minneapolis, Convention & Visitors Association.