A white-haired man walked slowly through the doors and into a dim O’Gara’s Bar & Grill. Jack Dempsey first started coming to this longtime Irish pub in the 1970s, and on Thursday afternoon, he “wanted to see who was here.”
Within minutes, owner Dan O’Gara, the third generation of his family to run the establishment at the corner of St. Paul’s Snelling and Selby avenues, was shaking Dempsey’s hand as they shared memories. “I remember when you were a busboy,” said Dempsey.
O’Gara’s has been a familiar presence for Dempsey and generations of St. Paul pub-goers ever since O’Gara’s grandfather Jim started sliding beers and shots over the bar top on March 1, 1941. But change is coming.
Dan O’Gara plans to close the bar, demolish the 110-year-old building and replace it with a large new apartment building and a smaller new O’Gara’s, perhaps as soon as late 2019. But on Thursday, O’Gara wanted to make it clear that it’s all intended to keep the legacy alive.
“We’ve got a great group of regulars,” said O’Gara, who began giving neighbors, regulars and community members a heads-up about his plans weeks ago. “But we’ve got an aging building that needs a lot of maintenance work and, quite honestly, our business is changing so rapidly.”
Gone are the days when bands filled O’Gara’s Shanty six nights a week. Gone are the nights when students from several area colleges crowded a bar expanded over the years to accommodate well over 900 patrons. These are the days of small-and-nimble taprooms, brew pubs and restaurants competing for customers. So it’s time for O’Gara’s to change too, he said. The new O’Gara’s will be at the same location but will hold only about 300.
O’Gara said he tapped Ryan Cos. — builders of The Vintage across the street with its upscale apartments and Whole Foods store — as the developer, because he liked the way Ryan invited neighbors to weigh in on that project.
“They don’t cut corners through the neighborhood process and do the right thing,” he said. “They have the neighborhood’s interests at heart. They really do.”
Neighbor and longtime O’Gara’s customer Julie Johnson said she wasn’t sure what to think when O’Gara shared the news. Like so many fans of this place, she’s fallen in love with the tin ceilings, the historic photographs on the walls, and the fact that “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz lived upstairs as a child.
“I can’t wrap my head around it quite yet,” she said, adding that she and her husband have been coming here for 15 years or so. “But I have a lot of faith in Dan.”
Kris Masanz, who owns the Neighborhood Cafe next door to O’Gara’s on Selby, said some are worried about what the change will look like “because O’Gara’s has been here forever.”
But she said she’s been impressed with Ryan’s work at The Vintage, as well as O’Gara’s respect for the neighborhood.
“I’m confident that anything they do will be good,” she said.
Initial designs still are being developed, O’Gara said. He envisions a space more like a traditional Irish pub and plans to have the same contractor who built the O’Gara’s building at the State Fair build out the new bar and restaurant. The public process will begin when details of the project are presented at a March 19 meeting of the Union Park District Council’s land use committee.
If all goes smoothly, ground could be broken in the late fall and the new development could open a year later, said Tony Barranco of Ryan Cos. The hope is that the business won’t be dark for more than a single St. Patrick’s Day.
“We intend to have Dan open as quick as we can,” Barranco said.
A celebration of the bar’s 77 years is planned for March 13 through March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, with live Irish music and back-in-the-day prices for beer, corned beef and cabbage, and other menu items.
Schulz, who died in 2000, made his last trip home to Minnesota in 1994 and stopped at O’Gara’s. His family lived in an upstairs apartment while his father charged 35 cents for a cut downstairs at the three-chair Family Barbershop. Today, one wall inside O’Gara’s features a visual ode to Schulz: a barber’s pole hangs next to a Schulz sketch of Snoopy nestled in a barber’s chair ready for a trim. “In memory of the old days,” Schulz wrote below.
Dan O’Gara said his plan is to move many of the bar and building’s artifacts — including its pressed tin ceilings, historic photos, a mural painted by his grandfather and the marble bar top — into the new space.
“There were rumors we were closing. We are not closing. We are reinventing ourselves,” O’Gara said.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.