Many American cities — Minneapolis among them — have, or once had, downtown buildings named after the phoenix, a mythical bird that supposedly sprang to life from the ashes of its predecessor.
It’s not hard to figure out why the name was so popular, particularly in the 19th century, when buildings burned with distressing regularity, only to be quickly replaced by new, and presumably less combustible, structures.
Minneapolis’ Phoenix Building, which roosted for almost 70 years at the northwest corner of 4th Street and Marquette Avenue, was a case in point.
It rose in 1893 from the ruins of the seven-story Tribune Building, an early downtown monument that went up in flames on Nov. 30, 1889, after standing for only four years. That fire killed seven people — among them an editor for the Minneapolis edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press — and left 30 others injured. To this day, it remains the deadliest office building fire in Minneapolis history.
The Tribune Building, like many others of its time, had been touted as “fireproof” when it was built to the specifications of Minnesota architect Leroy Buffington. But it was, in fact, a firetrap. And it burned with astonishing ferocity.
The fire was among the first of its kind in Minneapolis, because buildings tall enough to require elevators were then a very recent development. In 1880, Minneapolis had no downtown office buildings or hotels that were six stories tall or higher. By 1890, after a decade of frenetic growth, there were 22, capped by the magnificent Northwestern Guaranty Loan (Metropolitan) Building at 12 stories.
Today, only two of these 19th-century mid-rise buildings — the Lumber Exchange (built in 1886) and the old Masonic Temple (1889) — still stand, both on Hennepin Avenue.
After the Tribune Building burned, its brick walls were demolished. Its foundations, however, were reused for the Phoenix Building, which occupied the exact footprint of its predecessor. The two buildings also looked quite similar, although at nine stories when it was first built, the Phoenix was a bit taller.
Both buildings featured lower floors of white Joliet limestone from Illinois, with red brick above and two slightly projecting bays facing 4th Street. Both also had distinctive scrolled brackets that erupted from the walls on the ground floor. But where the Tribune Building had offered a picturesque roofline bristling with gables, dormers and decorative chimneys, the Phoenix Building made do with a more mundane flat top.
In designing the Phoenix, Minneapolis architect James C. Plant took extraordinary measures to make the building fire-resistant, even specifying desks and counters made of hollow terra-cotta blocks rather than wood for a ground-floor banking hall. In 1903, Fireproof Magazine saluted the Phoenix as “perhaps the best example of thoroughly fireproof construction in the Northwest.”
The Phoenix was built by a group of investors led by William Luce, the man behind the Electric Short Line Railway (the old route of which now serves as the Luce Line trail west of Minneapolis). The railway had its offices in the building, as did several banks and a variety of smaller tenants.
True to its builders’ claims, the Phoenix seems to have encountered no trouble with fire during its lifetime.
It did, however, receive a curious addition in 1902, when an inset 10th-floor penthouse was tacked onto the roof. What prompted this project isn’t known, but it was a clumsy job, and the penthouse looked like the afterthought it clearly was.
Over the years, the Phoenix settled into life as a comfortable old Class B office building. One of its most notable tenants was Edwin C. Hirschoff, an inventor, public relations professional and skilled photographer best known for his elegant, atmospheric black-and-white images of the old Gateway district as it was being systematically destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s.
As it turned out, the Phoenix itself became a casualty of the Gateway Center urban renewal program. The building and others on its block were razed in 1961 to make way for a new 17-story Sheraton-Ritz Hotel. But the hotel, which opened in 1963, was never a great success, and in 1990 it, too, came down.
Now, a 30-story apartment tower is going up on the block. It won’t be called the Phoenix, however. That name already has been taken by another apartment building in the St. Anthony Main area, constructed on the site of the old Phoenix Flour Mill, which in turn took its name from the burned mill it replaced.
In American cities, it seems, the fabled phoenix will always be around to rise from the ashes of its forebears.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author of 14 nonfiction books and eight mystery novels. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.