How many times have you driven past a particular antique store on the corner of 33rd Street and Lyndale Avenue S. and had a sudden urge for steamed meat?
Then again, you might not even have realized that it is an antique store. It certainly doesn’t look like one. It’s more like an apparition from a distant fast-food era, a time before the Golden Arches.
It is a former White Castle, but not just any White Castle. It’s No. 8. And it’s historic.
It was a jewelry store for a while. Before that, it was an office for a construction company. Now it’s Xcentric Goods.
Anyone ever come in asking for a slider?
“Once a month,” said Clark Miller, one of Xcentric’s partners. “They walk in the door, look around, confused, and you think, ‘If they can’t smell the onions, it’s not a White Castle.’ ”
The interior gives no hints of the building’s previous use, and you might be startled to see there’s a basement. There’s a story behind that, too.
“When they moved it here,” Miller said, “they discovered they’d dug the basement wrong, and they had to redo it because they hadn’t got the orientation right.”
When they moved the building? Yes. It was moved — twice, in fact. The restaurants were designed so they could be dismantled and relocated.
“You could take them apart like a Tinkertoy,” Miller said.
The company leased the land under the restaurants, and, if it was unable to reach a new deal when a lease expired, the folks at White Castle HQ in Ohio would shrug and say, “All right, we’re off, then.”
White Castle was founded in 1921 in Wichita, Kan. It was such a success that the very next year, the company started opening franchises throughout the Midwest. And soon the chain was at the center of a burger war that began — and ended — in Minneapolis.
While attending the University of Minnesota, Thomas Saxe had been impressed by his trips to the fancy new White Castle restaurant. The bright white bricks and shiny interior connoted healthfulness and hygiene, and because the grill was visible to the customers, you could tell the meat wasn’t gray or flyblown. He decided to start his own chain and called it White Tower.
White Castle was not amused and sued Saxe in 1929 in a Minnesota court. White Tower lost, altered its designs and confined its stores — 230 at its peak — to territories where White Castles were scant.
You might wonder: Since White Castle No. 8 originally stood near the U in what’s now referred to as Stadium Village, could it be the one Saxe saw?
Alas, no. This White Castle was built in 1936 in the new porcelain-clad steel frame style. The towers had turrets and crenelations like an idealized castle, although the design was supposedly inspired by the Chicago Water Tower. (It was such an innovative design that No. 8 has its own Wikipedia page.)
In 1950, the owner of the property refused to renew the lease, so No. 8 was moved to 329 Central Av. SE. In 1983, the company opened a new, much bigger White Castle just down the block. Before the smaller one could be demolished, however, the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission, fearing the loss of a unique commercial structure, bestowed upon No. 8 the mantle of a Historic Structure.
“A White Castle is not Mount Vernon,” Norene Roberts, commission member, was quoted in a 1984 New York Times story about No. 8’s legacy. “But without the White Castle, we’d miss an awful lot of the American experience and our social history.”
It’s one thing to say a building must be preserved; it’s another to ensure it. The owner of the land under the building wanted it for a parking lot, meaning that the structure had to be sold and moved. The building itself was dirt cheap. The catch was that the buyer had to take it away.
Looking for an unusual space to convert into an office, Calamity J. Construction ended up paying $10 for the building, and then another $10,000 to move it. Which they did, in 1984, to its current home at 3252 Lyndale Av. S.
White Castle did not abandon its embassy. The sale included rules that the owner must follow: no food, liquor, or porn could ever be sold in the unit. Thus it has ever been.
“Because we’re on the National Historic Register, we can’t add a sign,” Miller said, “That’s why it’s not attached to the building. And we’re the only portable building on the Historic Register.
“We’ve been here six years, and we love it,” he added. “It’s iconic — and we have a parking lot.”
Too bad it’s historic, or they could’ve added the city’s first drive-through antique lane.