The Deep End

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.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

                    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.

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 Back of Nat’l Cam bldg, ghost sign, Minneapolis

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?

 

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Fancy Pillows

While I’m a child of the city, I was fortunate to have grandparents that lived out in the country. One set lived on a farm, and the other lived 3 miles away in a very small town, where they were related to almost everyone there and had a town motto of “if you’re not Dutch, you’re not much”. (Don’t worry, I’ll get mileage out of that someday!) My mom’s dad was a real corker, even taught me a curse word in Dutch when I was little (“tsk, tsk Grandpa Cornie, you should have been ashamed of yourself.”)

Beth and Grandpa Cornie

Me and “the corker”, about 1963

My dad’s parents were a bit more on the stoic, German side. Kind of the no-nonsense, hard working farmers you expect to find in the midwest. Growing up we called them by their last names to differentiate which grandparents we were talking about, but as we became adults and the grandchildren started having children, somehow they picked up on Grandpa’s nickname as a child. His first name was Albert, but his nickname was Abby and somehow, he and my grandmother became Grandpa and Grandma Abby, probably because our last name was a long, difficult German name to pronounce.

I remember some of the stories from Grandma Abby, although not as many as I’d like and now that I’m older, probably not nearly as well as I’d like either. I’m a little hazy on the one about how and why she caught her bloomers on a fence, and I seem to recall something about a finding a rattlesnake in a bale of hay when she took lunch out to the men one day during hay baling season. I remember too, Grandpa Abby saying how proud he was that he paid cash — cash (can you just imagine?) — for everything, except for the time he bought a cream separator on credit, for which I think he paid a nickel a month, and it bothered him so much he never bought anything on credit ever again.

Beth w Grandpa and Grandma Abby

Me with Grandpa and Grandma Abby, about 1962

I do remember, very well, grandma telling me about the fancy pillows they used. She said that they had every day pillows on the bed, with regular pillow cases, but that when company would come to stay they would take the everyday pillows off the bed, and put them aside, take out the nice pillows and put on the really nice, embroidered pillow cases with the hand crocheted lace edges on them. They called them “fancy pillows“, and those were the ones that would be out for guests. I always kept that phrase in my head, and knew I’d write about it someday in a book or blog.

I thought about all this tonight when I was talking with my mom, after I had asked her what she remembered about some places in downtown Minneapolis that were tickling in the back of my memory. The area is called “The Theater District”, and I believe I’ve also seen it called “The Lower Loop”. My dad worked downtown near 13th Street and Hennepin Ave for a number of years, and the two places I remembered were the Gnostica Bookstore and the Pink Pussycat. I asked mom what she remembered, and she thought the Gnostica might have been an occult bookstore but she wasn’t sure, but she laughed when I brought up the Pink Pussycat. With a name like that you can take a wild guess what kind of business this place was, and you’d probably be right! Apparently his employer had purchased the land that the building sat on, and was going to use the building for something else. Some of the ahem – dancers – lived upstairs, and my  dad was given what he saw as the less than desirable job of telling these lovely young ladies they had to move out. Imagine in the late 1960’s, a 28-30 year old, ultra conservative young man going to tell strippers to move out of their apartments. He wasn’t terribly keen on this assignment and ended up taking a co-worker with him to get it done.

Speaking of downtown Minneapolis, my mother also told me a funny story about coming into downtown with her dad and mom, and younger sister. Her father owned a general store in that small town I mentioned, and came into Minneapolis from time to time to buy dry goods. Apparently they arrived late and when they got to the Hotel Andrews, it was full. Well Grandpa Cornie, the aforementioned corker, has them get ahold of his friend who was perhaps the manager, they find a room for them and get settled in with a second floor room facing Hennepin Avenue in about 1945. (If you ‘re unfamiliar with Minneapolis , Hennepin is the main drag through downtown, and has always been the central street for the bars, theaters, bums, pandhandlers, etc. It’s much better now, but always has been the focal point of downtown, and a great place to people watch.) After dark, on a rainy night. Across from the Gay 90s.

 

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1958 Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While today it’s most well known for being a gay bar, back in the 40’s  the location was first a restaurant called The Casablanca, then Shanghai House before becoming the Gay 90’s in 1948, and turning into a “striptease and jazz music” bar (info courtesy of Jeanne Andersen).  So my mom would have been 8, her sister 6, and she said she and her sister just sat and watched, and watched and watched for hours, all the drunks coming and going from the bar, their eyes so wide they about fell out of their heads!

 

 

I’m so glad I found the time to have that conversation with my mom, and to remember the stories from my grandparents. It’s sad when we don’t capture those moments and they’re gone.  I stumbled on some incredible resources tonight, with old photos of Minneapolis. Historyapolis is an amazing trove of old memories, as is Thomas Lowry’s Ghost on tumblr and this Minneapolis history site on Flickr. If you haven’t sat down and talked to your parents and grandparents about what life was like when they were kids, take the time to do it. It’s amazing what you’ll learn. Go through old website archives, take a stroll down memory lane. Start a journal or blog and write it down, before memories are gone, and along with them, the stories. Shortly after my dad died, I started a journal that was for memories of him. I wanted to capture those unique things that I knew I’d forget over time. I pulled that out today and added the story my mom just told me, and was looking back at some of what I’d put in there. What a gold mine! (And rich treasure for future blogs too.)  I am so glad I wrote those things down because I had forgotten some of them, and reading them made me smile and made me feel very, very lucky. It reminded me my life was full of moments of fancy pillows, even when I forget they’re there.