Standing on the corner of Cedar and Exchange streets, eyes tracing up the Beaux Arts-style columns of the historic Exchange Building, you’d be as likely to conjure an image of nuns roller skating on the roof as you would a giraffe strolling down the street.
Indeed, habited sisters on skates once glided around up there, gazing out at the city.
Until 1962, the building was home to St. Agatha’s Conservatory of Music and Art, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who occupied a convent on the upper floors.
After a long day of teaching, either at the conservatory or at area Catholic schools, the sisters would attend prayer, then supper, and then take their evening break. Some settled into the common room to play bridge, but the youngest among them (many of whom were in their early 20s) flocked to a covered rooftop loggia to spend their one precious hour of recreation singing old Irish songs, swinging on swings, playing badminton and, yes, roller skating.
That sixth-floor loggia is now enclosed. Its new walls encompass a cluster of suites in the building’s newest chapter: as Celeste St. Paul Hotel and Bar.
Aside from the loggia, the exterior of the building has changed very little. Since 1910, the stately brown brick structure has maintained an elegant and dignified air. A symmetrical, double-sided staircase curves up to its front entrance. Pressed-copper cornices have oxidized to a brilliant green over a century of snowy winters and rainy springs.
Inside, too, the boutique hotel preserves the building’s history.
The name is an homage to Mother Celestine, the Superior who oversaw the building’s construction. Founded in 1884, St. Agatha’s was Minnesota’s first fine arts school, and it quickly outgrew its space in the Lick Mansion at 10th and Main streets in St. Paul. The school first moved to a wood frame building, the Palmer House near Cedar and Exchange before eventually, under the auspices of Celestine, the six-story school and convent opened at 26 E. Exchange Street. John H. Wheeler, a nephew of Celestine, was the architect for the new St. Agatha’s. (He also built Derham Hall at the College of St. Catherine, among other buildings for Catholic institutions in Minnesota.)
Paintings in the hotel lobby, some of them created by sisters of St. Joseph, nod to St. Agatha’s history as a fine arts school. (A few of the sisters went to Europe to train as painters and musicians.) The upstairs chapel, now a cafeteria for hotel guests, still lights up through the original stained-glass windows. The parlor where guests visited the school is now a bar with cheeky drink names: Bad Habit, Resurrection and Sister Jane.
A sisterly slumber party
To celebrate its opening, the hotel even invited sisters who had lived at St. Agatha’s to return for a sleepover.
Sister Jane Hurley (of the aforementioned cocktail) took a fall shortly before the sleepover and was unable to attend, but she saw pictures of the hotel.
Hurley joined the sisterhood when she was 18 and moved into the convent at 21. “My favorite part was the camaraderie,” the 92-year-old said. “When one of us would laugh, we’d all start to laugh.”
The new hotel brings back old memories for Hurley.
Where there are individual rooms (rather essential for modern hotel guests), Hurley recalls a large dormitory, separated by privacy curtains, with strictly enforced quiet hours from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. When she saw the king-size bed now spanning one of the suites, she laughed. “Our beds? You just had to be careful that you didn’t fall out.”
From the chapel windows, Hurley said, she and her sisters would eavesdrop on the parties at the YMCA next door. (“We were having more fun,” she assured.) But when asked about the nearby Fitzgerald Theater, Hurley couldn’t recall.
“The sisters wouldn’t have known much about the theater,” said Michelle Hueg, archivist for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul province. “They weren’t cloistered, but there were still rules.”
Rules that, as Hurley gleefully recounts, certain sisters delighted in breaking.
One in particular, Brigid McDonald of the McDonald sisters immortalized at the History Theatre this spring, was a rebel in her way. She danced up and down the stairs, made Easter bunnies at Easter and intentionally flubbed the words to her prayer request — and somehow always dodged serious consequences.
“Brigid kept us laughing,” said Hurley. “We always thought she’d be sent home. We’d think, ‘Oh, this time she’s not coming back.’ She always came back.
Even after St. Agatha’s closed in 1962, music filled the halls; the McNally School of Music had administrative offices and continued to hold classes there until it closed.
In 2017, it was purchased by Rebound Hospitality, which set about converting the space into a 71-room hotel.
“It’s so hard to believe that they could reconstruct all of this,” Hurley said.
Once she’s healed from her fall, Hurley is planning to see the Celeste Hotel and Bar in person. Will she drink one of those Sister Jane cocktails?
“Oh, I will,” she said. “I think it’s kind of fun. Why not?”