After years of sitting vacant, a former speakeasy and cabaret in St. Paul could see new life following a $2.4 million bonding recommendation by Gov. Tim Walz.

Frogtown residents and local leaders have been rallying support to renovate the vacant former Victoria Theater into a community arts center. If the Legislature approves the bond, the nearly $5 million project would require about another $1.8 million to complete.

The 105-year-old building is poised to become an asset for “a community that has had a troubled past,” said state Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, who sought $3 million for the theater from the Legislature last year without success.

Preservationists have focused on the theater since it was nearly demolished in 2009 to make way for a parking lot.

The site was given historic designation in 2011 by the city of St. Paul, and the Twin Cities Community Land Bank purchased the property in 2014 to protect it from redevelopment while the theater’s supporters raised money.

“Right now, we’re raising friends, we’re not raising funds,” said Tyler Olsen-Highness, executive director of Victoria Theater Arts Center.

The group will receive about $400,000 from the city once they’ve raised enough money to purchase and renovate the building, Olsen-Highness said. The city has also paid to help stabilize the building.

Olsen-Highness said the cultural vibrancy and diversity of Frogtown, plus the proximity to multiple light-rail stops, would make the theater a destination. The refurbished building would include a 120-seat theater, a flexible community performance space with about 50 seats and rooms for classes and meetings.

“Art centers in general are just like such amazing hearts of communities,” Olsen-Highness said. “And like any heart, they’re a thing that keeps the community alive.”

Frogtown is a creative community, said Laura Zabel, executive director of artist community development organization Springboard for the Arts. The theater, which sits at 825 W. University Av. on the border of the historic Rondo neighborhood, would be the only one in the vicinity.

“It would provide a space for people in the neighborhood to really see all of the creative and cultural assets that are there already,” Zabel said. She said artists often need to leave the area to perform or do their work.

The theater’s long history has sometimes strayed far from the arts.

The Beaux-Arts style building was erected as a silent movie house in 1915. During the Prohibition era, it was a cabaret and nightclub dubbed the Victoria Café. The speakeasy was raided at least twice by federal agents during this period, according to Historic St. Paul.

A central piece of the theater’s legacy is the 1927 recording of “Moonshiners Dance: Part One” by the Victoria Café Orchestra. According to Historic St. Paul, it’s the only recording in the Anthology of American Folk Music that was recorded outside of Chicago or the South.

The building also housed a lamp and lighting shop for decades.

“We need some excitement in this ward and that community, some positive excitement,” said St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao. “I think it’s part of the overall scheme of building community, reducing crime, putting young people on the right path and bringing communities together.”

 

J.D. Duggan (j.d.duggan@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.