The Tribune Building Fire of 1889 was the worst blaze in the young city’s history. Seven stories, gutted. Seven men, dead. Five newspapers crippled at a stroke: it wasn’t just the Tribune that lived there, but four other journals, including the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ Minneapolis office.

A writer dropped a butt, perhaps. A pressman tossed an oily rag and it landed on a radiator. Something caught. Fire bloomed. Sometime after 10 PM James Igoe, a telegraph operator in the Tribune office, broke into the line with a code that made all the other operators stop and listen.

“There’s a fire on the third floor of the Tribune building,” he tapped. “And I’m on the seventh.”

Before the night was done one man would attempt to escape by hanging on a firehose; he fell to his death. Another died on a fire escape, its heated metal too torrid to touch. One man shot himself, the story has it. Igoe, who sent out the wireless message, died in the blaze. The floors collapsed and the walls crumbled, but the newspapermen who got out promptly assembled the next day’s edition, published with the help of the Globe newspaper in St. Paul. The Daily Tribune lived up to its name.

The building, though, was dead.

While the bricks cooled, investors assembled to plan its replacement. Of course there would be another building - this was prime real estate, Fourth and Marquette. The new building would be better, but not another flashy tower thrown up fast. It would be fireproof. It would be called - of course - the Phoenix.

Nowadays you hear Phoenix, you think Arizona. But in 1891 the cultural reference was not only obvious, but good marketing. The bird that rose from the fire. The replacement looked like the old Tribune building, with some changes: instead of a roof populated with pointless ornamentation, it was flat, because flat was modern. And modern meant fireproof.

Fireproof, in those days, was a bit like calling a ship unsinkable. They didn’t have the fire-suppression systems we take for granted. Elevator shafts fed flames with a ready supply of oxygen and a means of travel between floors. Fireproof meant they used materials that would put up a fight. Fireproof meant you had a better chance if some idiot on the fourth floor tapped out his pipe in the wastebasket.

Three years after the Tribune crumbled, the Phoenix was finished. It cost a cool half-million. It was one of the tallest buildings in town, for a while, and reflected a restrained sophistication in office-tower architecture inherited from the skyscraper boom in Chicago and New York. The bottom two floors were clad in white stone, with square broad plate-glass windows on the second floor - a rational, functional style that replaced the romantically Romanesque arches of the Tribune building.

For the investors, a success. For architects who knew what was possible? A snooze.

Just a few years earlier, the First National Bank building on Nicollet had redefined what skyscrapers could be. Unlike the heavy masonry of the Masonic Temple, or the busybody facade of the West Hotel, the First was light and glass. The steel frame construction method (patented by the Father of the Skyscraper, local lad Leroy Buffington) did away with thick load-bearing walls. Less stone meant more room for glass. More glass meant buildings that floated and shone.

The Phoenix did neither. The Phoenix was a machine for collecting rent.