By Renée S. Gordon
On May 5, 1902 St. Paul’s Federal Courts Building officially opened with a parade of postal employees, led by a brass band, into the building. The Richardsonian Romanesque and Chateauesque structure was 122-ft. wide by 271-ft. long and rose a grandiose 170-ft. tall. Architect James Taylor sought to visually impart the power of the government through his design at a cost of $2,533,000-million, approximately $70-million today. Saved from demolition in 1968 it was restored at a cost of $12.5-million and opened as the renamed Landmark Center 10 years later.
Interior strolls reveal courtrooms with marble fireplaces, 20-ft ceilings and mahogany woodwork. An interior central atrium is open to the original skylight. Thematic free tours are offered including “Uncle Sam Worked Here” and architectural and gangster tours.
The first floor introductory exhibit provides an overview of events and characters tied to the history of the site. The 3rd floor is generally the most popular because the Prohibition exhibits are located there. It is actually in his upper floor office that U.S. Representative Andrew Volstead penned the 1919 National Prohibition Act that would be known as the Volstead Act. The act did not, as commonly believed, ban the consumption of alcohol but stated that it was illegal to manufacture, transport or sell it and mandated enforcement. Confiscated bootleg liquor was routinely stored in the basement.
In one of history’s greatest ironies the city that gave birth to the Prohibition Era and all the attendant crime was also the criminals most infamous haven. Under Police Chief John J. O’Connor’s regime a system was put in place whereby when a gangster arrived in town he went immediately to a place to pay a fee and sign a pledge that he would not commit crimes in St. Paul.
In return he was allowed to live there without police interference and if law enforcement from other jurisdictions sought them they would receive no assistance from the St. Paul force. Most of the era’s gangsters lived there at one time or another including the Ma Barker and her boys, John Dillinger, Alvin Karpis, Baby Face Nelson, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Edna “the Kissing Bandit” Murray, Al Capone, etc.
Courtroom 317 was the site of many of the gangster’s trials and Detention Room #327was where they were held to await the proceedings. Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, Dillinger’s girlfriend was tried there and legend has it that Dillinger drove around and around the building in a show of support. She received a two-year sentence. An audio experience is presented in the courtroom.
Though Alvin “Creepy” Karpis was captured in New Orleans he was brought to Saint Paul for trial. Hoover, who had deemed Karpis “Public Enemy No. 1,” was on hand to escort him to jail. He was the last No. 1 captured and the only gangster Hoover personally took credit for capturing. Karpis spent 26-years in Alcatraz, longer than any other prisoner. He was released in 1969 and deported to his home country, Canada. He died in 1979 in Spain probably living on money he had stashed. It is estimated that the Barker-Karpis Gang garnered at least $3 million during their career.
The Landmark Center is a must see. There is a gift shop on site and visitors services including scheduled free walking tours. www.landmarkcenter.org
Now that you know how a criminal career could end in St. Paul you might want to visit places where they lived. The St. Paul Gangster Tour is a deluxe bus tour guided by Dillinger himself or an equally notorious criminal. There are more than 60 locations and this is the best way to see them. Participants are treated to both the hideouts, inside stories and crime scenes that make the era fascinating. www.downinhistory.com
Lyman Dayton discovered in 1849 that the man-made caves in Wabasha were nearly 100 percent silica began extracting the silica for glassmaking. The caves were then used for produce and fruit storage. In the early 1900s three Frenchmen moved into the caves and grew mushrooms, the first commercially grown mushrooms in the US. Bill and Josie Lehman eventually took over the mushroom business and during Prohibition operated a speakeasy in part of the seven-cave system where the gangsters came to party undisturbed.
Guided tours take you 200-ft. into the caves where you are regaled with tales of the 30’s high life and stories of the ghosts who haunt the caves. There are tales of a 1934 murder in the Fireplace Room and guests are encouraged to look for bullet holes where three people were murdered during a card game. This was an exclusive club and restaurant and only the truly rich could afford the $125.00 meal. The Castle Royal opened on October 26, 1933.
