Saint Paul's Enduring #flagcolorgate Mystery Explained

[From my big Strib article on the flag.]
Like it or not the Saint Paul flag is on the map of vital and trending city flags. Much like the city itself, the Saint Paul flag is on the move!

Setting aside the justifiable hand-wringing over proper flag design principles (aka. vexilology), I believe the Saint Paul flag is above average. What's more, the Saint Paul flag has a lovely historical pedigree filled with intrigue, mystery*, and changing sensibilities.

* more on this in a moment!

tl;dr: I just got some new flags in stock. They're on sale at a new low low price!

Buy yours today!

For more details about the flag's mysterious history, continue reading...

The #flagcolorgate conspiracy

So the Saint Paul flag, the best official city flag in Minnesota, is good enough to be a useful compelling civic symbol for a great little city that could surely use one, particularly in this day and age when governments at nearly all levels face a crisis of urbanism. That’s why I remain an enthusiastic champion of the three-colored cloth, and when I look out my kitchen window and see my very own sun-dapped Saint Paul flag flapping in the wind, I’m happy with my city and proud of my Saint Paul flag.

And yet, the Saint Paul flag remains chock full of mystery. For example, who was Gladys Milttle and what became of her? Why are there so many versions of the flag? What happened to the original one? Why is there a stripe-less version on a pole in city hall? Who added the text and when? What font should it be?

But no mystery lurks greater within the pantheon of Saint Paul flag mysteries than the great conundrum that is #flagcolorgate.

I’ll let the tweets speak for themselves.

Joe Alton, Saint Paul flag skeptic and pillar of the community, gave the first pull on the dangling thread that became #flagcolorgate. And little by little, the sense of ease and certainty that had surrounded the Saint Paul flag for so many months began to unravel.

Witness some of unanswered questions

The unsolved mysteries:
  • Was the original star blue or gold?
  • If the original star was gold, did that mean that the rest of the flag’s colors might have been different as well?
  • If the star was gold, as Alton perhaps alleges, who changed the color and why?
  • And what did Gladys Mittle have to do with it?
  • And most importantly, what side should the dome be on?

The mystery was dark and it sucked in people from all over Saint Paul. Nobody was spared, not even executive directors of regional energy nonprofits. The mystery of #flagcolorgate knew no bottom.

So what was to be done? The only clue was one grainy photo of Gladys Mittle and an unknown accomplice (Who was the second woman?) holding the original flag.

The photo quality is poor, and much like the “white and gold vs. blue and black dress” internet meme of 2015, the more you stared at the photograph of the original flag, the harder it seemed to discern its true colors.

[Yellow on gold flag or blue on black flag?]

Where could any Saint Paulite go from here?

I'd quickly reached my sleuthing limits. The Minnesota Historical Society did not seem to be much help and, like the sealed-up caves underneath the abandoned Highland Park Ford factory, I felt empty inside.

It was into that breach that our first hero emerged.

The first break in the case

[Grainy photographs of allegedly existing flags from historical archives.]
Enter Rob Spence, vexilological purist, soccer coach, and peerless flag investigator.

On his own accord, and following the train of #flagcolorgate, Spence delved into the various historical achieves that Saint Paul has to offer. First he went to the Historical Society, perched on its marble’d hill between the twin domes of the Cathedral and the Capitol, and unearthed flags from the archives.

Then Spence went likewise to the Ramsey County Historical Society and found more information on the flag and its murky origins.

Here’s what was uncovered:

[The only known copy of Spence's barely discernable notes.]

[The original 1931 minutes of the Retail Department of the Association of Commerce, ratifying the flag contest.]

[The 1932 minutes of the same association, approving the winer of the flag contest.]

[A 1965 article with  the last known photograph of (ONE OF????) the "original" flag(s). It has SINCE DISAPPEARED!]

[The infamous 1972 "Claybourne Memo".]

[Flag history summary document from 1997.]

Key points: the oldest remaining version flag dates to the late 1940s, over ten years after the original. Furthermore, the last remnant copy is made of wool bunting, NOT SILK, meaning that it is not the original Mittle flag.

