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Rathskeller

The tower rises from the heart of West Seventh, defining and defying the passage of time and the lay of the community.  The Schmidt Brewery is the West End to many people because it rises like an old oak from secure roots to dominate the skyline longer than anyone can remember.  Its endurance is remarkable because it cannot be ignored yet somehow has been neglected,  too big to care for and yet too important to imagine life without.

That’s how the Fort Road Federation, through the help of the City of Saint Paul, came to acquire the property for redevelopment.  Decades of tireless work by many people, led by City Councilmember Dave Thune, has reached another turning point for this symbol of a community and its endurance.  After years of planning and haggling it has a new owner and, soon, a new use.

I toured the site as member of the Federation’s Board of Directors.  I’d like to show you one small but vital part of this great site, the Rathskeller.  It is one of the hidden jewels of Saint Paul, soon to be uncovered once again.

The main entrance to the whole plant was the small office building hard against the sidewalk of West 7th, the least impressive part of the whole site.  The gentle Bauhaus-lite lay of the building is intact through much of the first floor.  Our group came through with Jim Glendening, one of the best urban re-use architects there is because of his attention to detail and deep understanding of scale.  Because historic tax credits are a big part of this project the old offices with transom windows and gentle round woodwork will have to be saved – a restriction Jim can only savor.

The vast space of the Bottling House will be artists’ studios, the big “Castle” some kind of residence.  This space is trickier, which is why it needs Glendening so much.

Down the staircase is the Rathskeller, where the tours used to start and end.  The brewery had been part of the House of Heileman from 1972 until 1991 when it went solo again for a short while.  It was always a struggle.  The plant became an ethanol fuel plant in the late 1990s until the fumes drove the first ever wedge between the community and this site.   Soon the entire facility was idled.  No one has taken the brewery tour for at least a decade.  A decade of damp now grabs a visitor’s nose before the glory of this space opens past the thick oak doors

Here is the Rathskeller itself, the Bavarian style beer hall where crowds could sample the pride of West Seventh.  It has kept in this cool cellar remarkably well, waiting for visitors to liven it up once again.  Along the dark rafters are sayings of good cheer in many languages, mostly German and English.  “Before man learned to eat he learned to drink” reads one, almost mocking its own staid Fraktur German script.

A few cans of beer are left open in the kitchen for the ghost that is said to stay here.  Like all good ghost stories, this one is believable because it simply must be true.  This space simply cannot be empty and unloved by someone, even if it is only a spectre.

The entire Schmidt site is more than just a collection of buildings, it defines life for a community.  In the Rathskeller this is distilled into the product of its fermented essence, a timeless space to let the time pass slowly in the good cheer of a room frothy with good cheer.

Exactly when and how this will be open to the public again is up in the air.  The hard work of people throughout the community and the leadership of Dave Thune and Ed Johnson, Executive Director of the Federation, has gotten us to this point.  The work passes to Glendening who will help shape the vision for investors and partners as yet unnamed who can work to put in a restaurant, offices, and whatever else the space commands.  Then it will be left up to the people who fill it up again and bring it back to life.

For now it sits dark and patiently waiting as it has for far too long.  The Rathskeller of the Schmidt Brewery is more than just one of the great jewels of this old city, it is the essence of the massive brick confection of towers that so many zoom by every day.  Someday soon there will be time enough for them to pass deep in the cellar, once again, with friends and the whole community to bring back the gentle life it was built for.

Patience and love will win out.  West 7th will have its heart back soon.

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20 thoughts on “Rathskeller

  1. I don’t think I’ve been down there since the 70s. Great place, I remember it being a bit spooky though. It felt like it had that gangster era feel to it so I don’t doubt it was built in the 30s. They used to have a really great tour that went into the brewery itself and you could just smell the beer everywhere. Then they’d let you drink until they kicked you out which took hours. Good times all around. Can’t wait to see what happens with it and I’m glad its still there.

  2. It had been at least 10 years for me as well, so I was overjoyed to see how good it looks. The furniture is still there, wonderfully worn but solid!

    It’s all set for more good times. Can’t wait until something gets going. We’re still not sure about details yet – that depends on the the will of development partners and a lot of math, but it’s good to have Glendening on board.

  3. I only vaguely remember the Rathskeller so this is a surprise to me. I think I was on a tour or something but it was long ago. Didn’t they used to have community gatherings and stuff down there as well?

    Great article and I love the pics you should do them more!

  4. What are the plans for the whole complex? It looks massive, like its own small downtown.

    Also, I read that St Paul is looking into streetcars. You have to be happy about that. Is West Seventh one of the places they want to put one?

  5. Still charming after all these years, I attended two consecutive Federation Annual Meetings there and absolutely fell in love with the Rathskellar. Kudos to Messrs Glendening, Thune, and Johnson for their work thus far.

  6. Anna, Alan, Jack: Thanks, it’s a real pleasure to see something happening – but the whole shebang is so big it is a bit scary to think about!

    Dale: There are plans for 270 living units between the Bottling House and the “Castle”, along with a lot of artists’ studio space and some gallery. I firmly believe that this “Bohemian” feel will drive what, if any, restaurant moves into the office/Rathskeller – but there is nothing set in any way at all. What I didn’t talk about is the old warehouse and the vacant piece of land to the West of the property – those are up in the air as an undetermined “Phase II” at this point. It’s a lousy market so we have to deal with what we have in front of us first and then branch out.

  7. Is it really spelled Rathskeller ?
    Just asking because the correct spelling in german would be Ratskeller 🙂

  8. Tim, you’re right! But it is usually spelled that way locally, don’t know why. I just got used to it – and that is very strange because while I’m far from fluent I can get by in German.

    • German Ratskeller, Rathskeller, restaurant in the city hall basement : German Rat, council, counsel (from Middle High German rt, from Old High German; see ar- in Indo-European roots) + German Keller, cellar (from Middle High German, from Old High German kellri, from Latin cellrium; see cellar) Just sayin’

      • Yup, I was researching it, too. It seems that the spelling “Rathskeller” is Old High German, which was a closer sibling or cousin language to English than Modern German. Interesting. I want to thank Tim for bringing up a very interesting topic – Thanks, man!

  9. I remember the Rathskeller well. I can’t remember when I was on a tour there but I was barely 18 at the time. I remember thinking it was like we went back in time. Great memories! I would definitely check out a restaurant that went into there just to see it again.

  10. I am excited for this! Secretly wish I could get a space in there. A studio to paint and do photography work. At the very least, it will be nice to have more artists nearby. Should be exciting!

  11. There’ll be a lot of studios in the old bottling house, and maybe some other parts of the site. I can imagine that the Rathskeller and accompanying first floor would include a lot of showcase space for exhibits. It could one incredible space, right at the very heart of the West End! So I’m very excited, too. I only focused on the Rathskeller because it’s so cool the way it is now (makes for some fun photos!).

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