The most prominent gas station near downtown Minneapolis wants to make it easier for cars to hop in for a fill-up, but a 123-year-old relic of Minneapolis’ Swedish heritage is standing in the way.
Bobby and Steve’s Auto World bought a two-story building next to their flagship store about a decade ago on Washington Avenue beside Interstate 35W, with plans to demolish it and another structure to improve traffic flow. But their application hit a snag at City Hall, after research revealed the building’s 19th century history as a well-known local watering hole named the Stockholm Saloon.
The debate over the building has become a familiar one in Minneapolis as development heats up and property owners see a better use for small-scale historical structures that — while sometimes deteriorating — have shaped the city’s streets for generations. Bobby and Steve’s proposed demolition is unique, however, for its goal is to accommodate cars rather than a new retail-residential building.
“This is on historic Washington Avenue, on a corridor where we’re trying incredibly hard to facilitate retail growth and activity that’s presently just been a thruway for cars,” Council Member Jacob Frey said. “And if the goal is retail and activity then why would we take great efforts to knock down a building and expand a gas station?”
The company contends that the existing conditions are dangerous for customers, a higher-than-normal number of whom do not return to the station. “You literally can be trapped in our fueling station,” said Steve Williams, who owns Bobby and Steve’s with his father. “And people don’t like to have that feeling of being trapped. So they avoid using us because of that.”
Upon investigating the history of 1207 Washington Av., city staff recommended blocking demolition and launching a study for possible historic designation. The city had previously studied the traffic safety issues, but found no major problems. The measure heads to a vote of the city’s heritage preservation commission next week, though it will likely end up at the City Council.
The building dates to the 1880s, a booming era in Minneapolis when Washington Avenue S. was a thriving Scandinavian-dominated commercial and entertainment district. It was built in 1892 for $90,000 by Al “Stockholm” Olson, who had immigrated from Sweden 12 years earlier and was already operating a saloon several blocks away.
Storied dance hall
The Minneapolis Tribune wrote in 1897 it was the “most elaborately furnished saloon. It was gorgeous, as compared with the old place, and it attracted the eye of the thirsty south Minneapolitans, who had prior thereto refreshed themselves in the old rough and tumble saloon.”
The dance hall upstairs stirred particular controversy, partly because it was where “young women started on the downward path; it was here that many of them for the first time in their lives tasted intoxicating liquor.” A city staff report noted the building, sometimes called Olson’s Hall, was also a meeting place for several Scandinavian social and fraternal organizations at the time.
Staff also found that the building’s architect, Carl Struck, was the only active 19th century Minneapolis architect born in Norway.
A fire destroyed the top two floors of 1207 Washington Av. in 1909. Furniture stores, grocers and printing companies cycled through the space in the early 1900s, before floral wholesaler Twin City Florist Supply set up shop there for half a century, according to a consultant’s report. Kathy Bystedt, whose father ran that floral business until she took it over, recalled witnessing the seedy nature of 1960s Washington Avenue — which was also home to the city’s skid row until urban renewal of the late 1950s.
“The prostitutes would be walking down the street carrying their mattresses from one joint to the other joint,” Bystedt said. “It was quite the interesting neighborhood then.”
Regarding the latest proposal, she added, “I would say leave it there. But I think that would be my heart talking. I would hate to see it go down.”
Most recently, a hand-painted sign reading simply “HALLOWEEN” graced the doorway, a remnant of the last transformation into a costume shop replete with upper-level “Ladies Boodoir” dressing rooms. The surrounding neighborhood has rebounded in the past decade as condos, a taproom, hotel and Guthrie theatergoers have injected activity into the streets.
Building needs work
A demolition would allow Bobby and Steve’s to expand the narrow alley to their back entrance on 12th Avenue and ultimately widen the space between their pump stations. “It’s vital to the development, the economic well-being of all the condos downtown there,” Williams said. “And it needs to be fixed.”
The Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association agreed in a letter that changes are needed to improve safety for cars and people on foot. They conditioned their support for the demolition, however, on the city’s preservation commission finding that building is not historically significant.
Williams hired historical consultants who concluded that it did not meet the legal criteria for preservation due to fires, alterations and the number of similar buildings still standing in the area. “We just felt in the bottom of our heart that this thing was going to be junk,” he said.
The building itself needs substantial work. A contractor estimated that it would cost $809,598 to renovate.
City staff contended that the building “could be renovated and repurposed for a wide range of adaptive reuses given the size of the structure, the location” and the zoning.
“Is it in rough shape presently? Yes,” said Frey, the council member. “But there are numerous examples of similar buildings that have been fixed up.”
Bobby and Steve’s has its own unique history. Bobby Williams started working at his brother’s first store in 1954, on Lake Street and Holmes Avenue. The Bobby and Steve’s moniker launched in 1996 with their first store in Bloomington. They now have eight locations.
Steve Williams said they faced skepticism when they built the downtown location in 1997 with an extra-large convenience store. It now houses a stone that says “Bobby’s Field of Dreams,” a reference to Bobby Williams and the movie “Field of Dreams.”
“He’s always said, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” Steve Williams said.