But even that flag has been lost!

Mysteries remaining:

  • When was the text added to the flag? 
  • Who is Richard Cady of Inver Grove Heights, and is he really a kilt maker?
  • And what font was on the ’65 flag “consigned to history”? When did the font change to Windsor?
  • If the flag was “consigned to history”, where is it?
  • And last but definitely not least, what became of the Mittle flag? 
  • What color was the star?

Lost in the chamber of secrets

[What font is that? What became of the so-called "second flag"?]
In search of the missing flag, which might have the answers to some of these mysteries, I reached out to a friend at the Chamber of Commerce. After all, they original sponsored the flag contest back in the 1930s (when they were known as the  Retail Association). If anyone had the old flag, surely it was they!

Alas, the "Chamber of secrets" had moved locations a few years ago, and carefully gone through all of their archival material. There was not giant warehouse like in the end of the Raiders of the Lost Ark. There was no flag to be found amongst the boxes of pamphlets.

The mystery seemed to reach an impasse.

[It me.]
Once more, #flagcolorgate was proving unsolvable. Images of Gladys Mittle haunted my restless sleep. The dreadful gold stripe-on-blue backing photonegative flag fluttered in my dreams. Nothing I’d seen could debunk the notion of #flagcolorate, and it seemed like the good citizens of Saint Paul would never know the raw truth, hidden so deeply underneath the decades of dust and forgotten hopes. I had dived into the #flagcolorgate mystery, and there was no bottom.

But like any good investigator, I rose again to think over the facts before me. I took out my notes and re-tooled my mind.

Joe Alton's tweet kept ringing in my ears:

One key question kept nagging at me. Where had the description of the “gold star” come from?

It was right there from the beginning, on the flyer in the mayor’s office where I’d first discovered the basic facts about the Saint Paul flag, oh so many years ago.

I dug out my old photograph and looked again. and then it hit me. Right in front of my nose, there was a name.

Of course! The central library!

Gingerly, I picked up the phone and dialed the number. I asked for Ron Paulson. I had no idea if he was dead or alive, or if he had ever existed. I was betting that nobody at the library would even know is name.

“Ron Paulson? Sure. He’s away today, but he’ll be back at the desk tomorrow,” said the cheerful librarian. “Just call again in the afternoon.”

What luck! The man who might have all the answers existed after all!

The next day couldn’t come fast enough, and I spent the afternoon at the Rice / Arlington Batting Cage trying to smash my softball-sized #flagcolorgate anxieties into the netting of the cages.

Finally, the dreaded day arrived and I again rang the Latimer Library. Ronald Paulson picked up. He was helpful, cheerful, and right away started filling in the historical blanks. I asked him all kinds of questions, and then he offered me the gold mine. Within an hour of the call, Paulson forwarded me a pair of .tiff files full of a repository of Saint Paul flag knowledge.

Here’s what I found out...

First, the 1931 articles about the initial flag contest. These don't have any details about the gold or red star, but do firmly document the flag's historical provenance:

Second, here are the articles about Mittle's flag. While these do not firmly clear up the gold star / grassy knoll, they do clarify the mystery of the colors:

And there are some more mentions of the flag in the subsequent years:

[A version of the Saint Paul flag in 1961, with a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SANS SERIF FONT!]

[The mystery of the Saint Paul flag dates at least to this 1963 Oliver Towne article...]

The conclusion?

Well, I dare say that the mystery of #flagcolorgate is not yet closed. There are things we've learned about the flag, answers that have only raised more questions.

At last, we know more about Gladys Mittle, for example, how she was so greatly influenced by Sister Theresa, or that she enjoyed posing with the flag.

One thing is clear today that wasn't clear a month ago. It seems that blue-on-yellow was always the original flag's color. It's stated clearly in the 1932 article that there were "three equal sized stripes, the two outer ones a yellowish gold and the center one blue."

And yet the other details remain murky. The star continues to elude me, as do the ever-changing fonts -- a cardinal sin of flag design, no less! -- that appeared insecurely on the flag and have not yet gone away.

