The Tower of History museum was orig­i­nally intended to function as a parish bell­tower. Nic Rowan | Col­legian.

Sault Sainte-Marie isn’t exactly a tourist des­ti­nation this time of year. The Saint Mary’s river is inhos­pitable to tourism (for the season) and the Kmart is closed (forever). To make matters worse, it gets late early out there: The Upper Peninsula’s pitch-black indus­trial decay is not worth a six-hour drive from Hillsdale.

Unless you visit the Tower of History. A 210-foot structure over­looking the Soo Locks and Canada, it looms in the darkness like a lone Soviet guard tower. Inside, it fea­tures a museum with exhi­bi­tions ded­i­cated to local pre-Columbian soci­eties as well as to the Jesuit mis­sion­aries who brought Chris­tianity to the Great Lakes region. Up top, an enclosed obser­vation deck offers a 360-view of Canada to the north, the UP to the south, and the Soo Locks directly below.

The Roman Catholic Church built the tower in 1968 next to the Holy Name of Mary proto-cathedral, the oldest parish in Michigan, founded by Father Jacques Mar­quette in 1668. The tower stands on the site of Marquette’s first log cabin and chapel. The parish orig­i­nally intended it as the bell­tower in a vast new church complex, Shrine of the Mis­sion­aries, built in Marquette’s honor.

The parish’s pastor, Father Robert Monroe, envi­sioned the new church as an oppor­tunity to draw more tourists up north, much like the recently com­pleted Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Mon­treal, Canada. So he hired the faddish church star­chitect Frank Kac­marcik to oversee the project’s art direction. Eager to interpret “the signs of the times,” — as the 1965 Vatican II pas­toral dec­la­ration “Gaudium et Spes” had instructed — Kac­marcik pro­posed a bell­tower that would serve as a paean to the fruits of Vatican II.

Kacmarcik’s final product reflects his long-standing asso­ci­ation with the Litur­gical Movement, a faction within the Church which gained promi­nence in the mid-20th century. It placed emphasis on the impor­tance of a ver­nacular mass and non­rep­re­sen­ta­tional archi­tecture in sacred buildings — with the end goal of turning wor­shipers away from dis­trac­tions (like stained glass windows and painted saints) and refo­cusing the faithful on the Word, and more impor­tantly, the Word made flesh in the Eucharist.

A noble endeavor, but at a great cost. Like many of the of con­crete ‘n’ steel behe­moths of the late ’60s, the com­pleted Tower of History fit the stark trends of the day, but its brutal con­crete exterior hid a mon­u­mental cost. Con­tinual changes in design — each one stripping away more artifice — sky­rocketed the cost of the tower from $50,000 to over $1 million.

But Monroe didn’t worry. In fact, he spared no expense in the tower’s con­struction. After all, since the early 1960s, tourism to Sault Ste. Marie had steadily increased — and besides, the Diocese of Mar­quette agreed to help defray the costs of the remaining buildings in the project. The parish would charge $1 to all vis­itors; the tower would pay itself off in a few years.

It didn’t.

Monroe’s plan couldn’t have pre­dicted the oil crisis that would sink Great Lakes’ economy in the 1970s and forever after. The loss of shipping and mining killed the eco­nomic via­bility of the entire Upper Peninsula, and it con­signed the Shrine of Mis­sion­aries project to per­manent incom­pletion.

Unable to afford the upkeep of the Tower of History — let alone its still-unpaid con­struction cost — the diocese sold it to the city in 1980. Since it was con­verted into a museum, its exhi­bi­tions have not been changed or updated. A portion of the pro­ceeds, however, still ben­efits the ever-dwin­dling parish pop­u­lation.

Looking back on the affair in 1984, Sault Ste. Marie’s director of his­torical sites Thomas Manse told the Detroit Free Press the tower rep­re­sents tragic lack of fore­sight in a com­munity whose leaders didn’t know how to take care of their people.

“Some people have described the tower as nothing more than a white ele­phant,” he said. “But it hurts me to hear people talk that way because the people who built it had good inten­tions.”    

Good inten­tions, for sure. But the Tower of History wasn’t a total failure. It suc­cess­fully inter­preted the signs of the times: poor guidance in Church leaders.