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St. Paul Athletic Club

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Black-and-white postcard with a picture of the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1917.

Black-and-white postcard with a picture of the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1917.

The St. Paul Athletic Club was designed in 1915 by architect Allen H. Stem, who with Charles A. Reed had recently completed Grand Central Station in New York City. Like Grand Central, the Athletic Club was threatened with demolition in the 1990s but survived because preservationists valued its sound construction, central location, and fine craftsmanship.

In 1884, the St. Paul Athletic Club organization started out in a gymnasium with a reading room nearby at Seven Corners. Thirty years later, in 1914, fundraisers promised that the new clubhouse would make club members and citizens of the prosperous young capital city proud.

Early fundraising success encouraged the club’s board to add two more floors to the plan, increasing the total cost to $1 million—an astounding figure that had only been exceeded by, respectively, the costs of the state capitol and the 1885 Ryan Hotel, which had seven stories and 335 rooms. (The Ryan Hotel was torn down in 1962, shortly before the modern historic preservation movement was born.)

Concerns about World War I slowed the fundraising effort after 1914. Construction didn’t begin at the new site (340 Cedar Street) until 1916 and continued through wartime. The members of the St. Paul Athletic Club offered their new building as an emergency hospital for the returning wounded, but the war ended before it was needed.

The St. Paul Athletic Club was the last neoclassical building of more than a few stories (it had thirteen) to be built downtown. Following the standard set by the great cities of the Eastern United States, the architects selected a Renaissance Revival-influenced Beaux-Arts style. The variety of window sizes on the thirteen-story façade reflects the range of amenities available to members, including two-story gymnasiums, a pool, a ballroom, and a lobby. There were also locker rooms, restaurants, a barber shop, and small guest rooms. The two-story lobby featured a baronial fireplace, ornate plasterwork, and unusual terra-cotta railings on the balconies made by artisans at the Brioschi-Minuti Studio, originally located on University Avenue. Stem had encouraged them to move their workshop to St. Paul from New York City.

A two-day celebration was held for the city when the club opened in September 1918 with two thousand members. An editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, pointing out that the club’s social functions made it more than a gym, called the club “one of the city’s biggest assets” and “an altar for friendship” for St. Paulites from all walks of life.

After World War II, the urban club continued to grow, even as people and businesses were moving to the suburbs. In 1960, a glass-walled penthouse dining room was added. In the 1970s, as women became more active in the business community, they were invited to join as members.

Membership peaked at four thousand in 1980 when an addition featuring squash, handball, and basketball courts was built. Over time, however, the debt load was too much for the organization to bear. The club closed abruptly in December 1989 after declaring bankruptcy.

Thousands of people attended an auction for all items unattached to the building. Demolition was scheduled. A second auction to sell structural fittings—the artisan tiles, fireplace, carved wood, marble columns, and trim—was stopped an hour before it was to start. Wallace Orfield, Sr., purchased an option to buy the building and cancelled demolition. He later decided to waive his option. The building stood empty for years.

In 1995, local developer John Rupp purchased and renovated the abandoned building for tenants and catering events. By 2008, he opened Hotel 340, an award-winning boutique hotel with fifty-six rooms. Renovation of the building continued, and in 2013 the new St Paul Athletic Club opened on six floors, an independent, locally owned health and social club.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Commonwealth Properties.
http://www.commonwealthproperties.com

Hess, Jeffrey A., and Paul Clifford Larson. St. Paul’s Architecture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2006.

Hotel 340. History.
http://www.hotel340.com/about-us/history

Keljik, Woodrow. “Birth of a Notion: The St. Paul Athletic Club’s Conception.” Saint Paul Athletic Club Ace [members’ newsletter], September 1982. Serials collection, Minnesota Historical Society.

Kerr, Drew. “St. Paul Athletic Club born anew.” Finance & Commerce, January 15, 2013.
http://finance-commerce.com/2013/01/st-paul-athletic-club-born-anew/

Mathison, Joan. Walking Tour. 2015.

Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to Downtown St. Paul. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2010.

——— . Lost Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.

