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Finding the Forum: A history

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: April 26, 2010 - 10:39 PM

The interior of Forum, formerly known as the Forum Cafeteria. Photographed on April 23, 2010.

The former Forum Cafeteria space in downtown Minneapolis opened to the public once again last week, and with that happy event comes a long, fascinating and complicated history.

Many local diners will mostly likely remember the gleaming Art Deco space as Goodfellow’s, which occupied the room from 1996 to 2005. Prior to that, it housed Mick’s, Paramount Cafe and Scottie’s on Seventh. And that’s just the tenant list after the entire room was dismantled, moved from its original location and re-created inside the mammoth City Center complex. Before that it was also Scottie’s on Seventh and, for the years between 1930 and 1975, it was the home of Forum Cafeteria.

After spending some time carefully pouring through small green envelopes jammed with yellowing newspapers clippings from the Star Tribune library -- thank you librarian Sandy Date, for retrieving them from the faintly scary Strib basement -- and sorting through a considerable stack of archives at the far lovelier Minneapolis Central Library, here’s some of what I’ve discovered about the Forum Cafeteria. Settle in, this post is going to take a while.

The Forum’s roots predate its 1930 Art Deco trappings. What had been a livery stable as late as 1911 was demolished to make way for the lavishly appointed Saxe Theater, which opened on Sept. 5, 1914 at the cost of $150,000 (about $3.3 million in 2010 dollars).

The 1,500-seat theater was named for owner Saxe Bros. of Milwaukee, a small chain of 10 midwestern theaters. Historical accounts of the Forum often describe the Saxe as a vaudeville house, but an Aug. 26, 1914 newspaper article tells a different story. “It is just about a year ago today that the announcement was made of our intention to build a theater designed exclusively for motion pictures, to be one of the best arranged and equipped photo-play houses in the country, and I think when the doors open Saturday of next week the public will agree that we have kept our word,” said owner Thomas Saxe.

The opulent Spanish Renaissance-style building -- designed by the Minneapolis firm of Chapman & Magney -- was tricked out with all the latest features: a 2,000-bulb electric marquee, “the largest picture screen in the Northwest” (measuring 13 feet six inches high and 18 feet in width), a $10,000 electric pipe organ, flounced velvet drapes, the city’s first electric ventilation system (“Said to have cost $16,000, injecting 35,000 cubic feet of fresh air into the theater every 60 seconds and completely changing the entire atmosphere every 10 minutes”), an elegant mahogany and rose-and-ivory terra cotta interior decor (and a lobby lined in “foreign marbles”) that was finished with two massive bronze candelabras, an automatic ticket seller (“which is new here, which will greatly expediate the handling of crowds”) and plumbing that is “the last word in the way of sanitary precautions.” The theater’s ivory terra cotta facade quickly became the most distinctive sight on Seventh Street's bustling theater row.

The Saxe name didn’t last long. By 1916 the marquee bore the name “Strand,” which stuck until 1929, when the Forum Cafeteria Co. of Kansas City, Mo. signed a lease on the space, with the intent of converting the theater into a restaurant. It would be the company’s 18th location.

The company enlisted its house architect, George B. Franklin, and poured $275,000 (about $3.6 million in 2010 dollars) into creating a state-of-the-art kitchen and carving out a dining room on the street level, with additional seating on a new mezzanine level.

It’s funny, but newspaper accounts at the time never use the words “Art Deco.” They barely mention decor at all. Instead, they focus on the Forum’s newfangled “modern ventilation system, “all-mechanical dishwashing and sterilization equipment” and “elaborately furnished rest room in the basement.” The only note about the dining room’s giddy decoration is that it is “lighted with ornamental electric fixtures.”

A 1976 article from a historic preservation magazine put it this way: “'The Forum reflects an era,' said Martin Weinberger. Weinberger, who installed and helped design the Forum’s interior in 1930, said he chose the patterns and contrasting patterns and colors in the Forum because, ‘At that time, everyone did Art Deco,’ he said.”

