As in, I’ve gone off of it…again. Yep, done something odd. Hubby would say, “woman, you done lost your mind”. I can’t help it, though. I’m a firm believer in “If you don’t ask, the answer is already ‘no’ so I might as well ask”. I feel like I’m Paul Harvey…and now, the rest of the story…
So hubby and I were following our annual tradition of going to the Minneapolis auto show, and had gotten to downtown Minneapolis early. With time to kill we went walking and happened to go past a building where he used to work at the corner of 10th and Hennepin, in the old National Camera Exchange building. Now for those of you that aren’t familiar with the area, Hennepin Avenue is the main thoroughfare through downtown Minneapolis and the streets take a cut at an angle there. This building is an odd shape because of that, almost a trapezoid, and is rather small. Anyway it’s now abandoned, and we peeked into the lobby windows a bit.
National Camera Exchange Building (Formerly M.L. Novak Diamonds) 930 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis
All I could see were some stairs, and a huge chandelier still hanging. As we walked, he told me he remembered that on the lower and upper floors there were quite a few very small rooms (think maybe 6 feet by 8 feet at the most) with only a light and incredibly tacky wallpaper. His description was “like you’d find in a cathouse”.) and he thought that perhaps they had been used once as a brothel.
Well! That got me curious, so I started to do a little digging into the history of the area. I’m embarrassed at what I didn’t know, although the digging produced a treasure of other information (see my previous post on Fancy Pillows) and if you’re curious about the history of Minneapolis, just Google things like “The Gateway District” or “Mill City Museum”. It’s incredible what’s out there. I was specifically trying to find something on the history of that particular building however, and had a lot of trouble. It’s really too far down to have been a part of the Gateway District, so I think it was more part of the entrance to the Theater District. So then I approached it from the perspective of, could it have been rooms for let as part of the theaters? Or perhaps a flophouse? Still nothing. Short of going down to the Minneapolis Public Library, or City Hall, I was coming up a bust.
Now we come to crazy. The deep end. At one point that building was for sale and the listing info helped me to figure out the year built was 1919, which also helped with thinking it was likely more a part of the theater district, although it has since been taken off the market. So using a little internet savvy I decided to try to contact Larry Millett, who is the author of a number of books including “Lost Twin Cities” and “Twin Cities Then and Now”, and his books are full of wonderful old photographs and history of the Twin Cities, buildings long gone, architecture and incredible facts. He’s responsible for my learning much of what I have about the Gateway District of Minneapolis, as a matter of fact. Well, while he didn’t have the answer himself, he was both kind enough to reply, and to suggest I post my question on the Facebook page titled Old Minneapolis. It’s a user page frequented liked by over 67,000 folks, one of which is Mike Evangelist who is also an author and is considered an expert on downtown Minneapolis. My hope was that he might see my post and have the answer, but I had no idea that I was going to tap into a gold mine.
One of the respondents to my question ended up being the son of the owner of the diamond business which was the first business there. He had the entire history of the building as his father had owned it since it was built, along with a number of others who had frequented it and knew the history as well. Between the diamond business and National Camera, the place actually had become a massage parlor, which of course “back in the day” was code for – you guessed it – massage parlor/brothel. That would explain the wallpaper, which someone was kind enough to post a sample of on Facebook. Yep, cheap and cheesy about covers it!
There is other fantastic information in the post about the building, including information about the vault, how the windows and glass doors were bullet proof because the area had been full of gangsters back in the day, how you had to be buzzed in through security doors, how they had installed state-of-the-art security cameras for the diamond business, and then those same security cameras were used to keep them alerted when it was a massage parlor that the police were coming!
I had a lot of fun trying to find out this information, and while I’m glad that I did, I’m kind of sad that it’s coming to an end. I’ve stumbled across some amazing old photographs of Minneapolis, and it’s reignited my interest in photography which has been waning a bit over the past few years. I’ve also learned about things like ghost signs on buildings. I don’t know if those were popular in other parts of the country but they certainly were in the twin cities. They were advertisements on the sides of buildings, almost like early billboards.
Here is an example of one, on the backside of the National Camera Exchange building. In their case, it was so you knew you were at their location when arriving from a different direction. On other buildings, you might have seen information about cigars, flour, seeds or a number of other things. Over time, of course weather and UV have degraded those that remain and are visible, so they are slowly disappearing from view and there are web pages popping up with photos of them, but you can also find photos in books of our city’s history like Larry Millett’s.
A side benefit of all this has been that it also has spurred my thinking about other old stories, which helped to feed the Fancy Pillows post I recently did, and has made me write down more memories of my parents and grandparents, asking questions of my relatives to clarify memories. It’s a journey I’m just starting down, and one that I hope will be fun as I uncover more and more tidbits that I’d thought were forgotten but instead were just tucked away. I hope that perhaps it will do the same for some of you, and start some conversations with your family and friends, maybe today, or at your next family gathering. Who knows what interesting story you’ll hear revealed?
7 thoughts on “The Deep End”
Isn’t the internet amazing? The ability to track down information that once would have taken us weeks. Very cool you learned all this.
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It took longer than I thought it would but the journey was so much fun, and so full of discovery that it was worth every second.
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Nicely done, Beth. Thank you for taking the time to track down all that information, and thank you for sharing it with us.
Our area must have an interesting bunch of tidbits buried in its past. After we moved here, a neighbor we had said that he was interested in local history so he started asking the old-timers who had been here forever about life in a boom town.
I asked him what he found out, and he said that after he was asked, “Who are you, and why do you want to know?” by the fourth different person, he decided just to let it go. Probably not a bad idea, all things considered. 🙂
One does hear stories about boom towns, after all…
Well some folks are funny that way, I guess. I don’t know if I would have had as good of luck with a small town, but I doubt it, unless I had an “in” there, such as by virtue of being related to most of them like with my mom’s hometown, and sometimes not even then!
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Bingo! We lived in a tiny little town, seriously rural, out in the middle of nowhere for ten years, and even had a child born there along with owning our own business with a large customer base. The day we left, we were still referred to as ‘those new people.’ You know, I do not miss that town much. 🙂
I love finding things this way, Beth. First the information starts as a trickle… then flows heavier… then becomes a torrent! Minneapolis must have hundreds of stories waiting to be discovered… or maybe legends to be shared. Hmmm… Great post!
Thanks! We had this gangster named Kid Cann…lots of stories there. And apparently in St Paul..oh boy. The gangsters in the 20’s and 30’s all hid there, and had an agreement with the local law enforcement. They wouldn’t rob the St. Paul banks, but would go across the river to Minneapolis instead. In return, the St. Paul cops kept their whereabouts a secret from the FBI, so criminals like Al Capone, Creepy Karpis, Ma Barker and her boys, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson hid out here! You can do really cool gangster tours in St. Paul with tour guides in period costume and fake tommy guns!