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The Story Behind St. Paul Skyline's Most Recognizable Numeral

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- It's one of the most iconic signs in our state, and if you're driving through St. Paul you can't miss the big, red numeral on top of the First National Bank building.

In this week's Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen goes to the top of "The 1st" for a history lesson.

The stately, can't miss building that towers over Minnesota Street is nostalgic up and down, from the bank vaults in the basement to one of the oldest skyways in North America. But it's at the very top, 32 floors up, where a recognizable beacon of red makes its stand.

1st National Bank sign
(credit: CBS)

"This is the jewel in the crown if you will. It's 403 feet up off the sidewalks," said Rick Rossi.

The sign tower rises another 100 feet from the rooftop.

Rossi is with Madison Equities. They are the caretakers for the building, the sign, and the history. The Merchants Bank building opened in 1916. Fifteen years later, the First National Bank Building was built next to it, connected by that famous skyway.

"Within a year or two of the opening of the building they put the number '1' sign up there with the structure that you see today," said Rossi.

It was a marketing ploy that worked. When the lights went out on the three-sided sign during the energy crisis of the '70s and '80s, people took notice. And the bank president heard about it.

"He said that he fielded more calls about the sign being off in the '70s and early '80s than he did about just about any other topic," said Dave Wickre, assistant property manager.

Like many of his friends, growing up Wickre used the sign as a compass.

"When I was younger and I was exploring downtown, this is how I found my way around," he said, musing about what would've happened if it didn't exist. "I probably would be [still wandering around.]"

After it was damaged in a storm five years ago the sign was converted from Depression-era neon lighting to LED lights. Now it shines from dusk until midnight. Pilots have reported seeing it from nearly 100 miles away.

"It's a nice place to go to step back from the day," said Wickre.

From the vantage point, your 360-degree view includes the Capitol, the Cathedral, Minneapolis and the Mississippi.

"That's pretty dang far," said Burretta Pratt, Ramsey County resident. "That's cool how they still have that '1' up there. They better not take it down."

It's a sentiment shared by many. Perhaps it's a sign that this landmark really is number one.

"They don't hesitate to give us a call if there is something wrong with the sign. So they feel real - somewhat of an ownership and a belonging to St. Paul. We hope to have the sign lit for many years to come. It really signifies home to a lot of people," said Rossi.

When the First National Bank building was built in the early 1930s, it had to compete with the Empire State building in New York for materials. Thanks to the sign, it was the tallest building in St. Paul until 1986. Today a number of businesses rent out space inside the building.

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