There can be no argument about Buffington’s reputation as the leading architect in the Twin Cities, as the owners of the West Hotel had logically chosen him to design their new project. Projected to be 8 stories tall, no architect in Minneapolis had more experience in the design and construction of such a large edifice than did Buffington. He placed the main entrance and elevation facing Hennepin while a magnificent porte-cochere for carriages was placed in the center of the Fifth Street elevation.
The first story was faced in white Joliet marble, while the second story was used as a transition between the marble of the first floor and the red brick body above. Buffington alternated layers of brick and marble that gave this floor an overly-busy, but fashionable striped pattern. The over-all design of the exterior could best be described as a large Queen Anne house that was topped with a highly picturesque-silhouetted roofline of chimneys, and gabled pavilions. Still, Buffington had the good sense to discipline the Hennepin elevation as symmetrical about the entry with corner pavilions.
The same could not be said about the Fifth St. facade that broke down as a poor attempt at symmetry because the gable roof at the corner of Hennepin Avenue and Fifth Street could not have a gable end for both streets. While the Hennepin elevation was symmetric, the Fifth St. elevation revealed only the exposed sloping roof on the left corner, while the corresponding right corner sprouted another gable end. The middle floors were grouped into smaller combinations of single and double windows by colossal pilasters and projected stringcourses. For good Victorian measure, Buffington threw in the requisite oriels, recesses, and balconies.
In plan, he lined the perimeter of the site with a double-loaded corridor of hotel rooms that left a 70′ x 90′ light court in the center, where he placed the hotel’s famous lobby on the ground floor. The lobby’s famous grand stair took guests to a mezzanine that wrapped around and completed the great space.
The lobby was spanned with a grid of iron girders that contained a skylight over the center of the room. These were supported by eight brick piers, two feet square, in which was located a round, ribbed cast-iron column (a detail very similar to how Jenney would construct the exterior piers in the Home Insurance Building over two years later). It was reported that the building’s construction contained over 1100 tons of iron. Buffington had used an iron frame to support the interior that was the first in the Twin Cities to be fireproofed with Peter Wight’s terra cotta tiles.
The girders also had attached to them an iron shelf that supported the brickwork of the light court’s exterior walls above. While designed and constructed prior to Root’s Rookery, there is insufficient evidence to prove either that the walls above were load bearing and simply rested on these transfer beams, or that Buffington had supported the masonry above on shelf angles at each floor using the same detail that Root used four years later in the Rookery (that Post had already pioneered the previous year in the New York Produce Exchange). Nonetheless, Buffington was no stranger to iron skeleton framed construction as early as 1882. Although it was completed in April 1884, its opening wasn’t celebrated until November 19, 1884, with the traditional late nineteenth century banquet of seven courses and endless speeches which took over five hours to complete. Buffington’s design even impressed a reporter from the Chicago Times, who rated him as the Twin Cities’ leading architectural figure in 1884:
“the one architect who more than any other has stamped the impress of his artistic personality upon the finest and most costly structures … (whose) abilities have pushed him to the front in the wild race of competition which is characteristic of the great Northwest, particularly so in Minneapolis, the city whose fortunes and those of a few of her enterprising, hard working citizens, of which number Mr. Buffington is one, are so inseparably connected.”
Sibling rivalry between the Twin Cities in this era was intense, to say the least. St. Paul, therefore, could not just stand by and watch its larger sister build the area’s first grand hotel without making an attempt to one-up it. St. Paul’s leading citizens looked around town for a suitably rich person to finance its hotel and settled upon asking Dennis Ryan, a local nobody who had gone to Montana and struck it rich in gold mining. He had only recently returned to his hometown when he was approached by the project’s leaders with a proposal to fund the projected hotel. Ryan consented (here is another example of a Midwestern businessman willing to donate his money, similar to Cincinnati’s Reuben Springer, that showed Chicago’s businessmen to have been tightfisted with their money during this period) with the caveat that the city had to raise a matching $200,000 on its own towards the project’s final cost that was done in no time.
A site was secured at the northeast corner of 6th and Robert Streets and Chicago architect James J. Egan was commissioned in April 1883 to design the projected seven-story building. Egan’s Victorian Gothic design made Buffington’s Queen Anne West Hotel look relatively chaste and well-mannered by comparison. Taking Gilbert Scott’s Midland Hotel, located in front of London’s St. Pancras Station, for its model, Egan chose a dated polychromatic palette of red brick and Ohio sandstone that would have been more in style in 1874, rather than its date of 1884. To top the design, Egan used a mansard roof that was regularly punctuated with gable dormers and pyramidal-roofed central and flanking pavilions. No expense was spared by Ryan’s great investment, on the exterior or in the interior, and, unfortunately, it very much looked the part. Nonetheless, when construction was completed in July 1885, railroad travelers would have the two alternative hotels to choose from when they arrived in the Twin Cities.
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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