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E. Townsend Mix

FILE, Star Tribune

Louis F. Menage

FILE, Star Tribune

The men behind the Metropolitan Building

  • Article by: RICK NELSON
  • Star Tribune
  • December 10, 2011 - 12:41 PM

Architect E. Townsend Mix knew the Metropolitan Building -- his last commission, and his masterpiece -- by its original name, the Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building (NGLB).

Late in his career, Mix did a brisk business designing Twin Cities office buildings. All followed the Met's example, with interiors organized around vertigo-inducing light courts. Only a few of his eclectic works still stand -- in Milwaukee, where he based his practice for more than 30 years. He died of tuberculosis in his Minneapolis hotel room at age 58, four months after the NGLB's dedication.

His final client was Louis F. Menage, a real estate speculator who leveraged the NGLB's opulent profile into the ultimate marketing tool for his fast-growing empire.

Menage seemed to embody the quintessential American success story. After laboring as a clerk in northern Minnesota pineries and in the mills around St. Anthony Falls, he founded a real estate development company in 1872, eventually putting up hundreds of houses in Minneapolis before expanding into Illinois, Montana and Washington.

But while the NGLB was rock solid -- nothing inspired Gilded Age shareholder confidence like a manmade mountain -- the company that shared the name was anything but. By the time Menage's business concerns moved into palatial offices on the building's 10th floor, the well-respected Northwestern Guaranty Loan Co. secretly had morphed into "a medium through whom gigantic swindles were perpetuated," wrote the Minneapolis Tribune in 1893.

The jig was up when Menage, caught up short by the Panic of 1893, found himself unable to pay dividends -- shades of today's Bernie Madoff and Tom Petters scandals -- and thousands of investors in 20 states discovered that the company was a $6 million shell game, "a system of wildcat financiering which is unparalleled in this country," according to the Minneapolis Tribune. The NGLB quickly slid into receivership, and streetcar magnate Thomas Lowry bought the building.

Menage left town in advance of a federal indictment and hid out in Central America, leaving his wife and 16-year-old daughter to sell the household furniture at their Mount Curve Avenue residence and relocate.

The charges were dropped in 1899 -- lack of evidence -- and Menage, persona non grata in Minneapolis, lived out his life in New Jersey. He never again saw his "epic poem in stone." He died of a heart attack in 1924.

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