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Louie Sirian, owner of Lee’s Liquor Lounge.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Tevlin: It's the end of the line for the men living at Lee's

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • March 3, 2012 - 9:43 PM

C.T. Wiggins walked through a clean, carpeted common space adorned with paintings of deer and ducks, giving a short oral history of life above Lee's Liquor Lounge just southwest of Target Field. The door to each room was splayed open, revealing empty rooms where a dozen men once lived, some for 20 years.

"We're out now," said Wiggins, a large man with a firm handshake, who is disabled. "Didn't nobody come and help us. I'm 54 years old, you know what I'm talking about? It's been a rough week around here."

Last April, a fire above McMahon's Irish Pub in Minneapolis killed six people. Since then, fire inspectors have stepped up efforts to make sure it doesn't happen again. Many of these old-time rooming houses above bars were constructed long before our modern fire codes, and many haven't been inspected for years, if at all.

In February, inspectors showed up at Lee's, an institution run by legendary bar owner Louie Sirian, 75, who has owned the joint since 1976. They ticked off a list of code violations, including a lack of proper egress windows in some units, an absence of fire separation between the rooms and business, and the fact Louie didn't have a rental license.

Tom Deegan, manager of inspections for the city, was in a tough spot when Louie's violations were discovered.

"We were not going to go down the road to having another McMahon's," he said. "Louie is a super guy. His place is impeccable -- you can eat off the floor. He was caught in a situation."

The inspector gave Louie two options: pay $500 a day to have a city employee sit in the parking lot and make sure there were no fires and immediately begin repairs he estimated to be about $15,000, or evict the renters.

Louie suggested hiring a tenant to watch the place (besides, Louie works until 4 a.m. every night). They declined, so for a few days, he paid the $500.

''I did it to give the guys some time," Louie said. "I didn't understand what they were talking about. Granted, I was dense."

Louie and Deegan disagree on whether inspectors booted the tenants almost overnight, or whether Louie couldn't pay the quickly escalating costs that he estimates at $11,000.

It didn't matter to guys such as Wiggins, who were suddenly out in the street.

"Now I am homeless," said Wiggins, who is staying with a couple of friends for the moment. "My stuff is in storage. We are human beings. I was one mad S.O.B."

Louie had rented the rooms out to single men, most of them disabled or chronically unemployed, for $300 to $400 a month. They had their own space and independence.

"Some of them haven't paid rent for a long time," Louie said. "To tell you the truth, some of the guys just can't make it on their own. It's not the Hilton, but they had a nice, clean place to live."

Chris Hodapp, Louie's longtime friend, calls him a "sweetheart" who was just trying to help guys who were down and out. Because most had no cars, Louie helped them move. He also paid them a month's rent to help them get by.

"My main concern is for the guys," he said.

A few of the men had earned their rent by helping out in the bar, and Louie paid them $10 an hour. "So they lost their home and their income," Louie said. "I understand where [inspectors] are coming from, but it's pathetic. There was no compassion."

One man, "a good renter, neat and clean, is living on the floor of the Salvation Army," Louie said. Another went to live with relatives in Missouri.

"He's called me six times. He's lonely and has nothing to do."

That's because the Liquor Lounge renters had become a bit of a family.

"Every holiday we'd get together and cook," said Wiggins as he toured his former home. "Ribs. Meatloaf. I brought it all in and cooked it up."

One afternoon this week, a few regulars gathered around as Louie tended bar. The place was spotless, and the freshly waxed floors squeaked when you walked on them.

"If you're buyin,' I'll take a triple Jack," one man yelled across the bar.

Louie took me to the basement, an incredible, fastidiously tidy warren of rooms that looks like a mid-century bar museum. Hundreds of trophies from sports teams line the walls, along with collections of bar signs and liquor decanters. The walls and floors were all freshly painted.

"This has been my home," said Louie. "It was their home, too."

Deegan said Louie could make the repairs and he'd help him get a license.

But Louie said he's done. He has the bar up for sale.

"I'm locking [the upstairs] up," he said. "I'm 75. It's the end."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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