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.
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.