The Commodore: Former hotel and hotspot rose like a phoenix from 1978 explosions

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The years, fires and explosions seem scarcely to have left their mark on the venerable Commodore Hotel at 79 Western Avenue. It looks much the same as it did when it opened in 1920 as an upscale residential hotel.

“The gallant old building probably houses more memories of generations of St. Paulites than any other place in town,” said Jasmina Wellinghoff in “The Nine Lives of the Commodore Hotel,” published in Twin Cities magazine in 1982. Dave Page and John Koblas say in Toward the Summit that F. Scott Fitzgerald listed it as one of the ten best hotels in the world.

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“In the 1920s,” say Page and Koblas, “the Commodore oozed class.”

“When the Commodore opened in 1920,” says Paul Maccabee in John Dillinger Slept Here, “it was one of St. Paul’s most elegant nightspots for dining and dancing.” It boasted a rooftop garden (until 1941) in addition to its spacious lobby and ballroom, and was located in “the most aristocratic and quiet section of the city.”

 

The Commodore building is seven stories high and made of brick. It sits at the corner of Western Avenue and Holly Avenue, and still is one of the larger buildings in the surrounding residential area. Its distinguishing exterior feature is its private formal entry courtyard, a feature characteristic of New York and Chicago luxury apartment buildings constructed around the same time. Larry Millett’s A1A Guide to the Twin Cities describes it thus: “With its mild classical detailing and U-shaped, center-court layout, the building is typical of its time. One unusual feature (at least for St. Paul) is that the courtyard is walled and gated.”

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The Commodore cost $700,000 to build in 1920, no small sum. Its original owner was Eastern Finance Company and its architect is probably the Scottish-born Alexander Rose, who specialized in apartments, according to Millett.

No historical resources seem to take note that the Commodore has a twin in St. Paul’s twin city, Minneapolis: the former Buckingham Hotel, now the Buckingham Apartments at 1500 Lasalle Avenue (at Vine Street). Photos of the two buildings show them to be identical. Both were built in 1920 by the Eastern Finance Company, and a 1923 advertisement touts the two sites together as “Your Hotel Home in the Twin Cities.” The Alexander Rose papers at the University of Minnesota list him as architect of the Buckingham and “possibly” of the Commodore.

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Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in the Commodore off and on during 1921 and 1922. In October 1921 they were asked to leave a rental home after letting the pipes freeze and moved into the St. Paul Hotel, but in less than 48 hours had moved again to the Commodore, say Page and Koblas. “The Fitzgeralds had enjoyed the hospitality of, and occasionally been asked to leave, some of the finest hotels in the world,” they note. “[At the Commodore] Scott and Zelda could enjoy dinner while being entertained by big bands in the rooftop garden, unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1954. When the weather turned colder, the main-floor Imperial Room provided excellent dining along with a black-and-white tiled floor for afternoon tea dances.”

It was from the Commodore that Zelda went to Miller Hospital to give birth to the Fitzgeralds’ child, Frances Scott (“Scottie”), on October 26, 1921, Koblas says in F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota. Then, “The Commodore once more provided a haven for the three Fitzgeralds in August, 1922,” he adds, “after they had been ousted from the White Bear Yacht Club… and it was their final home in St. Paul.”

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Another interesting twist to the Commodore’s history is that, contrary to popular opinion and some historic resources, the Commodore’s beloved mirror bar was not added until later, quite a while after the Fitzgeralds’ heyday, probably in 1936.

The Art Deco bar was designed by Werner Wittkamp, who arrived in Minnesota around 1930. He was born in Russia and designed stage sets there and in Berlin, and after immigrating to the U.S., designed them for the Ziegfeld Follies. He went from New York to Hollywood, where he designed some film sets, before coming to the Twin Cities. The Historic Sites Survey for the Commodore says, “Wittkamp specialized in the design of bars, restaurants and funeral homes in the Twin Cities, perhaps since all offered the opportunity to use theatrical effects which he had learned from designing various stage sets.”

The survey also describes the mirror bar: “… a classic example of an Art Deco interior. It has a black marble floor, stepped mirrored walls, and a black ceiling with gold circular coves with indirect lighting. It has 2 polygonal engaged columns. Fluted cream colored paneling below bar with brass bar rail, mirror-clad shelves.”

And, I can attest, there used to be peephole behind the bar from which one could observe staff and customers unnoticed. Staff now say it’s gone, but that’s too bad, as it seemed such an intriguing part of the pre-war era.

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The Commodore played a part in St. Paul’s notorious gangster era as well. In May 1933, Ma Barker moved into apartments 215 to 221, according to Paul Maccabee in John Dillinger Slept Here. She used an alias, Mrs. A. B. