Historic Palace Theater is one of quiet downtown St. Paul’s bright spots

For years, I’ve heard people joke about how “downtown St. Paul is dead,” by which they mean it’s devoid of street life, with stores closing before 8 pm I’ve often pushed back, pointing to the thousands of people who live in downtown St. Paul and the thousands more who come downtown for work or events.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and the joke wasn’t so funny. It was becoming a true statement: Office workers vanished overnight, a whole calendar year of events were canceled and downtown streets seemed post-apocalyptic.

Even stalwart landmark Mickey’s Diner shut its doors. (They’re still closed, by the way, although the owners are promising they might reopen sometime 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 the First Avenue conglomerate. Like clockwork, the odd plaza along “7th Place” fills with rock music fans most weekends, and a corner of downtown St. Paul comes to life. In an era of uncertainty, the Palace has proven to be a relief for bars and restaurants, reliably bringing people into the heart of downtown.

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A theatrical gamble?

Ten years ago, investing city money into the Palace served was seen as a risky maneuver. Led by then-Mayor Chris Coleman, the city pitched purchasing and rehabbing the building back in 2014, and used a one-time pot of around $9 million in city money to buy and rehab the building. The idea was to use city bonds to leverage other grants, rehab the theater into a concert venue and gradually pay back the debt with expected revenues.

At the time, some members of the City Council saw it as overly risky, and placing too much emphasis on economic development for the downtown at the expense of the city’s many other neighbourhoods. And these kinds of investments don’t always work well; Minneapolis’ “Block E” offers a good counterexample of a downtown economic development project gone wrong.

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

“I’m incredibly proud of the Palace Theater,” said Joe Spencer, who directs 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 the 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 took the Palace coming back to life to really for [7th] Place to feel special, and have the purpose that was originally intended,” Spencer said. “It moved St. Paul into a more equal position with Minneapolis as a music city, and that was very much the goal.”

Once the largest billiard hall in the country

It’s not hard to remember when the Palace Theater and its surrounding block of historic buildings seemed doomed. The building itself dates to 1915, and was at one point the largest billiard hall in the country, part of the next-door St. Francis Hotel. Then it became a vaudeville venue, before becoming one of downtown’s most popular silent and “talkie” film houses.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

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

But the theater stopped showing movies in 1977, and sat vacant for decades afterwards. It was even slated for demolition as a future site for an office building. (The Travelers Insurance megablock eventually rose just next door, home today to the Ecolab corporation.)

Spencer and some other downtown boosters saw potential in the old theater. For years, people pitched ideas about what to do with the space, but most were eventually shot down. A new home for the city’s Penumbra Theatre? (They eventually located in historic Rondo.) Luring the Walt Disney Company to use it to host Broadway shows? (The backstage area wasn’t large enough.)

It turned out that the space was ideal for a music club.

“Putting a bunch of public dollars into cultural assets is not uncommon, but it’s not always a slam-dunk,” admitted Spencer. “There are a lot of competing needs for those resources, but whether it’s the new concert or museum space or ballpark, they all fill the same similar role for the community.”

The Palace transition into today’s rock venue is probably the thing that most pleases Spencer, a rehab that did just enough to expose the historic structure. Modeled after the rough surfaces of Minneapolis’ Southern Theater (a longtime home to the Twin Cities’ dance community), the 2,500-seat venue fills a niche in the local music venue landscape. Going there today offers a unique edgy vibe, with historic touches that make it feel like you’re exploring a forgotten city.

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

Even more important, it fills a void in St. Paul street life. On concert nights, Wabasha and St. Peter streets are full of people heading out to see bands like Regina Spektor, War on Drugs, or the Flaming Lips. For a city accused of being too sleepy, it’s a great change of pace.

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Post-COVID downtown

The COVID pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of single-use downtowns, districts that are dependent on one kind of land use, like 9-to-5 offices, night clubs or sports. Instead, downtown areas that proved the most resilient were those with a mix of uses, a balance between shops, offices and apartments. The pandemic has forced downtown boosters like Spencer to rethink some of their assumptions about economic development.

“It really was our visitor destinations, including the Palace, that has had a really full schedule, that have been tremendous for helping with our recovery,” Spencer told me. “They’ve come back faster than our employers.”

Even as workers trickle back into buildings like the nearby Securian Financial tower, the lineup at the Palace Theater is a consistent pulse. Along with the Park Square Theatre, and KJ’s Hideaway (the underground jazz reincarnation of the Artists’ Quarter), the live venue offers some hope for a post-COVID downtown. For now the investment the city made years ago seems to have paid off.

That said, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in this part of downtown. The former Wild Tymes bar sat 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 lease on life.

Filling those spaces might take a few years, but downtown St. Paul isn’t dead anymore. With help from rock fans, it’s slowly coming back to life.

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