A paper sign reading “Victoria” in block letters is posted where a marquee used to shine. Inside the century-old St. Paul building, some of the brick walls are covered by remnants of landscape paintings, and a leaky roof has dappled the plywood floor with water stains. The front window facing University Avenue is patched with duct tape.
Frogtown neighbors have spent a decade discussing the future of the vacant Victoria Theater. They held dozens of community meetings and knocked on doors to come up with their plan: a theater and community gathering place, with an office for the Frogtown radio station and perhaps a small coffee shop.
They need another $2 million, and a lot of work, to turn the decrepit building into a functioning theater — but community members said they are closer than ever to achieving their vision.
St. Paul leaders voted this month to give the project a $200,000 grant and a $412,000 forgivable loan, and the local Hardenbergh Foundation awarded a $150,000 grant, said Julie Adams-Gerth, who was hired a couple of months ago as the first executive director of the Victoria Theater Arts Center, a newly formed nonprofit.
“It was a vote of confidence,” Adams-Gerth said of the city money. “The community sees it moving forward now in a really concrete way.”
The Vic, as neighbors call it, sits on University Avenue facing the Green Line’s Victoria Street station. It was a silent movie theater in its first life. Then came a Prohibition-era stint as a speakeasy and nightclub and after that a decades-long run as a lighting store. About two decades ago, it fell vacant and into disrepair.
“It’s going to be work, but we’re up for it,” Adams-Gerth said as she wandered through the cold, largely empty building that she estimates will open in two years.
It almost suffered a very different fate.
In 2009, the Vic was going to be demolished and replaced with a parking lot. Neighbors fought to protect the building and in 2011 the city designated it a heritage preservation site, saving it from destruction.
“It’s a rare surviving example of silent movie theaters from around that time,” said Aaron Rubenstein, with the nonprofit Historic St. Paul.
In addition to its storied speakeasy past — it was raided for illegally selling alcohol — it is known for a 1927 recording by the house band, the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, that ended up in the Anthology of American Folk Music. That recording was key to securing heritage preservation status, Rubenstein said.
The Land Bank Twin Cities bought the building in 2014 with the intent to sell it to the Victoria Theater Arts Center, Adams-Gerth said. Purchasing the building is one of the next steps before renovation. She does not yet know what the full purchase cost will be.
“It’s probably the most celebrated, waited-for project in the last 10 years in Frogtown,” said Caty Royce, director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association. The association led the many community meetings where residents developed the plan for a theater and gathering place.
The neighborhood lacks meeting space, Adams-Gerth said. And Royce noted Frogtown doesn’t have a theater the size of the Vic, which is expected to have seating for about 120 people and standing room for more than 300.
“Families in the neighborhood, particularly young folks, are hungering for a place like this,” said MK Nguyen, a Frogtown resident who is on the Victoria Theater Arts Center steering committee. “There’s nothing like art, and art spaces, that can unleash genius and power.”