Saint Paul Living History by Decade: 1860 to the Present

Have you ever been in a place — a restaurant, home,  office, or bar — and thought, “wow, it’s just like being back in time?”

Some establishments seem chronologically dislodged. The old Nye’s Polonaise Room was like that, a time capsule of the 1970s that finally met its end last year. Saint Paul, too, is full of such places, small bits of the past that together recreate the cold march of progress.

A distinction: I’m not talking simply about old buildings, places whose exteriors match a particular date. No, I’m talking about places where history is still alive, places whose uses, rhythms, and cultures still cling to some ancien regime, where lost practices of the everyday remain alive, if possibly transmuted. Places where the past isn’t just a museum display, but an actual experience.

Here’s the question: which places in Saint Paul best reflect different decades of living history?

The Still-Kickin' Decades of Saint Paul

1860s - The Stone Saloon

[Rear of the Stone Saloon, currently being restored.]
This is an 1857 lager beer saloon that is currently being painstakingly restored. It should open by next summer and, when it does, you’ll be able to actually legitimately experience what it was like in the 1860s to drink beer in small wooden room in then-nascent Saint Paul!

1870s - Forepaughs Restaurant

This is a early 1870s French-revival mansion off Irvine Park, supposedly haunted by the ghost of a maid who hung herself in the 1880s. Today it’s a restaurant, but if you sidle up to the bar or sit in front of one of the many fireplaces, you get a sense for what the place might have been like back in the Victorian era.

[Forepaughs' carriage entrance.]

1880s - Spot Bar

[The old wood walls of The Spot.]
The oldest continually operating bar in Saint Paul claims to date to 1885, and today still has the feel of the 19th century. While a lot has changed in the intervening century and a third — for example, there used to be an organ in the back, where an organist would play tunes and patrons would sing along — a lot has remained the same. You still have guys sitting around drinking all day, an occasional weekend vintage apparel sale, sometimes potluck sloppy joes, and they serve plenty of whiskey above a half-finished basement cellar.

1890s - W. A. Frost

This great restaurant and bar is housed in the 1889 glorious Dacotah Buidling. While the original W.A. Frost was a dry goods general store, and today’s fancy dining experience probably doesn’t reflect the original use of the building, the trappings and accouterments of hanging out in the bar or wonderful basement lounge does feel a bit like being back in the midst of Saint Paul’s boom decades at the end of the 19th century.

[An ad for W.A. Frost c. 1893.]

1900s - The State Capitol

[Old colorized postcard of the Capitol showing the old neighborhood.]
This building, currently in the final throes of its extensive restoration, is pretty much used for the same purposes that it had when it was built in 1904. Some things have changed — for example, every type of conceivable phone — but many other things retain exactly their use and luster from the first decade of the Twentieth century. (For example, racist paintings.) Walking up the marble steps, now bowed from the subtle weight of a million fancy shoes, is to trace the steps of a century of Minnesota’s leaders.

1910s - Wabasha Street Caves

[The Caves entrance in autumn.]
If you can find your way into these caves for an event or a tour, set in the bluffs of the West Side, you will feel the presence of generations who’ve come before you. The city’s caves are surely the city's oldest useful structures, and this one was originally a mushroom-growing operation before becoming a nightclub and then speakeasy in the early 20th century.

1920s - Original Coney Island

This semi-mothballed diner and bar is half-housed in the oldest commercial building in either downtown. It dates to 1923, and what’s more, has been completely preserved (as if in amber) since it shut down in the 1990s. It’s quite literally a time capsule, as it’s only open about once or twice a year. If you get a chance to get a beer (or a coney dog!) at the OCI, don’t pass it up. You’ll be stepping back in time.

[Inside the Original Coney Island on a rare business day.]

1930s - Yarusso’s

[Painting of Swede Hollow on the wall at Yarusso's.]
This Railroad Island Italian restaurant and cultural institution on Payne Avenue doesn’t seem to have changed much since it opened in 1933, in the midst of the depression. The other day, a waiter who’d worked there 53 years (!) give me a plate of “spicy rav(ioli)” on the house, and I pictured generations of hungry people coming into Yarusso’s and getting a free meatball. The whole of Railroad Island is a bit anachronistic, but Yarusso’s especially so.

