The Historic Palace Theater is one of the bright spots in quiet downtown St. Paul

For years I’ve heard people joke that “downtown St. Paul is dead,” meaning there’s no street life and the shops close before 8 p.m. live in downtown St. Paul and the thousands more, who come to the city center for work or events.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the joke wasn’t that funny. It became a statement of truth: office workers disappeared overnight, a full calendar year of events were canceled, and downtown streets seemed post-apocalyptic.

Even the stalwart landmark Mickey’s Diner closed its doors. (They’re still closed, by the way, although the owners promise they could reopen at some point in the next few months.)

One of downtown’s post-COVID bright spots is the historic Palace Theater, a 2,500-person rock venue operated by First Avenue conglomerate. Squares along 7th Place fill like clockwork with rock music fans most weekends, and a corner of downtown St. Paul comes alive. In a time of uncertainty, the Palace has proven to be a relief for bars and restaurants, reliably getting people to the heart of the city centre.

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A theatrical gamble?

Ten years ago it was considered a risky maneuver to invest city money in the palace. Led by then-Mayor Chris Coleman, the city proposed in 2014 to purchase and rehabilitate the building and used a one-time pot of approximately $9 million in city funds to purchase and rehabilitate the building. The idea was to use city bonds to leverage other grants, convert the theater into a concert hall, and gradually pay off the debt with the expected proceeds.

At the time, some City Council members saw this as too risky and too much emphasis on the economic development of downtown at the expense of many other neighborhoods. And these types of investments don’t always work out well; The “E Block” in Minneapolis provides a good counterexample to a downtown economic development project gone awry.

So far, the venue has been a financial success. Especially in the post-COVID economy, when workers are still not back in the downtown office buildings, the palace has been one of the big attractions of downtown.

“I’m incredibly proud of the Palace Theater,” said Joe Spencer, who runs the St. Paul Downtown Alliance. “It was a bear, but that was part of what made it satisfying.”

Before taking his current job, Spencer worked as director of arts and culture for then-Mayor Coleman and spent years trying to get the Palace Theater back on its feet.

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“It really took a while for the palace to come back to life [7th] A place that feels special and has the purpose that was originally intended,” Spencer said. “It put St. Paul on a more equal footing with Minneapolis as a music city, and that was exactly the goal.”

Once the largest pool hall in the country

It’s not hard to remember when the Palace Theater and the surrounding block of historic buildings seemed doomed. The building itself dates back to 1915 and was once the country’s largest pool hall, part of the neighboring St. Francis Hotel. It then became a vaudeville venue before becoming one of downtown’s most popular silent and talkie houses.

The St. Francis Hotel and adjacent Palace Theater in the 1920s.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The St. Francis Hotel and adjacent Palace Theater in the 1920s.

But the theater stopped showing films in 1977 and sat empty for decades after that. It was even slated for demolition as a future location for an office building. (The Travelers Insurance megablock eventually grew up next door, now home to Ecolab Corporation.)

Spencer and some other downtown boosters saw potential in the old theater. For years, people proposed ideas about what to do with the space, but most were eventually scrapped. A new home for the city’s Penumbra Theater? (They eventually settled in historic Rondo.) Want to lure The Walt Disney Company into putting Broadway shows there? (The backstage area wasn’t big enough.)

The space turned out to be ideal for a music club.

“It’s not uncommon to pour a bunch of public dollars into cultural assets, but it’s not always a hit,” Spencer admitted. “There are many competing needs for these resources, but whether it’s the new concert or museum space or the ballpark, they all serve the same similar role for the community.”

The Palace’s transition into today’s rock venue is probably what Spencer is most excited about, a rehab that’s done just enough to uncover the historic structure. The 2,500-seat venue, modeled after the rugged surfaces of Minneapolis’ Southern Theater (a longtime home of the Twin Cities’ dance community), fills a niche in the landscape of local music venues. If you go there today, you will find a unique quirky atmosphere with historical touches that will make you feel like you are exploring a forgotten city.

“My first impression was that this place was supposed to be a rock club, and not a gold leaf rock club, but a cool, gritty, wabi-sabi experience,” said Joe Spencer, referring to the Japanese pottery tradition. “You can feel the age and some of the brokenness, which is part of what makes it cool.”

More importantly, it fills a void in St. Paul’s street life. On concert nights, Wabasha and St. Peter streets are packed with people visiting bands like Regina Spektor, War on Drugs or the Flaming Lips. For a town that’s accused of being sleepy, this is a great change of pace.

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Downtown after COVID

The COVID pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of one-way inner cities, districts that depend on one type of land use, such as 9-to-5 offices, nightclubs, or sports. Instead, inner cities proved the most resilient with a mix of uses, a balance of shops, offices and housing. The pandemic has forced downtown boosters like Spencer to reconsider some of their assumptions about economic development.

“It was really our visiting destinations, including the palace, which had a really busy schedule, that went tremendously in helping with our recovery,” Spencer told me. “They came back quicker than our employers.”

Even as workers flock back to buildings like the nearby Securian Financial Tower, the line-up at the Palace Theater is a constant beating heart. Along with Park Square Theater and KJ’s Hideaway (the underground jazz reincarnation of the Artists’ Quarter), the live venue offers hope for a post-COVID downtown. Because now the investment made by the city years ago seems to have paid off.

However, there is still a lot of room for improvement in this part of downtown. The former Wild Tymes bar has been vacant since First Avenue bought it in 2017, and vacant storefronts — the Walgreens space, the former Rivertown Market, and the old Bruegger’s bagels — are still waiting for a new life.

It might take a few years to fill these spaces, but downtown St. Paul isn’t dead anymore. With the help of rock fans, it’s slowly coming back to life.

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