In 1951, the Cowles family, owners of what is today the Star Tribune, made a remarkable investment.

They spent the contemporary equivalent of $170,000 and commissioned mapmakers Rand McNally to create and install a handmade globe 6 feet in diameter in the busy lobby of the newspaper's downtown Minneapolis headquarters.

It was called simply "the globe," a jewel and a geography lesson wrapped up in a single, slowly rotating package. It sat, Hope Diamond-like, in dimly lit, near-operatic splendor, a magical magnet for schoolchildren, a calling card to mystical faraway places and an unforgettable salutation into the building that served as the news and communications hub of the Upper Midwest.

For the Cowles family, the globe wasn't mere decoration — it served a vital and practical Cold War-era purpose.

"At that time, the whole reference point was flat maps," said Steve Yaeger, the Star Tribune's vice president/chief marketing officer. "Globes were not in wide use in classrooms. So people could step up to the globe and get an understanding of the geospatial relationships that they were reading about in the morning Tribune and in the afternoon Star."

After 40-plus years of welcoming employees — and enchanting and fascinating countless visitors — the globe fell victim to changing tastes.

Like some oversized household knickknack, it was relegated to the building's gloomy basement, where it sat, nearly forgotten and collecting dust, until the late 1990s. That's when the Cowles family sold the company and Fuller Cowles, son of former Star Tribune publisher John Cowles Jr., had the foresight to pack up the globe and store it on his property near Shafer, Minn.

Fast-forward to April 24, 2015. Just before the Star Tribune's historic home on Portland Avenue S. was scheduled to be demolished, a ceremony was held to remove the building's time capsule.

Cowles attended, and remarked that the globe — yes, that globe — was stored in a crate in his barn. The newspaper, which had just completed a complicated move into its new offices, wasn't in a place where it could deal with the logistics involved with a large, historic artifact.

"There were too many 'ifs,' " Yaeger said. "Which was too bad, because anyone who knew about the globe would speak about it in very wistful terms. It had taken on a mythical quality."

The discussion turned to the Minnesota Historical Society, which ultimately decided against taking the globe into its collections. (The globe's twin, which for decades graced the lobby of the then-Cowles-owned Des Moines Register, now resides in the State Historical Museum of Iowa.)

A year later, when the newspaper's marketing department began making plans for the Star Tribune's 150th anniversary celebrations, the globe re-entered the conversation.

"What finally convinced me that this was something we should do was the thought of, 'If not now, then when?' " said Tom Rainey, the Star Tribune's director of marketing operations. "If we didn't restore the globe as part of our 150th celebration, I felt it would never happen. That just didn't seem right."

Cowles graciously donated the globe, with a caveat: The newspaper had to restore it, and find a place to display it.

Done, and done.

'Master craftsmanship'

Nearly three decades of benign neglect had taken its toll on this extraordinary heirloom, and technical and artistic expertise, served with a dose of tender loving care, was in order.

Enter Blue Rhino Studio. The 19-year-old company designs and produces materials for museums, visitor centers and other institutions worldwide.

Its busy Eagan workshop is currently dominated by an enormous fake bur oak tree, which is bound for Quarry Hill Nature Center in Rochester, Minn., and a small zoo of gigantic replicas of prehistoric animals, created for a museum in Kuwait City, Kuwait.

The globe itself is hollow, composed of very thin spun aluminum — think "giant metal beach ball" — and fragile.

It tips the scale at around 150 pounds, although most of that weight is in the shaft that connects the globe to its base. It's no Daily Planet-esque sphere, but what it lacks in sheer size is more than compensated by an extraordinary level of detail.

Archival records indicate that Rand McNally devoted 3,000 hours simply to painting the globe's surface, using a limited palette of a half-dozen colors.

"It really makes you appreciate what people used to do by hand," said Blue Rhino CEO Tim Quady. "We're in awe of the master craftsmanship that's on display, and this is a group that's hard to impress. It's a project that everyone here wanted to be a part of."

A handful of Blue Rhino artisans devoted about 400 hours to restoring the globe.

Several thousand geographic locales (the scale is 1 inch equals 110 miles) are painstakingly painted onto the globe's surface, and many reflect a postwar mind-set. Guadalcanal, for example, is identified.

"They chose places that were fresh in people's memory at the time," Yaeger said. "You'd probably choose names differently today. Still, you can't stop looking at it — you keep finding stuff. It's that detailed."

Names and boundaries were updated in 1978, and that's the version that Blue Rhino's restoration honors in its cleaned-up iteration.

Soap and water

Three days were devoted to giving the globe a meticulous cleaning, in stages: a dry dusting, then water, then soap and water, then superfine steel wool. Dents — one was as large as a football — were smoothed out via suction. Careful touch-up repainting took another three days. (Yaeger isn't saying how much the Star Tribune spent in restoration costs.)

The globe's base was pretty much a lost cause, and most of it was reproduced in the Blue Rhino workshop.

The replacement is a foot higher than the 6-inch original, to accommodate the mechanical equipment that powers the globe's rotation; the original motor had been installed in the ceiling underneath the globe.

That mechanical equipment? The chassis, bearings and shaft date to 1951, but the motor and electronics all hail from 2017. And yes, the globe will spin on its axis, making a full rotation roughly once every 15 minutes.

The base is divided into the Earth's 24 time zones, with a handful of significant cities or other geographic high points listed in each zone. For example, the Central Standard Time zone ticks off Winnipeg, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Mexico City, Managua and the Galápagos Islands.

About a third of the cast pewter letters were missing, so all of them were replaced with laser-cut plastic.

"I can't believe that someone once did this by hand," said Jeff Nelson, a Blue Rhino project manager. "We scoured the web to find the right typefaces."

Each time zone gets its own clock, which are all new but bear replicas of the originals' faces.

The globe is now back where it belongs, in the lobby of the Star Tribune's new building in downtown Minneapolis. It will be unveiled Thursday morning.

In a time when the sum of mankind's knowledge can be accessed on a smartphone, the globe's show-and-tell role has been minimized, to say the least. But its place as a beloved civic landmark has been renewed.

"This whole anniversary effort has been very deliberate in trying to embrace the past, but also speak to the future," Yaeger said. "The restoration and installation of the globe is an act of optimism."

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757 • @RickNelsonStrib