As was the case with every large city that prepared for the arrival of the railroad, the construction of a major, first-class hotel for those arriving by the new conveyance was the first order of business. Minneapolis would be no different. A group of Minneapolis’ business leaders, anticipating the completion of the Northern Pacific, approached John West, the manager of the Nicollet Hotel, the city’s leading hotel in 1881, for his advice on building a new grand hotel. West, the nephew of Cincinnati millionaire, Charles W. West, undoubtedly approached his uncle about his possible funding for the project. The elder West agreed to be the major stockholder, with the provision that his nephew would be named the manager of what would be named the West Hotel, in honor of its majority owner. In early 1882, the group commissioned the city’s leading architect, LeRoy S. Buffington to design the new project for the southwest corner of Hennepin and Fifth Street. (I am going to delve into the specifics of Buffington’s career because he is the central figure in one of American architecture’s great controversies: the invention of the skyscraper. Historians, especially those focused on Chicago, have not been kind to Buffington, maligning his otherwise stellar professional career that I am going to review to set the record straight.)
Coincidentally or not, Buffington was also a Cincinnati native who had attended the local Ohio Mechanic’s Institute where he studied architecture and engineering, graduating in 1869. (This date should interest you because MIT’s architecture program, founded by William Ware, began offering courses in the fall of 1868. By then Buffington had entered his final year of study. The obvious question is whether or not the Cincinnati program was the truly first architecture program in the country?) He had relocated to St. Paul in early 1871 to help supervise the construction of the city’s new Federal Custom House. He soon joined the city’s leading architectural firm of Abraham Radcliff and by 1873, had opened up a second office in Minneapolis, to which he had moved his practice when he established his own firm. In 1880 he had been hired by J. J. Hill as the Head Architect for the St. Paul, Minneapolis, & Manitoba Railroad. Buffington’s prestige as Minneapolis’ leading designer in 1882 is readily apparent in the four buildings he had designed just prior to receiving the commission to design the West Hotel.
On May 2, 1878, Minneapolis witnessed one of its greatest disasters when the four-year old, seven-story, solid stone-walled Washburn ‘A’ (the Washburn Company was the forerunner of General Mills) flour mill was leveled in an instant by a massive flour dust explosion that killed 18 workers, sent the roof into the air a reported 500,’ and hurled chunks of stones as far as eight blocks away. Buffington was contracted to design its seven-story replacement, that when completed in 1880, was easily the largest of the flourmills in the St. Anthony complex, a title that it held, however, for less than a year.
Buffington’s reputation was such that he was also hired by Washburn’s competitor, Charles A. Pillsbury, later that year to design an even larger, more powerful flourmill, the Pillsbury ‘A’ Mill. Pillsbury had spent five years in secret, planning what he announced in 1879 to be the world’s most advance and largest flourmill. When completed in 1881, the mill had seven floors and a basement, with stonewalls that varied in thickness from 8 feet thick in the basement to 2 feet thick at the top.
During the time when Buffington was engaged in the design and construction of the world’s two largest flourmills, he was also designing St. Paul’s new Union Depot. In May 1879, the eight railroads that served St. Paul from three separate depots, had founded a company to build a new, single depot to unite and service all eight lines. Buffington was selected to be the architect in April 1880, probably at the insistence of J. J. Hill that his company’s Head Architect be so employed. Buffington was directed to design a simple, economical brick building, which in doing so turned out to be quite handsome.
The fourth, and undoubtedly, the most prestigious building Buffington designed during this period was the replacement for the Minnesota State Capitol that had been destroyed by a fire during the evening of March 1, 1881, when both houses were still in session. He had won the competition held to design its replacement, again showing the prowess of his design ability within the immediate region. The highlight of this project was the 200′ high tower that topped the structure, announcing the Twin Cities intent to challenge Chicago’s reputation as having the tallest building in the country. They would do this without the involvement of Chicago architects.
Christison, Muriel B.. “LeRoy S. Buffington and the Minneapolis Boom of the 1880’s,” Minnesota History, Sept. 1942, p. 50..
Hess, Jeffrey A. and Paul Clifford Larson. St. Paul’s Architecture: A History, Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2007.
Millett, Larry. Lost Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.
Morrison, Hugh. “Buffington and the Invention of the Skyscraper,” Art Bulletin, vol. XXVI, No. 1, March 1944.
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