Rubenstein, Aaron. “Summary of Historical Significance of Nine Focus Buildings.” Central Corridor Historic Properties Initiative, Heritage Conservation on the Green Line, 2013.
http://www.historicsaintpaul.org/files/Focus_Bldgs_Historical_Info__Significance_Summary.pdf

Saint Paul Athletic Club.
http://www.thespac.com

Saint Paul Athletic Club: Historic Sites Survey, St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, Ramsey County Historical Society. [MN: St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission], 1981.

Streets of Saint Paul. “The Grand Opening of the Saint Paul Athletic Club.”
http://www.streetsofsaintpaul.com/2013/02/the-grand-opening-of-saint-paul.html

Welbes, John. “St. Paul Athletic Club set for February reopening in downtown.” Twin Cities Pioneer, January 8, 2013.
http://www.twincities.com/2013/01/08/st-paul-athletic-club-set-for-february-reopening-in-downtown/

Related Images

Black-and-white postcard with a picture of the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1917.
Black-and-white postcard with a picture of the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1917.
Color image of a St. Paul Athletic Club Fiftieth Anniversary fold-out brochure with promotional button and mailing envelope, c.1968.
Color image of a St. Paul Athletic Club Fiftieth Anniversary fold-out brochure with promotional button and mailing envelope, c.1968.
Color image of a color-tinted postcard with pictures of the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1920.
Color image of a color-tinted postcard with pictures of the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1920.
Black and white photograph of the St. Paul Athletic Club and surrounding buildings. View of the intersection of Fourth Street East and Cedar Avenue, St. Paul. The St. Paul Athletic Club is at center left.
Black and white photograph of the St. Paul Athletic Club and surrounding buildings. View of the intersection of Fourth Street East and Cedar Avenue, St. Paul. The St. Paul Athletic Club is at center left.
Black and white photograph of the St. Paul Athletic Club barbershop, c.1925. Photograph by Charles P. Gibson.
Black and white photograph of the St. Paul Athletic Club barbershop, c.1925. Photograph by Charles P. Gibson.
Black and white photograph of sun bathers on the sun deck of the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1935.
Black and white photograph of sun bathers on the sun deck of the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1935.
Black and white photograph of the baronial fireplace in the lobby of the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1925.
Black and white photograph of the baronial fireplace in the lobby of the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1925.
Black and white photograph of the billiard room in the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1925. Photograph by Charles P. Gibson.
Black and white photograph of the billiard room in the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1925. Photograph by Charles P. Gibson.
Black and white photograph of the gymnasium in the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1925. Photograph by Charles P. Gibson.
Black and white photograph of the gymnasium in the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1925. Photograph by Charles P. Gibson.
Black and white photograph of the dining room in the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1925. Photograph by Charles P. Gibson.
Black and white photograph of the dining room in the St. Paul Athletic Club, c.1925. Photograph by Charles P. Gibson.

Turning Point

After an addition is completed to create more athletic space for its growing membership, the 105-year-old club abruptly closes in 1989 and declares bankruptcy.

Chronology

1914

In November, the St. Paul Athletic Club is incorporated and chooses its first board of directors.

1915

Union Block, one of the oldest office buildings in downtown St. Paul, is purchased for $133,000 and razed to make way for a new athletic club.

1915

On June 1, President Wilson presses a button in the White House that activates a battering ram, and demolition begins.

1915

In October, the former Minnesota Club building, across the street from the Union Block site, becomes a temporary clubhouse.

1916

Construction finally begins in February and continues through wartime.

1918

In September, a two-day celebration is held for the city to recognize the club’s grand opening with two thousand members. The thirteen-story building dwarfs its neighbors.

1942

Three firemen are killed fighting a fire on the club’s second floor.

1960

A glass-walled penthouse dining room, designed by Ellerbe Associates, is added on the thirteenth floor.

1961

A separate “ladies’ entry” is removed from the Cedar Street façade.

1972

The club holds an open house for women to tour the entire building. It soon invites them to become members.

1989

After 105 years, the club abruptly closes in December and declares bankruptcy.

1992

Thousands attend a public auction of club furniture and other items. A last-minute sale of the building cancels a second auction to sell the structural fittings. However, the buyer does not exercise his purchase option, and the building stands empty.

1995

A local developer purchases the club and begins to renovate the lobby and ballroom for catering events. The city provides a loan to reopen the empty building in the heart of the downtown.

2000

The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, opens an urban campus in the building with graduate programs.

2013

The new St. Paul Athletic Club—an independent, locally owned business—opens in February.