by Tom Conlon • I recently learned that the Saint Paul Hotel will celebrate its one hundredth anniversary in 2010. I wanted to make sure its role in our city’s history was acknowledged in some manner. Perhaps my own personal reflections as a former employee and later a guest can contribute.
In my senior year at Highland Park Senior High School in 1977–1978, I had the privilege to work as a part-time weekend houseman at the hotel, which fascinated me, particularly since it had seen most of its former glory days pass.
Like many downtowns in U.S. cities, Saint Paul’s was killed off by the decline of the passenger railroads, the development of new suburban shopping malls, and changing housing patterns; the once vibrant social, entertainment, and commercial activities downtowns were known for disappeared. With them, the old, aging luxury hotels deteriorated, and business travelers headed to newer hotels such as the Radisson on the riverfront.
The Saint Paul Hotel was no exception to this trend. Built around 1910, the twelve-story hotel was an imposing structure on the corner of St. Peter and Fifth streets. Its light tan façade had become faded and dirty, and the lobby floor and pillars had been tiled and wallpapered over in a 1950s-era modernizing effort that destroyed much of its original charm.
I remember once being in the old coffee shop as a child and even getting a haircut in the basement barbershop (sometime in the late 1960s), but by the late 1970s, both had been closed. A vacant old cigar stand and shoeshine chair stood at the entrance to the old coffee shop, which was dark but still had its old furnishings, as well as some in storage.
As a houseman, I had a master key to all parts of the building. My job required me to clean up public areas, such as the lobby, hallways, restrooms, and meeting rooms, repair a broken drape in a room, move a trash compactor up to ground level, and other odds and ends. Once in a rare while, I got to play the role of bellman. As a union job, it paid $3.11 an hour (with a 10-cent raise during my time there); the minimum wage was around $2.75 an hour at that time.
Our housekeeper, Evelyn Boykin, was a great boss, and we kept in touch for a few years after the hotel closed and even had a housekeeping reunion at her home. For a time, she had gone over to the old Capp Towers (Best Western Hotel) a few blocks away until that closed and became the Naomi Family Center. Bob Johnson was the general manager when I was there (replacing Curt Walker), and Robin Smith was our catering manager.
I usually worked two five-hour weekend shifts from 4 to 9 p.m. By the end of my shift, the maids and housekeepers had gone home, and the only other employees in the whole building (besides myself) were the front desk clerk/night auditor, the custodial engineer, and on occasion, a private security guard, if there was a hotel function. I often completed my assigned work early, so the down time often allowed me to explore the bowels of the building.
Those who celebrated large events at the hotel in the 1970s probably walked through the old Hall of Queens (which held portraits of Saint Paul Winter Carnival queens) and into the chandeliered ballroom with the marble floor (now modernized). No one seems to know where the queen portraits went. If it was a smaller party, you probably went down the winding basement staircase to the old round casino room (now roughly where the café is).
The custodial engineers took me under their wing and showed me parts of the building and told me old stories. “Grizzly” Ed Adams (with his crewcut) would complain about one particular permanent resident who would call down for the most trivial reasons, such as hot pipes or staff’s failure to turn on a small light in the elevator.
A front desk clerk, a young beautiful blonde named Shelley, used to gossip about all the hotel happenings and people, and we kept in touch years later, still laughing about our memories. Later, we even went to visit the high-maintenance resident, who had by then moved to Kellogg Square downtown.
Most evenings, the lobby was pretty quiet except for the occasional permanent resident entering or leaving the elevator (the hotel offered monthly rentals and contract rooms for Jefferson Bus Lines). The only time you could eat at the hotel was breakfast and lunch during the week at the old Gopher Grill, which was closed on the weekends. Occasionally there was a banquet in the marble-floored ballroom with its beautiful chandeliers.
Ken Casper, a contract security guard, had keys to the freezer in the grill and would make sandwiches for us late at night. An unexpected visit by the general manager one quiet night caused Shelley to sit down on her sandwich behind the front desk for fear of being fired. She didn’t have time to hide the big bowl of potato chips, but no one said anything, and life went on as usual. We had many a laugh over that memory years later.
During the winter high school state tournaments, the place was alive with kids from all over Minnesota, and housekeeping told tales of pillows being thrown out from upper floor windows and older residents complaining of noise. I also remember occasional youth dances held in the casino room and often attended them when I got off duty.
Many of the rooms had old carpeting, black-and-white TVs, and were quite small. Rates started at $18/night. While working extra one night during a busy state tournament period, I encountered a girl in the hallway close to my age who said she’d forgotten her room key. She asked if I could let her in her room, which I did. We got talking, and I ended up giving her a tour of the normally vacant rooftop penthouses—only to unexpectedly crash a general manager’s private party. We also went up on the roof, where you had a fantastic view of the state capitol, Mississippi River, and downtown Saint Paul. Years before, a radio station had broadcasted from there, but it was all vacant now.
Bob Short, then a U.S. Senate candidate, had owned the hotel, along with the old Leamington Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. When he sold it in the summer of 1979, the old hotel finally closed its doors. To my knowledge, this was the only time the hotel closed in its history. I had left my job in August 1978 when I entered the Marines, but while home on leave the summer after its closure, I visited the old hotel one last time.
One of the remaining custodial engineer friends of mine (Ed Findlay, who a few years ago was working as a security guard at the US Trust Building, formerly Burlington Railroad Building across from Galtier Plaza) was responsible for keeping the building heated and cared for during an uncertain transition that might have ended in demolition. He let me in for one last tour. It was sad to see the stacks of sheets and old plates on tables in the old ballroom and the place in general disrepair.
During another visit home in 1981, I had the pleasure to see the hotel reopened and brought back to elegance, as it remains today. There were now fewer but larger rooms, and none of the old employees that I knew of came back. The lobby, entrances, and restaurants had been rearranged, with the elegant Saint Paul Grill replacing the old Hall of Queens meeting rooms.
The old garage, where Landmark Towers now stands, was torn down. The main entrance is now on Market Street rather than St. Peter. And of course, no skyway connection existed in the 1970s.
I always remembered the old employee locker room in the always-overheated bathrooms, as well as the near-empty screened areas in the basement that once held more liquor, kitchen supplies, and canned food than in the final years. In 1990, that had all been replaced and modernized. While I was pleased that the hotel once again had life, color, and beauty, serving upscale clientele and social functions, I still had a bit of sadness that old memories, people, and icons of the old hotel were lost.
Today, I still find myself taking the occasional three-minute walk-through when I am downtown, and I always look forward to attending functions in the hotel. Unlike the many sterile modern hotel buildings that look alike, the Saint Paul still has a distinct architecture and character of its own. I had a fundraiser there during my first school board campaign in 1991, and occasionally I do a photography shoot for a high school reunion in the ballroom. The Sunday brunches are back too!
I also had an opportunity to stay in the hotel for two nights in 2004 and enjoyed the large, comfortable pillows, elegant surroundings and amenities, and great view over Rice Park and the Ordway Center. No hotel in Saint Paul can match its charm.
The Saint Paul Hotel has been a survivor and a reminder that we must preserve not only our architectural and cultural history but the memories such institutions play in people’s lives. I hope future generations will have the opportunity to enjoy the hotel as I have through the years.