It started late on Thanksgiving Day, 1982 — Nov. 25, to be exact. Forty years ago today.
Flames erupted from the vacant former Donaldson's Department Store building in downtown Minneapolis and quickly spread to the upper floors of the adjacent 16-story Northwestern National Bank building.
“It started in the Donaldson building, and the building was in a state of demolition,” then-Minneapolis deputy fire chief Larry Moskalik told MPR News at the time, from the scene along Nicollet Mall. “The fire spread straight up and went in the windows just immediately, and within just a very few minutes of the first alarm, we had about eight floors of the bank building going all at the same time.”
Hours later, the resulting blaze had destroyed an entire city block, including a historic bank headquarters, and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage — in what millions of Minnesotans remember as the biggest fire of their lifetimes.
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No one was killed, thanks in part to the holiday that had emptied out nearby office buildings and stores. But wind spread sparks around downtown and fanned the flames to the point where the heat was blowing out windows on the lower levels of the IDS Center across the street, threatening to spread to the rest of the central business district.
Firefighters had even considered imploding the flagship Dayton’s store to stop the fire’s march through downtown if it came to that. It did not.
The next morning, the fire had subsided, leaving the streets nearby littered with fire apparatus covered in ice and a smoldering ruin between Nicollet and Marquette avenues.
“You can see a lot of smoke,” said then-MPR News reporter Deborah Fisher, in a live report from the scene the next morning. “I am standing on the corner of Fifth and Nicollet looking at the IDS tower. There are apparently some fires still burning, in filing cabinets, that kind of thing, in the Northwest Bank building.”
Authorities said the fire was arson, and two boys were arrested and accused of starting the fire in the vacant department store building, though the charges reportedly were dropped.
The 1930 bank building was a total loss; it was imploded in 1984. The iconic Weatherball, a color-coded forecast signal visible from what was most of the Twin Cities at the time, was removed from the roof and later scrapped.
What is now known as the Wells Fargo Tower and the Gaviidae Common building were built on the site and opened in 1988 and 1989.