It’s been nearly 60 years since anyone paid an admission to be entertained at the movie theater at 929 7th St. W. in St. Paul.
The long-vacant, 100-year-old building once housed the Garden Theater. As recently as four months ago, it was targeted by the city for condemnation and demolition.
Enter the husband-and-wife team of Ryan and Tina North, owners of the Moss Envy eco-products shop on Excelsior Boulevard in Minneapolis. The pair spotted the building for sale, figured its location across the street from the Schmidt Brewery Artist Lofts made it a prime candidate for reuse, purchased it and brought forward plans for its rebirth as a new, 5,000-square-foot theater and performance rental space.
Now, after convincing city officials their proposal is for real, the Norths are putting the finishing touches on their financing and are preparing for construction work to start in earnest on their project — called North Garden Theater.
The Norths, both 41, each have acting as well as entrepreneurial backgrounds, and that combination has given hope to city and West 7th Street neighborhood leaders that the pair have the business and artistic chops to pull off the renovation of the rough-but-structurally sound building.
“We really believe this neighborhood is on the cusp of a major transformation into an arts district,” Ryan North said this week during a tour of the old theater’s gutted interior. “We’re outsiders here, but I think we’ve been able to convince the neighborhood that we want to both honor its history and be a catalyst for its future with the North Garden Theater project.”
The Norths have figured a budget of around $750,000 to renovate the building into a flexible performance space. Rather than fixed seating, it will have movable risers to seat up to 150 people in different configurations depending on the nature of the performance. Ryan North said the couple would concentrate mainly on attracting live theater productions mounted by accomplished, professional local theater groups without permanent homes of their own.
The venue would also be available for music concerts, neighborhood meetings and whatever other kinds of events it could draw to the area, which, in addition to the Schmidt lofts, has several other eclectic shops, galleries, bars and restaurants. It is served by Metro Transit’s high-frequency No. 54 bus line.
The couple obtained a financial backer in St. Paul-based Sunrise Banks, which is underwriting a $570,000 Small Business Administration-guaranteed loan to pay for the renovation. They expect to launch a Kickstarter-style funding campaign to help pay for theater-related expenses, such as its lighting system and control board.
The fact that there was once a movie theater behind the nondescript facade comes as a bit of surprise. It’s not readily apparent so much space is lurking in back of the modest storefront, which lost its movie marquee and other signature theater elements in 1960 when it was sold to a casket manufacturer. Photos in the Northwest Architectural Archive of the University of Minnesota Libraries from 1930 showed a vertical marquee and other signage when The Garden was showing an early gangster talkie from Columbia Pictures called “The Squealer.”
The theater likely opened in the summer of 1916, based on an article found in the Aug. 12, 1916, edition of the industry trade Moving Picture World, announcing that the “new Garden Theater” on St. Paul’s West 7th Street had debuted to “capacity crowds.”
It reported that the Garden’s ultramodern “equipment and general attractiveness” prompted closure of an even older theater a few blocks away, the Royal.
That attractiveness, however, has been nowhere apparent in recent years as its previous owners allowed it to fall into such disrepair that city officials deemed it a nuisance and targeted its demolition.
Holes in the ceiling and gaps in its exterior masonry allowed outside elements to enter. But the structural engineers hired by the Norths deemed the building to be in fine shape structurally.
Early work by general contractor Raven Construction of St. Paul concentrated on sealing the building’s envelope.
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer based in St. Paul and the former editor of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Real Estate Journal.