A Serbian oasis in South St. Paul

  • Article by: NICOLE NORFLEET , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 1, 2011 - 9:32 AM

The curator of the "Serbian Home" museum -- based in an old South St. Paul building -- is trying to revive the once-active center.

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Nairy Digris, along with the other dancers of the Armenian Dance Ensemble of Minnesota, performed at the fundraiser for The Serbian Home in South St. Paul.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Nick Mortari raised the large sifter over his head, twirling it in every direction but taking care not to let water spill from the tiny cups that spun inside.

As Mortari, 18, performed the sifter dance in the basement of the Serbian Cultural and History Center of Minnesota in South St. Paul -- also known as the Serbian Home -- curator Ted Trkla was reminded of when the old two-story building used to serve as a gathering place for generations of local Serbians to congregate and host their own dances.

"I was looking out there and it brought all of the memories back of what it was," Trkla said. "I went into the kitchen and shed a tear."

The Serbian Home, built in 1924 by Serb immigrants who would go on to work in the city's meatpacking plants, has been a city oddity for decades.

Despite being included in the National Register of Historic Places, the house, which sits on the residential block of Third Avenue South, could easily be mistaken for a condemned building from the outside.

But despite its drab outer shell, Trkla, 75, the house's quixotic caretaker, believes it's worth saving, as evidenced by the recent fundraising dinner he held and new upgrades to the building he has spearheaded. He called his recent push to save the center his "last hurrah."

The building used to serve as a refuge for the surge of Serbians looking for jobs in South St. Paul's packing plants. Hundreds of wedding receptions, wakes, Saturday night dances and Sunday dinners happened within its walls, including the wedding of Trkla's own parents in 1928.

However, like many other a forgotten heirloom, the center and its vitality started to fade as the original settlers grew old and the youth turned their attention elsewhere.

In the 1960s, the hall lost its liquor license. In the 1980s, it was unable to pay its back taxes and was forced to close.

There were plans to tear down the building, but in 1990, Trkla and others were able to raise $6,000 to save it. The hall was elevated to the National Register in 1992, which made it the second recognized historic site in the city.

Soon after, the Serbian Cultural and History Center opened in the building as a nonprofit.

Over the years, Trkla has filled the house with thousands of Serbian artifacts, such as photographs and religious icons that he was able to find or have donated. He also gave tours of the building for free to those who were interested in its history.

But with no money coming in, the building fell into a state of disrepair. According to the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, in 2007, the building -- which the group put on its 10 most endangered historic places list that year -- had a large hole in its roof and lacked heat.

There were plans to turn the property into condos, but the project stalled, and a benefactor loaned the center's supporters money to buy the building from the developer. That same benefactor also has donated money for other improvements, including a new roof and furnace.

Another indicator of better times is that in September, Trkla was able to reinstate the center's nonprofit status, which had lapsed.

Still, the cultural center faces uphill battles. Even with recent renovations, the building gets few visitors. Since it is in a residential neighborhood and lacks a parking lot like the nearby Croatian Hall, the city doesn't want it hosting large events, which could generate revenue, Trkla said.

The center's relations with the city have not been good, according to Trkla. Case in point, city officials were invited but didn't attend the recent fundraising dinner, Trkla said. He considered that an insult. "They made me feel like mud under their feet," he said.

Trying to turn the tide, Trkla recently purchased the property behind the center in hopes of converting some of it into a parking lot when he gets the money.

Nina Vukomanovich, a center supporter who is of Serbian descent, said she hopes the building can be preserved. "Our people built up this city... They gave a lot of work and sweat to build that building," she said.

Rebecca Snyder, associate director and librarian for the Dakota County Historical Society, said that given the center's place in the immigrant and working class community, it's worth preserving.

Snyder said she was impressed when she saw at the fundraiser the large collection of family portraits that the center houses, and even more impressed at the people who came to examine their ancestors' photos.

"It's pretty neat ... I'm sure they've got a considerably larger collection than we do [of Serbian memorabilia]," she said.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495

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