Just like the grassy knoll, I fear we may never know the true color of Mittle's star. Was it "gold on yellow"?

It does not appear to be red, that's for sure, as the photograph at right clearly shows... It might be blue, but what shade of blue?

Then, as now, Gladys Mittle remains cloaked in mystery.

In short, no matter what color the star originally was, today it's a lovely blueish hue that contrasts perfectly with the yellow background.

So get your Saint Paul flag today! Share your love of Saint Paul and your respect for #flagcolorgate and all its profound mystery.


Twin City Shop Windows #17


 [North Minneapolis.]

 [River Falls, WI.]

 [Frogtown, Saint Paul.]

 [Northeast, Minneapolis.]

 [West 7th, Saint Paul.]

 [North Loop, Minneapolis.]

[East Lake Street, Minneapolis.]


Notes from the Old Nicollet Walk

[Old Nicollet in 1950.]
I was first struck by this part of the city when I first came across it many years ago, around the year 2000. I remember walking into the "Market BBQ", a self-proclaimed legendary Minneapolis restaurant for 40 years...

Well, if it was so famous, how come I'd never heard of it?

Since then I've always been curious about this part of the city that seems so off-the-radar of the mainstream, so full of old remnants of the built environment, despite being a stone's throw from downtown.

With that idea in mind, I put together a tour. The Old Nicollet Walk (defined as between Grant Street and Franklin Avenue) this sprinter was a fun time for me, and more than most of the tours I put together, an exploration. I didn't quite know the story of this part of the street, and I hoped that in doing research for the walk and bringing a group of people together, I might learn about this part of the city that had always intrigued me.

Here are some themes that emerged. Thanks to everyone who came out and joined me on this exploration of a fast-vanishing and often misunderstood Minneapolis neighborhood.

Tourists and hostility

[The Convention Center is a wall around the neighborhood.]
One theme that came out of the walk was how "tourist downtown" was actively hostile to this part of the city, in both subtle passive design and active ways.

During the tour, introducing "Old Nicollet," I shared my theory why so many of the restaurants here seemed to me to be lost in time and off the radar. Eat Street, the north Loop, hell lots of other parts of south Minneapolis all seemed like places that I heard about regularly in conversation, that made lists of "places to go," but this stretch of Nicollet was never mentioned by anyone I knew. It was almost like a blind spot, Minneapolis downtown lacunae, the very essence of a marginal space crammed between the freeway and the edge of downtown.

My theory had been that it catered primarily to downtown tourists, and that's why I didn't know much about it. Thus the weird old restaurants like Pings, the (now shuttered) Japanese-Canadian place, Market BBQ, (shuttered) Jerusalem, etc.

But then one of the participants described a story they’d heard about downtown. At the big tourist hotels, the concierge explicitly tell visitors not to walk south on Nicollet Avenue, to go instead north along the “mall” area. As a result, this strange segment of Old Nicollet received relatively few downtown visitors, Jay Leno excepted.

Theory debunked.

Similarly, the massive multi-super-block Convention Center offers huge featureless blank walls along its south and western sides. All the doorways, public spaces, and activity are focused on the north, and instead of serving as an amenity for the Old Nicollet area, it detracts from the public spaces and social life of the neighborhood.

Jarring Disjunctures

[There's a massive metered parking lot here b/c of a street expansion / realignment.]
The "edge of downtown" is a strange concept, because if you go back and look at the photos and maps of the mid-century Minneapolis, there were no "edges" to downtown. Instead of hard lines, downtown slowly dissolved, transforming into a residential area as you got a few miles out. Back then, the city decreased in density gradually like a classic gradient -- often called the "urban transect." A hundred years ago, if you walked from the center of downtown into one of the residential neighborhoods around it you would find a gradual decrease in density and intensity.

Today, most of the middle ground along that spectrum has been demolished and replaced with vacant, freeway, or low-density spaces. (Stephens Square and Elliot Park are notable exceptions.) The vacant lots, apartment buildings, freeways, huge walls, and parking lots form a strange landscape within which oddities like the old Music Box Theater (formerly Loring Theater, currently a weird church from Eden Prairie) and 80s-era faded restaurants like Ping’s still cling on within the Minneapolis landscape.