It offered first-class entertainment, Jimmy Dorsey, Cab Calloway, etc., in the front and gambling in the rear and was decorated opulently with oriental carpets and glittering chandeliers. The restaurant closed in 1940 and the Wabasha Street Caves were saved the day before they were due to be demolished. The Caves are o the National Register of Haunted Places and they have been used as a film set. www.wabashastreetcaves.com
Rondo Avenue was the spine of the historic African American neighborhood in the 1930s. In the 1960s I-94 altered the community both physically and culturally. The once vibrant neighborhood is celebrated during Rondo Days in July. www.rondodaysmn.webs.com
The current Pilgrim Baptist Church was erected in 1928 but former slaves led by Robert Hickman organized the church in 1866. Hickman and 76 blacks escaped from Missouri and arrived in Saint Paul aboard a raft towed by The Northern, a supply ship. They had been found adrift and considered themselves “pilgrims.” They were not welcomed and were escorted to Fort Snelling for protection. After an additional 218 fugitives arrived and Hickman and some of the group returned to St. Paul. It was they who founded Pilgrim Baptist. They purchased land for $200 and the first building was a stone and wood structure built for $2400. www.pilgrimbaptistchurch.org
Clarence Wesley Wigington, Saint Paul’s first black architect, designed Harriet Island Pavilion. The building is in the Moderne-style constructed of Kasota limestone in 1941. He also designed the 134-ft. Highland Park Tower. Wigington was a draftsman and ultimately chief architect for the St. Paul Dept. of Parks and Recreation and Public Buildings for 34 years and designed most of the public buildings during that time.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 and moved around St. Paul until 1922. The “F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul Homes and Haunts” is a 14 site tour that features places he lived, places mentioned in his stories and places he frequented. His home at 599 Summit Ave. is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Brochures with maps and information are available. www.thefriends.org
One of the sites on all the St. Paul tours is the Saint Paul Hotel. The hotel is situated on land that has been a hotel for nearly 200-years. Records indicate that John Summers housed people here in the 1850s and in 1871 he constructed the 60-room Greenman House. In 1908 construction began on the Saint Paul Hotel and it opened in 1910. It was closed in 1972, saved from demolition and renovated and reopened in 1982.
The hotel is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived there for a brief time and the third floor was Leon Gleckman’s, Saint Paul’s answer to Capone, headquarters. Gleckman occupied suites 301-03 and the FBI occupied 309.
The Saint Paul is a centrally located luxury hotel that offers 254 classically designed rooms, exclusive products, and amenities including free WIFI, 24-hour room service, Concierge services and Fitness and Business Centers. The St. Paul Grill serves traditional American cuisine in a classic, atmosphere. www.saintpaulhotel.com
The Eagle Street Grill is a wonderful restaurant with a gangster theme. Menu items are named after various felons. The food is delicious and the booths are spacious. There are three bars, free WIFI, entertainment and outdoor dining. www.eaglestreetgrille.net
Mickey’s Diner was sent by rail from New Jersey in 1937. It is a classic Art Deco, 50-ft. by 10-ft, diner that has been featured in several films. You’ve been able to grab a meal 24-hours a day since it opened. Mickey’s was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1983. www.mickeysdiningcar.com
As always, there is much more to Saint Paul. You can explore the rivers, Minnesota has 90,000-miles of shoreline, more than California, Hawaii and Florida combined, you can explore the legacy of hometown boy Charles Schultz through the “Peanuts on Parade” outdoor sculptures or you can wander the 5.5-miles of the Saint Paul Skyway that connects restaurants, attractions, shops, hotels and entertainment venues. Saint Paul is a cultural, and affordable, goldmine. Explore your options. www.visitsaintpaul.com
I wish you smooth travels!
An exceptional companion read to any visit to St. Paul is Paul Maccabee’s “John Dillinger Slept Here.” This extremely well documented book is the quintessential stroll through the city’s criminal history from 1920-36.
For a quick trip close to home consider the Underground Railroad Museum at the Historic Belmont Mansion in Fairmount Park. Interactive exhibits interpret the story of the Peters’ Family who lived there and the mansion’s place in Underground Railroad history. The Harriet Tubman Gift Shop is on-site and there is a series of regularly scheduled events. www.belmontmansion.org
A little further afield is the Roger New York Hotel. Situated in the heart of the action on Madison Ave., this luxury hotel has undergone a renaissance that has maintained its position as a leader in luxury accommodations with personal services and superior hospitality, while adding state-of-the-art amenities such as wireless access, a fitness center and recreated public spaces. Unique architectural, design and historic elements have been retained, renewed and repurposed. The new Roger Hotel debuted in June 2012. Photographs. Reservations and specials are available online. www.therogernewyork.com