The city of St. Paul's Heritage Preservation Commission has agreed to consider the Victoria Theatre for historic designation, as efforts to save the former 1920s-era nightclub gain momentum.
The unanimous decision, made at a commission meeting last week, marks the first step toward preserving the building at 825 University Ave.
"I think it's great that there's a grassroots effort that's willing to get behind it," said Amy Spong, a historic preservation specialist with the city's Planning and Economic Development Department.
Community members brought the request to the commission, armed with new information about the building's raucous history.
Kurt Gegenhuber, a local self-described amateur historian, has spent the last three years piecing together the history of the building. Previous historical surveys focused on the property's five-year history as the Victoria Theatre, a silent movie house founded in 1915.
But Gegenhuber focused on the building's later incarnation at the Victoria Cafe, a popular dance hall that was the target of repeated and even violent raids by federal agents during Prohibition. Frank Cloutier led the house orchestra, performing alongside show girls dressed in sparkling flapper dresses.
A song performed by Cloutier and his orchestra ended up on the influential Anthology of American Folk Music. "It sounds like a jazz rendition of a rural Minnesota polka," Gegenhuber said. "I don't really think it sold all that well."
Audrey Thompson grew up hearing stories about the nightclub's sordid past. Her grandfather, Moe Thompson, owned the building during its Prohibition years.
"My grandmother would run the checkroom for him," Thompson said. "Gangsters would check their guns. It sounded pretty wild."
Last month, community members pressured Model Cities, a local nonprofit, to back out of its plans to buy the building and turn it into a parking lot.
The building's owner, Bee Vue, has expressed frustration with local preservationists. The building has been vacant for about ten years, after housing a lighting company for several decades.
Spong said the city will work closely with Vue, as specialists with the city's Heritage Preservation Commission examine the building.
"We want to answer any questions he has and make sure he understands what designation means," Spong said.
If city preservationists grant historic designation, the building could not be demolished. The exterior would also have to be preserved, although the owner could make changes to the interior.
However, the designation process will take months. Unlike Minneapolis, St. Paul does not restrict owners from demolishing properties under consideration for historic designation.
"The city had to get involved," said Tait Danielson Castillo, executive director of the District 7 Planning Council and a supporter of the preservation effort. "We're all tense right now because we might need to ramp it up at any point when it gets purchased."
If preservation specialists decide the building should be considered for historic designation, several city committees and the State Historic Preservation Office would review the information before deciding whether to send the recommendation to the city council for final approval.
The city has granted historic designation to 73 individual properties and six historic districts. The designation differs from the National Register, which has rejected the site for historic designation at least three times, most recently in 2008.
Despite an uphill battle, Victoria Theatre supporters remain optimistic. Community members have started a website devoted to the preservation effort and are raising money to purchase the building and convert it into a nonprofit performing arts center.
"We're very excited," Castillo said. "It's a wait-and-see game at this point, but we're hopeful."