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Goodbye, River Room

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: February 1, 2013 - 7:25 PM

 

 

When I dressed for work this morning, I should have worn black, because the River Room, a St. Paul tradition since 1947, served its last popover today.

The restaurant, what this diner has long considered to be the main attraction of the St. Paul branch of the Store Formerly Known as Dayton's, started across Wabasha Street (that's a 1940s postcard depicting the restaurant, above, from the Minnesota Historical Society). The restaurant's name was a nod to the large-scale murals of the Mississippi River that adorned its original home inside Schuneman's, one of several old-line department stores (including the Golden Rule and Emporium) that no longer exist.

As a Minneapolis-side-of-the-river kid, I was unfamilar with Schuneman's, and its evolution into Dayton's, so I did a little digging.

Here's the store as it appeared in 1920 in a Minnesota Historical Society photo (that's the Hamm Building on the far left). By 1963, when the store was known as Dayton's-Schuneman's, it moved across the street into the present-day Macy's. The River Room made the move, too, where -- until today, anyway -- it has been the Saintly City’s answer to the Oak Grill, the beloved grande dame holding court on the 12th floor of Dayton's downtown Minneapolis store. Coincidentally, the Oak Grill also opened in 1947, in a burst of post-war expansion. 

 

Believe it or not, Dayton's St. Paul store was the height of retail modernity when it opened. Here's the Cedar-and-7th corner of the store, shortly after its 1963 debut, in a Star Tribune file photo.

 

It’s the work of Austrian architect Victor Gruen, and, from the looks of it, it's not completely out of bounds to wonder if he drew inspiration for the store's design from a Dayton's hat box (I can't be the only one who sees the separated-at-birth resemblance). If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Gruen was the mastermind behind Southdale, the Dayton department store dynasty’s retail breakthrough. The Edina complex opened in 1956 as the the nation’s first fully enclosed shopping mall, a prototype that was copied from coast to coast. 

Southdale was an instantaneous success: “A pleasure-dome with parking,” hailed Time magazine, while Architectural Record weighed in by saying, “in Minneapolis, it is the downtown that appears pokey and provincial in contrast with Southdale’s metropolitan character.” 

Following his Southdale triumph, Gruen (pictured, above -- center -- in the garden court at Southdale, still under construction, in a 1956 Star Tribune file image) was hired by a group of St. Paul business leaders to remake the city’s aging retail district into a shopper-friendly zone. His first suggestion: re-think what was then the planned I-94 freeway. He urged the state's highway department to place the freeway north of the State Capitol, to preserve the connection between the capitol complex and the city’s business core. His proposal never went anywhere, and the freeway’s city-splitting route remains one of the Twin Cities’ great urban design disasters.

Fortunately for Gruen, the Dayton family was in expansion mode. In 1959, the company, which by then operated stores in downtown Minneapolis, downtown Rochester, Southdale and Sioux Falls, S.D., entered the then-robust downtown St. Paul market by buying Schuneman’s, one of the city’s oldest department stores.

Gruen won the commission to design a new Dayton’s store, which would go up across Wabasha Street from Dayton's-Schuneman’s.

The result was a five-story store and parking ramp occupying a full city block bounded by Cedar, Wabasha, 6th and 7th streets. Its construction signaled the precursor of a major urban renewal remake -- some might characterize it as a mistake -- of the heart of downtown St. Paul.

To make way for Dayton’s 12 low-rise buildings were demolished. After the store opened, Schuneman’s, a landmark dating to the 1890s, was also razed.

The site was quickly replaced by Wabasha Court, a modest two-story modernist retail pavilion that lasted about 40 years until sputtering to a close about 10 years ago. Its demoltion is pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file image; Dayton's had just morphed into Marshall Field's and would later be rebranded as Macy's. As for the Wabasha Court site, it's now a parking lot.

Back to Dayton's. In the early 1960s, the company's multi-million dollar investment was a big deal. Discounting a pair of Woolworth’s outlets, the massive new building was the first department store to go up in either downtown for nearly 40 years, going back to the 1926 opening of Young-Quinlan at Nicollet Av. and 9th St. in Minneapolis.

History buffs may want to know that the Minneapolis Woolworth's store went up in 1937, and was demolished 32 years later to make way for the IDS Center, which played host to Woolworth's for another quarter-century. The St. Paul Woolworth's opened in 1956; the building still stands, but it is unoccupied. (Thank you, Larry Millett, for the treasure trove of information that is your "Lost Twin Cities").

 

 

What Gruen wrought was an introverted, pale yellow brick building (pictured, above, in a 1975 image from the Minnesota Historical Society), “a giant windowless box, as inward-looking as any suburban shopping mall,” wrote Jeffrey Hess and Paul Clifford Larson in “St. Paul’s Architecture” (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). “The store’s built-in, continuous-spiral parking ramp -- a major innovation in the city’s retailing -- was an important part of the shopper’s hermetic experience. To drive into the Dayton’s ramp was to drive out of the city. To emphasize its kinship with Southdale Dayton’s, the new downtown store sported the same brick facing in the same interrupted pattern of projecting vertical stripes.”

Fortunately, the store looked better on the inside. While it lacked the monumental grace of the retail giants built earlier in the century, it wasn’t without its charms. An open-air court on the building’s northeast corner was an urbane meet-and-greet venue, and a fine setting for a striking bronze Henry Moore sculpture. Don't look for it, it's no longer there. When the adjacent World Trade Center went up in the 1980s, the courtyard was enclosed, its crisp elegance was diminished and the Moore was donated to the Walker Art Center. It now resides in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

But the building's real beauty was the River Room. Find my eulogy here.

The store is closing soon; the specific date depends upons upon the pace of the liquidation sale. But for me, downtown St. Paul's last department store died today. Rest in peace, River Room.

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