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State Fair rival: The Minneapolis Industrial Exposition

Minneapolis city leaders created their industrial fair, or exposition, to rival St. Paul’s agricultural one.

Advertisement for the first Industrial Exposition with image of new building, 1886.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Built in less than a year, the Industrial Exposition Building in Minneapolis housed the city’s first Industrial Exposition in 1886 and the Republican National Convention of 1892. It dominated the Mississippi riverbank east of St. Anthony Falls for decades.

The idea for an exposition in Minneapolis arose in August 1885, when it became known that St. Paul had secured the permanent home of the Minnesota State Fair. Prominent citizens of Minneapolis such as Minneapolis Tribune owner Alden Blethen felt slighted, and an open meeting was called to gauge public support for an annual Minneapolis industrial fair, or exposition, to rival St. Paul’s agricultural one.

The public liked the idea. Supporters raised funds throughout the fall of 1885 and reached their goal of $250,000 on December 15. The Industrial Exposition Association was incorporated in January 1886 and the site of the Winslow Hotel was chosen for the new, permanent Industrial Exposition Building. The Winslow, one of the earliest hotels in the region, was torn down to make way for the new structure.

Many architects, including Leroy Sunderland Buffington, submitted designs for the building, but the firm of Isaac Hodgson and Son was chosen. The cornerstone of the Industrial Exposition Building was laid with fanfare on May 29, 1886, during a public ceremony attended by more than five thousand people.

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The first exposition in the building was scheduled for August 1886. Some doubted the structure would be ready in time, but workers labored through the summer and the building was done on schedule. The main section of the building was just three stories high, but the tower at the building’s northwest corner, which featured a public observation deck, rose 240 feet into the air, making the Industrial Exposition Building the tallest structure in Minneapolis at the time.

On August 23, 1886, there was a grand celebration for the opening of the new building and its first exposition. Local dignitaries such as Senator Cushman K. Davis and Archbishop John Ireland spoke at the dedication. US President Grover Cleveland and his wife Frances could not attend. However, they sent a congratulatory telegram that was read publicly, and then in a dramatic moment, Mrs. Cleveland touched a special button in her New York location that started all of the machinery in the building.

Thousands of people attended the fair on its first day and each day of its first run, through October 2. The fair averaged 8,000 tickets sold per day, but because free passes also were distributed, daily attendance may have been as high as 15,000. The latest technology and industrial developments were on display, as were the fine arts, with a large gallery set aside for paintings and sculptures acquired in Europe and New York.

In its first year, the exposition was a financial and popular success, and in 1887, attendance and revenue held steady. But in the following years, excitement lessened and the exposition began to lose money. Minneapolis could not have attracted the Republican National Convention of 1892 without the Industrial Exposition Building, but the convention was not enough to halt the exposition’s decline. By 1893, exhibitors had evaporated and the fair had fallen apart.

In 1896, Thomas B. Janney bought the building at public auction for $25,000, a fraction of what it cost to build. For the next seven years, the space was used sporadically as a performance venue. It hosted the first concerts of what later became the Minnesota Orchestra and welcomed famous musicians and performers including Johann Strauss and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In 1903, Marion Savage, owner of race horse Dan Patch, bought the building and turned it into the International Stock Food Company.

In the 1930s, the building became a mail-order facility where clerks traveled across the large interior spaces on roller skates. The building’s final owner, the Coca-Cola Company, tore it down in 1940 to make room for a new bottling plant, leaving just the northwest tower. The tower stood for a few more years as a remembrance of what was once one of the most prominent buildings in the city.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.