Volunteers at St. Paul’s Twin City Model Railroad Museum, which for decades has delighted children, parents and grandparents with its intricate miniature displays, are struggling to find a way to keep their cherished venue open.
Unless they come up with a financial solution, the museum in Bandana Square may have to close its doors by Oct. 26. It’s facing eviction notices from both of its landlords there.
The museum had planned to move into a new location, but its board could not find an affordable option. Now time is running out.
“We’ve moved before and survived challenges, but this is a big one,” museum spokesman Brandon Jutz said Thursday.
Founded in 1934, the museum offers a miniature replica of Minnesota’s past, when statewide railways carried the commodities that turned the Twin Cities into an agricultural metropolis. Visitors can start their tour at a model of the Washburn “A” Mill, head to the 1913 Great Northern Station and end at a freight yard resembling the Minnesota Transfer Railways switching yard.
“It’s a piece of history,” said volunteer Peter Southard. “To know that is going to be lost is a great disappointment.”
In 1984, the museum moved from St. Paul’s Union Depot to Bandana Square at the invitation of the Wilder Foundation and the St. Paul Port Authority, which owned the building. At the time, it was a shopping center. In 2003, Wellington Management acquired Bandana Square and turned the building into a medical complex, with office spaces and an Allina clinic. Since then, the museum has struggled to pay the rent.
The museum’s FundAnything page says $30,000 is needed to pay off the landlord and “additional funding” is needed for a move. By Thursday night, just under $1,000 had been raised.
Paul Gruetzman, 70, who has volunteered there for more than 40 years, struggled Thursday to talk about the possibility that the museum might close. For Gruetzman, it has been a family affair; he began volunteering there with his parents.
Gruetzman and his father used 5,000 pieces of basswood to hand-build the museum’s miniature Stone Arch Bridge. Years later, he and his children helped piece together the railroad ties.
The idea that the museum might close “keeps me awake virtually every night,” he said. “I wish there was a different way to do things.”
The volunteers are so dedicated that some have worked well into their 90s. Among those who left a mark on the museum was Ray Barton, a designer well-known for creating the Minnesota Twins logo of two players shaking hands, Gruetzman said.
For years, the museum has been a favorite destination for parents and kids, and perhaps even more so for grandparents eager to share their love of history.
On Thursday, Jim LeBeau, 66, of Carbondale, Ill., brought his grandson. “Kids don’t know anything about trains and how very important they were to Minnesota,” he said.
Amelia Zumwalde, 36, of St. Louis Park, had planned on heading to the Science Museum of Minnesota with her sons. When 4-year-old Max realized they were on the same road as the model train museum, he asked to go see the trains, she said.
Zumwalde said it would be sad to see it go.
The museum had planned to install its Holiday Night Train event earlier in hopes of bringing in some extra money.
Each year after Thanksgiving, it has dimmed the lights for that display, which blankets the fictional Minnesota town of Mattlin in snow and sets model streetlights aglow as a Christmas train chugs along.
Gruetzman said he carved his parents’ initials into the Christmas train that they worked on together. “We had some really incredible displays planned for this year,” he said.
Without the Holiday Night Train season, Jutz said, the museum might not have a future. An angel investor might be the only way to save it, Southard said.