East metro beat: A building may go, but not the memories

  • Article by: Jim Anderson
  • Star Tribune
  • November 21, 2012 - 4:06 PM

On a sunny Saturday in the summer of 1969, when I was 10, my family crammed into the blue Dodge station wagon and headed to what was then a sketchy part of downtown St. Paul and a momentous event: the opening of Gillette Co.'s St. Paul manufacturing center.

The roughly 1,000 people who worked there had reason to be festive. The massive, purely functional building represented a major commitment -- and job security -- to its Toni Co. division. My dad was among a group of Toni employees who sported faux straw boater hats, red-and-white striped vests and a natty bamboo cane while leading tours of the new factory, jauntily pointing out its complex assembly lines that would soon be churning out Dippity-Do (a prehistoric hair mousse), White Rain and Adorn hair spray and Toni home permanent kits.

After a picnic lunch, we were trundled into an armada of city buses and whisked to Metropolitan Stadium and a Twins game, feeling particularly regal when our presence was announced in lights on the center field Twins-O-Gram.

It was the first of many memories linked to that building, now destined for demolition to clear space for a new stadium in what is now the city's trendy Lowertown neighborhood. Even though the building has the personality of a pole barn, it should be noted that a lot of lives over a lot of years were built around it -- like my dad's.

It was an impressive, bustling place, filled with quirky chemists, assembly line and loading dock workers, and middle managers who kept things rolling. The building also represents a microcosm of recent American manufacturing history.

The Toni Home Permanent Co. was founded by two brothers in 1944. Its first manufacturing site was an old schoolhouse in Forest Lake. Gillette, aiming to diversify, bought the company in 1948, but kept the name. Home permanents were popular through the 1950s and '60s, and the company's slogan "Which twin has the Toni?" is an advertising icon. (All I and my siblings knew, however, was that the noxious fumes of the home permanent meant that Mom would be out of commission for a couple of hours, a treasured window of opportunity.)

In 2000, Gillette sold the factory -- by then down to about 250 workers -- and line to Diamond Products Co. Gillette itself was acquired by Procter & Gamble in 2005, the same year Diamond shuttered the plant.

So the beige, bland building beside the Lafayette Bridge will be gone sometime next spring.

But on another summer day in a couple of years, at another baseball game at a new stadium full of fresh energy, in my mind's eye I will pace off where Dad's office was. I hope it's in the infield, somewhere in the thick of the action.

He'd like that.

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson

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