The restaurant was designed to accommodate approximately 1,000 customers per hour and it initially employed about 150 people. The doors opened for business on May 27, 1930. It wasn’t exactly the most encouraging moment in American history to launch a major investment, but by all accounts the Forum survived and thrived on Seventh Street.

Ten years later, following a fire, the company went into renovation mode. “Here’s the same place turning a smiling new face to the future,” exclaimed an ad in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune on Nov. 7, 1940, under a photo of the newly revised facade, where the ornamental terra cotta facade was remade yet again -- it had already been significantly altered during the Forum’s 1930 construction -- into a far sleeker first-floor storefront. “Minneapolis is growing!” continued the ad. “But just watch how this great city goes and grows in the next decade! So we’ve finished an extensive remodeling new program, including a gay new front and increased seating capacity for 500 daily guests. We’ve installed the latest all-electric serving counters with 27 hot pan varieties to select from.”

The Forum Cafeteria, probably sometime in the early 1970s. Star Tribune file photo.

Fast-forward to early 1970s. The Forum was in the departure lounge. Cafeteria-style dining was on the wane -- replaced by fast-fooders such as McDonald’s and Burger King -- and rumors began to swirl that the mighty Forum’s lights were dimming.

Readers of the Minneapolis Star opened their newspapers on July 3, 1972 to read the headline, “No definite plans to remodel the Forum Cafeteria.” The restaurant’s manager, Conrad Sankpill, said that a proposal to gut and rebuild the “world-famous” Art Deco interior had been before the company’s board of directors, but he was countered by someone above him on the company’s organization chart, D.H. Wixon, a Forum vice president. “We don’t know what we’re going to do,” Wixon said, “but there is nothing now before the board of directors.”

An entertaining eyewitness account appeared that same day on the pages of the Minneapolis Star’s op/ed section. “Alarmed at the possibility that the Forum Cafeteria might undergo modernization, as reported in a letter to the Star, we dashed off to 7th St. for lunch and reassurance,” read the unsigned editorial. “At yet, nothing had changed. Viking ships under full sail still plowed the seas of mirrored wall panels. Platoons of chandeliers, their frosted glass marshaled in geometric array, still cast their chill glow over the double line of expectant diners inching food-ward. Behind us in line, there was still the aggressive woman shopper whose bargain-filled bag thumbed at the backs of our knees with each step of advance [this was a pre-Mall of America era, when no less than five department stores and countless specialty shops lined nearby Nicollet Mall, and it was still possible to see a first-run movie at any of a number of theaters on and around Hennepin Avenue].

“As we ate our ‘Nooner’ special (sausage and red apples, 99 cents), amidst all that black glass and pale green tile and tortured “zig-zag modern,” we recalled fondly last summer’s Art Deco show at the Art Institute. Would the Institute undertake a salvage effort? Nooners would never be the same. We were relieved, therefore, when the Forum’s owners denied they were planning a change. Sail on, O etched-glass Viking ships!”

The rumors picked up again a few years later. “Some of the help here and the customers are already asking for pieces of the building, like the black onyx tiles,” said Jacque Johnson, Minneapolis Forum manager in a Feb. 10, 1975 story in the Minneapolis Star. “The majority of my good customers are very concerned about the Forum, but most of them are senior citizens and are treated as second-class citizens. Their opinions don’t seem to count for much, I’m afraid. But then we have lots of young art students who come in too. They’re enchanted with it. They walk around the balcony and ask to take pictures.”

Fortunately, the Forum had an influential fan base. “It would be tragic to see it destroyed to make way for a pseudo Gay Nineties bar or restaurant,” said Herbert Scherer, an art librarian at the University of Minnesota and an expert on Art Deco. He called the Forum a masterpiece of the style, the best example left in Minnesota. “Garish red carpet and flickering imitation candle fixtures seem to be all that contemporary commercial designers are capable of in their attempts at ‘class.’”

In other words, don’t mess with it. Mary C. Means, then a regional director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, agreed. “It’s fantastic,” said Means. “It’s one of the most outstanding Art Deco interiors I’ve ever seen. Everything is complete. It made me feel I was in the 1920s and there would be Busby Berkeley chorus girls having breakfast after the show.”

