When it opened at the corner of Marquette Avenue and Fifth Street in 1915, the Soo Line-First National Bank Building (also known as the 501 Building) was the tallest skyscraper in Minneapolis and also among the most elegant. It replaced a much smaller building that the bank had constructed just eight years earlier in what cannot be regarded as a brilliant example of planning ahead.
Unlike downtown's dark-toned Victorian-era buildings, the new skyscraper sported a gleaming skin of white terra cotta adorned with balconies, consoles, quoins, pediments and other Renaissance Revival-style paraphernalia, all crowned by an emphatic cornice. An ornate corner clock (still functioning) completed the composition.
The building's designer, New York architect Robert W. Gibson, was an old hand at the Beaux Arts brand of monumental classicism. His surviving work in New York includes Cartier's lavish Fifth Avenue Boutique, originally built in 1905 as a Vanderbilt family mansion. The Soo Line-First National Bank Building isn't quite up to Cartier's deluxe standards, but it's in the same family as many New York skyscrapers of the time.
As designed, the U-shaped, nineteen-story building included a magnificent second-floor banking hall. Lit by tall arched windows on three sides, the twenty-foot-high hall sported plenty of marble and mahogany, leaving little doubt as to who had the money. Today, with ATM machines everywhere, grand banking halls are an all-but-extinct architectural species.
The building's hegemony atop the Minneapolis skyline lasted until 1929, when the Foshay and Rand towers soared well above it. Still, the building continued to serve its purpose until about 1960, when the First National Bank (US Bancorp) moved into a new skyscraper next door. Afterwards, the old building's lower floors were remodeled, none too delicately, inside and out. The banking hall disappeared, its grand expanse subdivided into offices, while the arched windows gave way to a combination of small square openings and louvers. These changes robbed the building of its most graceful elements. The upper facades, however, are intact, and the building—designated by the city as a historic site—remains Minneapolis's best example of the Beaux Arts skyscraper.
First National Bank (US Bancorp) moves out of the Soo Line-First National Bank Building about 1960, after which the building is significantly remodeled, inside and out.