Our search for topics for the History Note is often an entertaining trip back in time. It’s often cause to reflect on the longtime role of middle-class and wealthy women in helping the earliest disability service groups. Women who didn’t have to work outside of the home often joined clubs focused on civic betterment, benevolent efforts, philanthropy and education.
Our History Note has described how specific disability service organizations arose from the work of such clubs, or how early organizations were the beneficiaries of the clubs’ work. History seldom tells us why a particular group may have focused on a specific disability group as its cause. Did someone have a close friend with hearing disabilities? Did someone’s child use a wheelchair or crutches to get around? Those details have all too often been lost in the mists of time.
Women eagerly threw themselves into such fundraising and charity work. In describing their good deeds, we cringe today to read patronizing language and calls for pity for the poor souls being helped.
The need for fundraising for disability service organizations and groups hasn’t changed over the decades. What’s noteworthy is how fundraising itself has evolved. The newspaper women’s sections were often filled with vivid descriptions of charity luncheons and fashion shows, right down to the color and type of flowers in the centerpieces.
What may raise eyebrows for readers is this event in April 1933, when the Minneapolis Society for the Blind and Council of Jewish Women announced the opening of the “famous” Foshay Tower apartment suite for public tours. A Minneapolis Star picture showed organization representatives looking at the $15,000 master bathroom, with its marble walls and gold-plated faucets. The article headline boasted of the bathroom features.
Costs for tours were 25 cents evenings, Saturdays and Sundays and 50 cents weekday afternoons. “Proceeds will go for charitable work of the Society for the Blind,” the newspaper article noted.
Other charities and groups helped with the tours, including the Junior League, Kiwanis Club, Civic and Commerce Association, Minnesota State Sunshine Society, League of Catholic Women, Council of Jewish Women and the Minneapolis Woman’s Club.
The 27th floor apartment, which had a $100,000 price tag, had its “luxurious” furniture and art on display. Visitors could also go to the tower’s observation deck and get a view of Minneapolis.
It seems ironic that people who had visual disabilities would be unable to enjoy the spectacle of a fine apartment and beautiful views. The timing of tours of opulence also seems insensitive today, when so many people suffered during the Great Depression.
The suite was designed by Wilbur Foshay, whose meteoric financial career crumbled under the weight of the Great Depression. At the time of the tours, Foshay faced mail fraud charges.
Foshay, who made his fortune in utilities, planned to house his business enterprises and himself in his namesake tower. He invited 25,000 guests to the dedication ceremony in 1929 and gave each a gold pocket watch.
Weeks later, the Foshay business empire went into receivership. Foshay never lived in his beautiful suite.
The 32-story building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is hailed as a fine example of Art Deco architecture. It is considered to be Minneapolis’ first skyscraper. It is now the W Hotel – Minneapolis.
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org