In that same article, reporter Peg Meier tracked down David Gebhart, an architecture professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. Gebhart grew up in Minneapolis and ate at the Forum as a boy. He told Meier that most Art Deco buildings across the country had been torn down or remodeled. “The style was very much out of fashion from 1945 on,” he said. “People are more interested in 19th-century buildings. The Forum is one of the best examples of Art Deco in the country, and the city shouldn’t let it go.”

Forum headquarters pulled the plug in August 1975 (the company was still operated a branch in suburban Maplewood at the time), and for a while it looked as if the building’s owner, F&M Savings Bank, might use the space as a branch location. An Oct. 4, 1975 Minneapolis Star article revealed that entrepreneurs Ron Tengwell, Scott Smith and Brett Smith (they called their enterprise the SST Corp.) put a down payment on building, with the intention of opening a bar and restaurant. “The restaurant would have reasonable prices and would include a bar decorated in Art Deco style that would be come a discotheque after dinner hours.”

The Forum Cafeteria company wouldn’t permit the use of the Forum name, and for a while the project was being referred to as the “Phorum.” “This place will always be called the ‘Forum,’ regardless of who’s selling the hot dogs,” Smith told the Minneapolis Tribune. The name Scottie’s on Seventh eventually stuck.

Here’s a clip from June 16, 1976: “Scottie’s on Seventh, a 1930s style restaurant and nightclub located in the old Forum Cafeteria, will hold a grand opening Thursday. The new club, which retains the famed Art Deco interior of the Forum, also will be added to the National Register of Historic Places in ceremonies Thursday night.”

Disco inferno: The scene at Scottie's on Seventh, probably around 1977. Star Tribune file photo.

Scottie’s quickly evolved into a scene. The Wolverines jazz band were regulars, and the city’s fast crowd made it their hangout. This clip from the Oct. 24, 1978 edition of Skyway News sums it up nicely: “Jet set artist and Olympic sports painting superstar LeRoy Neiman was served a Bernaise burger and inaugural champagne recently at Scottie’s on Seventh, the downtown restaurant and disco. The Bernaise Burger is a favorite of the many celebrities who frequent the pub. Neiman brought the burger’s recipe to Scottie’s from P.J. Clarke’s in New York City, the first in a series of exchanges Scottie’s plans with other restaurants around the world.” I wish I could share the photograph, because it is priceless: Neiman is sporting a mustache that stretches almost from ear to ear, his hair is slicked back and his shirt is unbuttoned halfway to his navel; prime disco style.

Here’s how Will Jones described the place in his “After Last Night” column in the Minneapolis Tribune on June 19, 1976: “The vintage air conditioning may have been adequate to the elderly frames who shuffled their trays through the Forum in its later days; it was clearly not a match for all the hot young bodies crushing up to the bars and working up Charleston variations on the dance floor.

“The old double serving lines on the first floor have been replaced by a dance floor and a bar, and a second bar has been installed at the rear of the mezzanine. Otherwise, an old habitue could swear that nothing’s been changed except for the addition of a few potted palms and the fact that a single drink now costs more than a full dinner did in the old days -- or two or three meals, depending upon how many years ago one’s devotion to the Forum began.”

The party didn’t last long, thanks to the mammoth City Center project. It had been brewing, off and on, through much of the 1970s, growing in ambition and size, biting off more and more chunks of the block bounded by Nicollet Mall, 7th Street, Hennepin Avenue and 6th Street. The old Forum building was sitting smack dab in the middle.

Original proposals priced the complex at $100 million; the tab eventually hit $200 million, with the city’s investment -- its largest at the time -- at $50 million. Not everyone was thrilled by the prospect by City Center’s mega-ambitions (“A super-Dale in the heart of Minneapolis” is how the Twin Cities Reader described it), particularly fans of the old Forum.

In a letter published on Dec. 28, 1978 in the Minneapolis Star, Michael O’Neill, director of the Minnesota Geographic Society, said it best when he wrote, “The old Forum Cafe building and the Nankin restaurant, class environments in the Mill City, are scheduled for destruction this spring. At winter’s end, when the colors return and even a city planner’s heart turns to love, these two vestiges of romantic Minneapolis will have been demolished.”