[Bollards and freeways.]

Cultural Margins as Refuge

At the same time, the very isolation and marginalization of this part of the city has been, for many people over the years , a feature and not a bug. Because it is so isolated and economically neglected, what’s left of this part of the city has remained affordable and fine grained. Lots of important urban communities thrive in the margins in neighborhoods like this.

Most notably for this part of town, so close to Loring Park, Minneapolis’ crucial GBLT community has been centered here for generations. The 19 Bar, Minneapolis’ finest dingy gay bar, is a block away.

And two women who came on the tour shared a story of how they’d moved to the area in the 1970s and discovered a DIY lesbian-centered “coffee house” that began in a space in the Plymouth Congregational Church. It was a heart of the Minneapolis lesbian scene for many years, and one woman described an ongoing play about a fictional town called Toklas, Minnesota that had been performed in the coffee house for years.

[The Very Best of Fancy Ray.]

I personally recall how the massive Nicollet Village Video store served as a place for punk and queer kids to hang out all day and night, while also offering one of the two or three best selections of obscure videos anywhere in town. Similarly, the old Flame Bar and Grill, a strange country-western / R&B hybrid joint, once offered refuge for kids from all over the region.

Here’s a story about a girl from the North End who became a Flame fixture for years:
“Mr. Torp of Torp’s Music Store (also on Rice Street in St Paul) was a friend of my parents; he said country singer Ardis Wells was looking for a lead musician who could sing. I wasn’t 21, so we went over and met with her and Mr. Perkins who owned The Flame and they said ‘We don’t care if she’s not 21 as long as she doesn’t drink, we’ll take care of her, don’t worry about it’.”” 
Ardis was a female wrestler who rode elephants in the circus. “The floor would rise up with the push of a button and become a stage. Ardis Wells and The Rhythm Ranch Girls worked the front lounge of The Flame, our stage was up high above the bottles (see photos). Ardis would perform a trapeze act in The Flame while we sang, but the City Of Minneapolis shut that down because it was too dangerous. The Flame was the home of the $3.25 16-ounce steak. I still have their menus!”“

Similarly, the one or two old blocks of the southern stretch of Old Nicollet has some of the most diverse and eclectic restaurants anywhere int he city, including East African, West African, and Tibetan restaurants, all of them solid. (There used to be Vietnamese and African-American food here too.)

[At the Flame, they were playing and dancing ON TOP of the bar.]

Changing Quickly

[Old Nicollet vacant lot; note the old hospital in the background.]
Over the years, this part o the city has been under severe pressure from city planners, civic boosters, and entropy. The freeway, Convention Center, road re-design, big government housing projects, and parking lots have taken their toll. But in the midst of it, a stretch of the old urban fabric has remained in tact.

But it doesn’t seem like it will last long. After a half-century of benign neglect, the real estate market on the fringe of downtown has begun to overpower the past, and when the 1940s-era Market BBQ building comes down, the remaining continuity of the old city is going to erode beyond recognition. There will still be an old building or two, but I fear the idea of the old street, visible in the historic photos, will be impossible to conjure.

So tour it while you can!

[50s-era office building updated for the modern age.]

[The all-night diner with new construction in the background.]

[The elective early 20th century buildings (note the weird roof!) along Old Nicollet.]

[Construction, formerly the site of Jerusalem Restaurant.]

[Old Nicollet Village Video, now a Spanish-language daycare.]

[Old clock at Market BBQ.]

[Door handle at Market BBQ.]

[Tin ceiling at Market BBQ. The ceiling along with the massive wood bar (shipped from San Francisco) will be saved and replaced into the new building.]

[Market BBQ booth.]

[The old building, not long for this world.]

[The old and new housing stock along Old Nicollet.]

[Already shuttered, and forgettable, Ryan's Pub.]

[Subsidized affordable housing on the north end of Old Nicollet.]

[Subsidized housing.]

[Three eras of buildings.]

[The freeway bridge.]

[Vacant lot.]

[as-Salaamu 'alaykum.]