Among the all-but-forgotten hotels of downtown Minneapolis, one of the most fascinating was the National, which operated for more than 60 years near the corner of 2nd Avenue and Washington Avenue S., where the Wells Fargo Operations Center now stands.
A spectacular Dutch-themed restaurant, a mighty pipe organ, police raids, exotic dancers and even Charlie Chaplin are all part of the hotel’s story, which came to an abrupt end in 1929 with a disastrous fire.
When it opened in the late 1860s the hotel was called the First National, probably taking its name from the nearby offices of a pioneer Minneapolis bank. By 1880, however, the establishment was known simply as the National and advertised itself as the finest in the city, offering rooms for $2 a night.
The hotel initially occupied a small three-story building along Washington, but as Minneapolis expanded, the National began to expand, eventually taking over three interconnected buildings that wrapped around a prominent commercial block, the seven-story Morrison Building (razed in 1960).
In a harbinger of things to come, the hotel suffered significant damage in 1887 when the Morrison Building (built by Dorilus Morrison, on whose old estate the Minneapolis Institute of Art now stands) caught fire. The hotel was soon back in business, however.
With about 70 rooms, the National wasn’t especially large, but it quickly won favor as a kind of bohemian hangout, frequented by traveling performers, artists and musicians. Charlie Chaplin was said to have stayed at the National during a tour in 1912, and other celebrities, including the boxer “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, were occasional guests.
The National flourished at a time when hotels in downtown Minneapolis were often well known for their restaurants. The Rogers Hotel at 4th Street and Nicollet Avenue S. was a longtime favorite, offering a pair of elegant cafes; other hotels like the West at 5th Street and Hennepin Avenue S. and the Nicollet House at Washington and Nicollet were also considered top dining spots.
But the National’s Dutch Room, which opened around 1900, may have been the most extravagant of them all.
Located on the 2nd Avenue side of the hotel, the restaurant was an elaborately furnished hall-style eatery that featured a vaulted hammer-beam ceiling, hand-painted murals, and what the Minneapolis Journal in 1904 called “the finest collection of steins and jardinières to be found anywhere.” Felix Walter, a German-born chef said to be among the best in Minneapolis, presided over the kitchen.
The restaurant also offered something even more unusual: a pipe organ that had once graced the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition, a World’s Fair held in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901.
The hotel’s owner bought the organ (reputedly for $5,000) after the fair ended and had it shipped to Minneapolis and installed in the Dutch Room. An organist named Freddie Brown played at lunch and dinner, mixing classical and popular pieces for the enjoyment of diners. Occasionally, members of traveling shows staying at the hotel would join in the fun, staging impromptu performances as Brown went through his paces.
Prohibition and fires
The National’s popularity began to wane after 1910 as a wave of new hotels — the Leamington, Curtis, Radisson, Dyckman and Andrews, among others — made thousands of new rooms available in downtown Minneapolis.
And then came Prohibition.
Upon its arrival in 1920, it not only killed off the city’s saloons but also had a big impact on restaurants like the Dutch Room, where booze had formed a big part of the business.
In February 1921, a squad of Minneapolis police officers, presumably acting on a tip, raided the Dutch Room. No doubt shocked to discover that alcohol was being served, the cops hauled 182 partygoers off to jail. Many of the revelers had also been enjoying the antics of the Hewitt Sisters, a duo who were caught performing a “hula hula” dance that apparently involved some lewd behavior.
The Dutch Room’s proprietor, who bore the wonderful name of Perley McBride, was charged with operating a disorderly house. McBride was later sentenced to 90 days in jail after a judge found that he had permitted “the utmost license under the guise of respectability,” a phrase that pretty much describes all of the 1920s. The Hewitt Sisters, however, seem to have danced off scot-free.
In 1924 fire again struck the National’s neighbor, the Morrison Block, and 100 or so guests had to flee the hotel to escape the choking smoke.
But a much deadlier fire struck on Jan. 20, 1929. Flames broke out on the second floor of the hotel’s oldest building and quickly spread. Two men trapped by the fire died, and another 20 or so guests suffered injuries as they fled. About half the hotel was left in ruins, and it was closed for good. By the 1930s, a service station occupied much of the old hotel’s site.
The surviving portions of the hotel stood until 1940, when wreckers finally razed the remains. The Tribune ran a large photograph of the demolition under the headline, “National Hotel, Haunt of Celebrities, Torn Down.”
So it was that another small piece of the city’s history vanished into dust.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author of 14 nonfiction books and eight mystery novels. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.