Boy, did he have this next part right. “A new vista will emerge on 7th St, without mystery or memories. A new City Center complex that has hurdled every cost-benefit analysis by those who rule will be created. We suspect there will be clean design. Certainly there will be much glass and light. There will be no smokey sensuality. This new place will be no place for indolent denizens of Minneapolis to hide out. And that is a fact.

“We do know that without the lingering ambience of old places, not necessarily warehouses and post offices, an environment becomes very boring, and people spend their money in Europe or Mexico. Authentic history for many people is found in little clubs, theaters and restaurants. These places make a city interesting. Domed stadiums [construction on the Metrodome would begin a year later] and City Center, on the other hand, contribute little to the attraction of an urban area.

“The case for the Forum building and the Nankin restaurant [which eventually relocated in the City Center complex and later closed] thus becomes a eulogy. The values of these places are intuitive more than rational, and they transcend legal arguments and ledger sheets. Values that can be felt not measured. The shades of romance and nuance that make life worth living, but seem to die in the hard light of a city council meeting. The things that everybody seems to know, but politicians have to find out.”

Several lawsuits were filed, but the outcome was inevitable. It was progress vs. history, and guess which side emerged victorious? The trial’s most delicious testimony came from Karal Ann Marling, a University of Minnesota art history professor. “Marling, an expert in interior decor with a special interest in Art Deco, testified that the ‘living historical’ aspects of Scottie’s are remarkable,” reported the Twin Cities Reader. “In this country, the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center and Scottie's are the only places you can go and actually feel like what it must have been like to be alive back in the 1930s,” Marling said. “You can walk into Scottie’s for lunch and feel like Joan Crawford.”

Marling went on to explain that the actual surface decorations that make up the restaurant’s interior were not especially valuable on their own. “We’re not talking about the Mona Lisa or the pyramids of Egypt here, we’re talking about atmosphere,” she said. “Art Deco really began to flourish in this country just as the Depression began, and its function was to give people an escape to a glamorous atmosphere not unlike that on an ocean liner. That interior invites you inside to tap your toes and interact with new and glamorous people. It all suggests a little sex, perhaps some violence, both of which are parts of the urban sensibility. It allows you the feeling that you are, just slightly, a dangerous person. We’re not talking about a great piece of art, we’re talking about a total effect that gives us the feel of the glamour and danger of the 1930s.”

Oxford initially claimed that Forum’s site was needed for a luxury department store [rumored to be Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue] and then as access to an underground parking ramp; both scenarios eventually fell through. Still, through a series of negotiations and legal maneuvers, Oxford eventually pledged to reconstruct the Forum’s exact interior in a new location, funded by a $1.1 million in city funds, a precursor to the city’s subsequent investment in preserving and moving the nearby Shubert Theatre in 1999.

“The legal battle to preserve the old Forum Cafeteria building at its existing location ended today in failure,” reported the Minneapolis Tribune on Dec. 7, 1979. “We do not decide what might have been,” wrote Minnesota Supreme Court justice Rosalie Wahl. “We can only conclude, on the record before us, that the efforts of those who sought to save this familiar Minneapolis landmark in its entirety were too little and too late.”

On the day that the court handed down its decision, a wrecking ball was knocking down the last of the old Forum building’s walls. The story wasn’t over, however. A year later, in a story written by Minneapolis Tribune development reporter R.T. Rybak, the headline read: “Changes make it appear that Forum could have stayed.” Rybak wrote, “The 67-year-old Forum building was torn down last fall. Now, six months and at least $2 million later, it appears that the building could have stayed. It is also likely that reinforcing the original Forum building so it could have stood during the project’s construction would have been significantly cheaper for the developer and the city.”

