The pleasure of researching historical questions in the newspaper archives is open to all.
It used to be that you had to slide brittle microfilm into a machine and leaf through scratchy copies of long-gone magazines. Now anyone with a subscription to newspapers.com or the patience to wade through the collection of the Library of Congress can get to the bottom of old mysteries and find a satisfying answer.
This isn’t one of those stories.
The Mystery: When Was the Top of the Milwaukee Road Depot Tower Shaved Off?
First, look at the building at 3rd Avenue and Washington Avenue, 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 is the second depot on site. Its predecessor was a somewhat fussy Italian-style building with a stunning dome atop a squat two-story tower.
The building we know as The Depot was completed in 1899 and 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” I mean “lucky for the architect that there are no accusations of plagiarism in 19th century architecture”.
The top of the tower is now gone, and the skyline is bereaved of its loss. In the city center there would have been nothing comparable. The tower isn’t ugly without its decorative Spanish hat. The flat-topped tower has a certain rugged, practical appeal. We’re used to the look of the Tower, especially since he’s spent more years without the Ruffled Hat than he has with it.
But how long has the dome been gone, exactly? And what happened to it?
Good questions. And here our problems begin.
According to Wikipedia, the spire was removed in 1941 after being damaged by high winds. Ask CSM, the company that renovated the Depot between 1999 and 2001, and they’ll tell you: 1941. Ask the staff at the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, which is part of the Depot complex, and you’ll get the same answer: 1941. But If you ask how they know this, they point to… Wikipedia.
It must have been a sad day when the elegant top of the tower was shaved off. Certainly members of the local press were present. Maybe they dragged out a vintage car that remembered the opening of the station. Perhaps the article would note where the debris went, or if a few carvings were salvaged and sold to commoners who wanted a piece of history in their backyard. Was there a fragment of a balcony in a garden in a mansion in Lake of the Isles?
As you can imagine, searching old papers for “heavy winds” generated many hits. It seems like 1941 had two big storms. One in March that devastated much of Minnesota but doesn’t appear to have hit the greater metropolitan area. There was also a twister on September 4 that “riddled Minneapolis from north to south,” as the Minneapolis Tribune put it. Four dead, 50 injured.
Nothing in this newspaper – and several others – about the depot.
On the front page of the Tribune was a photo with the caption “Twister Made Shambles of Railroad Shops.” Could it be? no This was a coach repair shop in Shoreham, Minn.
Well, there would certainly be some coverage in the next few days about the damage to the dome. no Perhaps in the weeks that followed, something realized that the landmark was about to lose its crown. And no.
The 1941 newspapers say nothing about the loss of the spire. There are 209 mentions of Milwaukee Road in the 1941 newspapers. No word on the damage.
There are four options.
1. The date is wrong.
The tower may have been damaged in a storm in 1941, but only collapsed later. While that might seem like a reasonable explanation, I looked up not only 1941 but also 1942 and 1943 in the local papers.
The damage and removal may have happened earlier, but a 1997 Star Tribune article on the depot stated: “Up until the 1940s, the depot had an ornate dome atop the brick tower. It was eventually damaged in a storm and removed.”
2. The distance did not justify a mention in the local newspapers.
This seems unlikely given the molecular scale of coverage provided by the day’s newspapers. It seems impossible that the removal of a landmark is not mentioned. Especially when you consider that when the dome on Donaldson’s old glass block shop at Nicollet Avenue and 6th Street was dismantled in 1942 to be converted into war material, it was a cover story – with a photo.
3. The search index for the newspaper database is not sufficient for this task.
Unlikely. The term “Milwaukee Depot” includes everything from flashy railroad ads to want ads for the cafeteria dishwasher.
4. The depot never had the dome.
This is the most disturbing theory because it suggests that we are living in a computer simulation and at one point they restarted Minneapolis but the entire tower failed to load.
Not likely, you say. OK. you have a better idea? I’m open to solutions at [email protected]
We need to find out, if only to make sure Wikipedia isn’t wrong.