Foshay's rebirth

  • Article by: SUSAN FEYDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 11, 2008 - 2:05 PM

Turning the historic tower into an upscale hotel has been a painstaking labor to preserve the past and meld it with the new. The makeover will cost close to $75 million -- almost five times what the investors paid to buy the tower in 2006.


The original brass and nickel lobby elevator doors of the Foshay Tower will be preserved by Developer Ralph Burnet as the building is remodeled into a hotel.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The elaborate plaster and marble ceiling might surprise many guests at the remodeled Foshay Tower's main entrance on Marquette Avenue. It certainly surprised the owners.

The top-to-bottom makeover of the historic Foshay into an upscale W hotel has turned up a number of surprises and challenges, with easy solutions not always an option.

The arcade ceiling turned into a four-month project all by itself. Workers discovered the original, severely damaged ceiling hidden above a newer one when they were getting ready to install heating and ventilating equipment.

"The National Parks people said, 'You're going to restore that, aren't you?' and we said, 'Yup,'" said Ralph Burnet, who holds a majority stake in the downtown Minneapolis landmark and is overseeing its renovation.

"It's turned out to be a pretty expensive 'yup,'" Burnet added. "But we're not complaining. The result is going to be spectacular."

Work at the Foshay still is several months from completion, but glimpses of the conclusion already are evident amid the construction debris.

Former offices on upper floors have been demolished to make way for 230 guest rooms, many now being outfitted with carpeting and plumbing fixtures.

On the 27th floor, an office and boardroom once used by building namesake Wilbur Foshay is being remodeled as a bar and lounge, its African mahogany paneling and floor-to-ceiling casement windows kept intact. And on the second floor, steel columns have been taken out and replaced with steel ceiling beams to provide unobstructed space for a 3,650-square-foot "Great Room" for private parties.

The makeover will cost close to $75 million -- almost five times what Burnet and a small group of investors paid to buy the tower in 2006. Burnet, the chairman of Coldwell Banker Burnet, and the partners will continue to own the building after the renovation is finished in late July.

The hotel will be managed by W's parent company, New York-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and its opening will place Minneapolis in an exclusive group. Starwood currently operates just 21 W hotels worldwide, most of them in top-tier business or vacation destinations, such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Honolulu and Mexico City.

Minneapolis wasn't on Starwood's radar for a W until hotel executives toured the Foshay and fell in love with the building, Burnet said.

Matching the details

Completed in 1929, the 31-story Foshay was Minneapolis' tallest office tower until it was eclipsed by the IDS Center in 1973.

"It had no chance of continuing to work as an office building," Burnet said of the Foshay, which was only half full of office tenants when he acquired it. He briefly considered converting it to condominiums but decided it was better suited to be a hotel.

"This way we're not taking it out of public view," Burnet said.

It would have been difficult to add amenities that condo owners want -- such as terraces -- and adhere to rules restricting changes laid out by the National Registry of Historic Places, he added. The Foshay's distinctive Art Deco design earned it a place on the registry in 1978.

Even as a hotel, the Foshay's historic status has made the makeover a complex project. The National Park Service, which administers the registry, has reviewed all aspects of the renovation, Burnet said.

"They start out with one premise: What did it look like in 1929? And it better look that way in 2009," Burnet said.

There have been some compromises, like allowing most of the 750 old windows to be replaced with new ones that are more energy efficient. But registry officials have rejected some ideas, such as putting a green roof on top of the Foshay's two-story base, that would have altered the building's outward appearance. Even the off-white color of drapery linings that can be seen from outside had to be approved, Burnet said.

Some extra measures have had to be taken to make sure that marble, etched glass, metal grillwork and other distinctive features aren't damaged during construction, said Scott Casanova, a senior project manager for Minneapolis-based Ryan Companies, the general contractor.

"It's a selective process, picking and choosing what has to be covered up," he said. One time-consuming project was building and installing temporary wooden doors to cover the brass and nickel-plated doors on the Foshay's elevators.

Restoration specialists were brought in to oversee work on the ceiling, which requires making rubber molds of undamaged sections, then using those molds to make plaster casts to patch the damaged sections. A paint specialist conducted a microscopic analysis to determine the ceiling's original colors -- a mix of earth tones -- that will be used when it is repainted. Marble for reconstructed beams was imported from the same region of Italy as the original marble so it would be a perfect match, Burnet said.

Obelisk challenge

Besides preserving the Foshay's historic features, the conversion has been complicated by the building's unusual obelisk shape. Patterned after the Washington Monument, the base is 6,600 square feet but the tower narrows to 3,300 square feet at the top.

"In a newly built hotel, everything is square," Burnet said. "You can stack things, like shower stalls, sinks. Try doing that in a pyramid." The shape also poses challenges for routing heating and cooling equipment.

Casanova said the builders have compensated by stacking plumbing and other systems for a few floors, then rerouting systems on "transitional floors." The building's tapered shape also has resulted in 53 different guest room layouts, substantially more than a conventional hotel. Some floors near the top will have just four or two suites each.

All rooms will have a black, gray, white and deep pink color scheme with sleek chrome accents and furnishings that look modern but fit with the Art Deco design.

W hotels are supposed to be playful and edgy, and those elements are evident in a prototype room built next door to the Foshay in the TCF Tower. The minibar is a hot pink cylinder with a mirrored top. A charcoal gray teddy bear rests against the pillows on the plush queen-sized bed. The shower stall walls -- even those that can be seen from the bedroom -- are made of frosted glass. Burnet said that at one point hotel designers considered using clear glass.

The ambience mirrors the Foshay's own colorful history.

Not long after the building was finished, Wilbur Foshay's financial empire -- built on a pyramid scheme -- collapsed with the stock market. He later was convicted of mail fraud and served three years in prison before being pardoned by President Harry Truman in 1947. Foshay died in a Minneapolis nursing home in 1957.

A collection of building artifacts and historic photos will be displayed in a museum on the hotel's 30th floor. Visitors will be able to take a narrow staircase up one level to the tower's small observation deck.

Burnet, a Minneapolis native who still has childhood memories of going up to the deck, said he's looking forward to returning the Foshay to the public.

"In its time it was totally unparalleled," he said. "It's still a very important building."

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723

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