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Minnesota Moment: Northwestern Bell tower rises during Depression

September 21, 2018

What happened: Northwestern Bell Phone Co. announced plans for an enormous new tower next to City Hall in Minneapolis.

When: Sept. 22, 1929.

How many floors? According to the local newspapers, the Northwestern Bell tower would be considerably taller than the Rand Tower, a just completed structure whose 26 stories took it 310 feet above the street. The Northwestern tower would be the equivalent of a 40-story structure, but it would have fewer floors, since the equipment housed in the structure required ceilings that were 22 feet high.

A long time coming: The Rand went up in a year, but the Northwestern building took three, because of the requirements of the technology. Cables had to be laid to route calls from older exchanges to the new facility. Floors had to be reinforced to hold the machinery. The ground floor had to welcome the public (it was where you came to pay your phone bill, after all), while floors two through 13 were given over to switchboards.

No boom and bust: The building opened in 1932, well into the Great Depression. But it didnt suffer from high vacancy rates like other office towers did. People still had to make and pay for phone calls.

Homegrown: Unlike other, perhaps more celebrated buildings (like, oh, the Foshay), the phone company building was homegrown: The steel came from the Iron Range, the granite from Morton, Minn., the stone was Minnesotas trademark, Kasota. Even the concrete came from Duluth.

Thoroughly modern: Designed by the local firm of Hewitt Brown, the Northwestern Bell tower was startlingly modern for its time, blunt, with minimal ornamentation. It wasnt opulent. It was solid. Reliable. Very Minnesotan.

What remains: The building still houses the phone company, although now its called CenturyLink. The main floor public office has been closed for a while, so you may never have passed through the building. But your voice may have.

James Lileks

AP RADIO
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