1940s - Mickey’s Diner

This vintage railroad car diner  hasn’t even closed since it opened in 1939. They accept credit cards now, and I think they do change out their cooking oil every few years. But otherwise, this is as close as you’ll ever get to having World War Two-era food.

(Also note: Serlin's Café would have been perfect for 40s living history too. Plus the Turf Club actually says "best remnant of the 40s" on the sign.)

[Buncha hippies outside Mickey's during the RNC.]

1950s - Porky’s Drive-in (Defunct) / The Gopher Bar

[George, that old asshole, at the Gopher.]
Porky’s dated to 1953 and would have been perfect, but it's gone now. Places like Snuffy’s Malt Shop are 1980s re-creations of the 50s’ diner, back when 50s nostalgia was really popular. (See also, Back to the Future.)

My nomination for the best 50s-era living history remnant is The Gopher Bar, actually, a politically problematic coney-dog-slinging downtown dive that dates to 1949. It hasn’t changed much since it opened, the hot dogs certainly are the same. If you’re wondering what it was like to walk into an old hole-in-the-wall sixty years ago, uncomfortable feelings and all, step through their un-glamorous door plastered with anti-government stickers.

1960s - Rice Street Sears

This building is still doing what it was designed to do when it was designed and built in 1962 by Victor Gruen, serve as an all-encompassing store for everything. It’s difficult-but-possible to drive up, squint, and imagine what the store might have looked like when it was brand new and state-of-the-art, when it represented the ultimate retail fantasy, when its parking lot might have been full of fins and chrome. Today’s retail experience must be a pale shadow of that glorious time.

[The modernist Rice Street Sears and its massive parking lot.]

1970s - Red’s Savoy Pizza

[The anti-car barrier outside Savoy Inn.]
Walking into Red’s, which was founded in the mid-1960s, does feel like what I imagine the 70s to have been, all weird color palettes and urban dystopian vibe. I’m sure the pizza hasn’t changed much, either, nor have the sometimes-questionable bar conversations about East Side crime or the struggling economy.

1980s - Café Latté

I remember going to this amazing café in an “urban mall” (how 1980s!) back in the day when it was new, before Starbucks when the word “latté” was really exotic. To take a tray with a piece of cake, a coffee, and a Oblaten wafer up the very-80s staircase onto the terrace just screams “Miami Vice” to me. And in the best of Saint Paul fashion, the place hasn’t changed much. They muted their color palette a bit and added a wine bar in the rear, but other than that it’s pretty much the same.

[Top-down view of the counter at Café Latté, with the 80s staircase in the background.]

1990s - Galtier Plaza (Faces on Mears)

[The very-90s courtyard outside Faces on Mears.]
Speaking of urban malls, Saint Paul’s Galtier Plaza still houses a restaurant in the midst of the failed trappings of the old downtown stab at retail pizazz. Despite a few different remodeling attempts, the keynote restaurant, now called Faces, still has a 90s feel. Maybe its the nearby food court or large windows? If retro-trends are any indication, the 90s are going to be cool again soon, and maybe Galtier and the 1990s will become the next big thing in Lowertown, instead of the whole 1890s that’s happening these days?

2000s - Kinkaid’s

The 2000s are still sort of a blank slate. If we were in Minneapolis, I would have said that Block E was the ultimate in 2000s-era living history.

In Saint Paul, it has to be the much-less-ill-fated Lawson Commons building, and the anchor restaurant Kinkaid's might be the classic example. I’ve never been there, to be honest.

2010s - Saint Dinette?

I went to Saint Dinette the other day and it seems like a cutting-edge trend. When we look back and ask ourselves, years from now, what were the 2010s all about, maybe this place, with its wide open feeling and mix of low- and high-brow foodie culture, might be just the thing.

[The Lawson Building.]

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