The restaurant’s interior ended up moving 100 feet. The painstaking process -- which involved carefully removing, cataloguing, storing and then unpacking and reinstalling 3,500 separate pieces of glass, mirrors, tile and other materials -- was remarkably accurate. The rectangular room’s interior dimensions fell within 3/8th of an inch of the original: 105 feet long, 48 feet wide and 18 feet high. The Forum’s original plaster ceiling, which had been covered in that 1940 renovation by acoustical tiles, was reinstalled and painted its original 1930 colors. The work was supervised by Dayton’s Commercial Interiors.

The exterior of the Forum Cafeteria, at 36 S. 7th St. in downtown Minneapolis, in 1960. Star Tribune file photo.

The terra cotta exterior was also crated in 1979 but Oxford wasn’t interested in tacking it on to City Center’s modernist facade.There was talk of finding a home for it elsewhere in the city, but nothing ever came of it. “I tried to track it down a number of years ago,” said Minneapolis architect David Shea, who designed both the 1996 Goodfellow’s and the 2010 Forum iterations of the space. “Apparently the guy who had been storing it stopped getting a check, and so he decided to dump it into a landfill. Can you believe that?”

Frankly, yes. When it comes the Forum’s convoluted story, everything is possible. Scottie’s didn’t last, closing less than three years after its 1983 reopening. John Rimarcik, owner of the Monte Carlo Bar & Grill, briefly ran the place as the Paramount Cafe. The TGI Friday’s chain was interested in the space but not the decor, and there was talk of taking it all down and reinstalling it elsewhere, perhaps as part of a new federal courthouse or downtown public library, or in a renovated Grain Belt Brewery or Washburn-Crosby Mill (now the Mill City Museum).

Fortunately, that never happened (TGI Friday’s did move into another City Center space, but eventually left). Atlanta-based Mick’s leased the space for four years. Then Goodfellow’s, which was looking for a new location to replace its doomed Conservatory home, moved in and stayed until 2005. That’s the Forum that many people remember, although it was a tamed Forum; Goodfellow’s owners covered (some might say conserved) much of the interior’s colorful Bakelite walls with beige fabric panels, a move to lessen the room’s booming acoustics.

So what was the Forum Cafeteria like?

“The Forum Cafeteria was a bustling place for downtown workers and shoppers to eat quick, inexpensive meals, selecting such mid-century cuisine items such as fruit cocktail lime Jell-O medley, Spanish rice, breaded pork chops, Salisbury steak and other favorites,” described a piece in a 1970s architecture publication. “Though Charlie’s, a top-end eating place, served Minneapolis cognoscenti a few blocks away, diners at the Forum could guide their trays along the serving counter among pin-striped professionals, shopping bag-toting retirees and smartly frocked sales clerks. It was the place our mothers could take us during a day of downtown shopping for school clothes, feeling well-assured the fare of the Forum was familiar to what we ate at home.”

Lemon chiffon pie for 13 cents: A 1964 Forum Cafeteria menu. From the Minneapolis Collection at the Hennepin County Library.

Another account, this one published in the opinion pages of the Minneapolis Star in June 1979 and written by Trilby Busch Christensen, a Minneapolis historic preservationist: “People came from all over the state and county to meet and eat there. All were welcome -- children and adults, farmers and clerks, lawyers and shopkeepers. Thousands of Minnesotans remember the Forum as the place they went on those special visits to Minneapolis on a shopping expedition or to attend the state basketball tournament. It is no exaggeration to say that the Forum is probably the greatest repository of urban folklife in the state.”

I like this one: “The Forum was in many respects the Twin Cities’ most delightful Art Deco fantasy, one still remembered fondly by those who had the good fortune - especially as children - to experience its sleek, silvery splendor,” explained Larry Millett in his invaluable “Lost Twin Cities," published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Minneapolis Star columnist Don Morrison really nailed it on Feb. 11, 1975: “But inside! Inside the Forum is another fantasy -- a nutty efflorescence of all-out 1920s Art Deco white tile, onyx, etched glass and mirrors and pretentious chandeliers -- that may not be man’s highest aesthetic attainment, but certainly is an enchanting, priceless and equally irreplaceable document of what was considered by the previous generation to be real class, elegance and, most of all, ultimate modernity.”

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