Sault Sainte Marie isn’t just the oldest city in Michigan – it’s the third oldest city in the United States. Founded by Father Jacques Marquette in 1668 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – right across from Canada – it blossomed as a fur-trading hub and later as a substantial commercial shipping port. Today, it’s known mainly for its legendary locks, built and rebuilt over the decades by the American government so the huge lakers carrying ore and other raw materials could pass safely through the treacherous rapids of Saint Marys River and onward to chilly Lake Huron and steely, industrial Detroit.
With a population of about 14,000, Sault Ste. Marie probably isn’t the first place you’d pick if you were in search avant-garde architecture. It looks like just about any older Midwestern town. Brick buildings with faded signs and single-family homes rule the roost.
Yet just east of downtown Sault Ste. Marie is probably one of the more bizarre brutalist structures you’re likely to ever encounter, the ominously named and thoroughly gray and concrete Tower of History. Originally funded, no less, by the Roman Catholic Church. Oh, and intended, believe it or not, as a bell tower.
Designed by devout Catholic and college educated architect Frank Kacmarcik, the lofty Shrine of the Missionaries was to be the centerpiece for a modern church and community center, an ambitious project completely out of step with its decade of origin, the swinging and hedonistic sixties. The days of church steeple skylines, you see, had long since passed, the office building acting as the new axis mundi of urban architecture. Kacmarcik’s Shrine of the Missionaries was like Michigan’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, one last bold monument faith.
At a lofty height of 21 stories, Kacmarcik’s completed bell tower dominates the Sault Ste. Marie skyline, its three poured concrete pillars symbolically representing the three crosses present at Jesus’ crucifixion. Clashing against its classic American backdrop, it beckons to visitors, promises something different. The future.
Kacmarcik wasn’t able to drum up enough money to complete the rest of his project, and eventually the Catholic Church gave the tower away to Le Sault de Sainte Marie Historical Sites (or, more simply, Sault Historic Sites), Kacmarcik’s blueprints lost and forgotten. Tastes had moved on, and practicalities took precedence.
It wasn’t all bad, however. Sault Historic Sites now runs the rechristened Tower of History as a public museum, open 7 days week, so the pious and secular alike can enjoy it whenever they please. Though plopping an American flag on top of the crucifix pillar was indeed a questionable decision, beggars can’t be choosers, right?
It’s tempting to view the Tower of History as a glorified observation deck. The first floor houses small exhibits on local history and Ojibwe culture, and the tour guide is happy play the angle up. But I suggest ignoring thay and treating the tower like it was, as Kacmarcik designed, the Shrine of the Missionaries, when it’s goal was to communicate the “mission of man”.
For one, don’t take the elevator. Walk up the dimly lit spiral stairway, 12 steps to each floor, until you’re short of breath. Take in the unadorned concrete walls surrounding you, the concrete below your feet, all sculpted artfully into a magnificent building, a grand container of air. The textures, the rust, the permanence.
Brutalism got its name from the French term for raw concrete, béton brut, the preferred mode of construction of formerly trendy modernist French architect Le Corbusier, and the Tower of History takes a purist approach to the form. By the time you’ve reached the top and walk into the bright sunshine, the natural world, it’s a revelation. All around you are the heavens, the city, the water. Watch for a moment as the cars drive over the bridge, down the street, and into the garages. Watch the kids play soccer in the field, the lonely bicyclist, the tourists. Glimpse breathlessly as the rapids of St. Mary rush on beyond the locks, as Jaques Marquette himself once witnessed it.
It’s almost enough to believe.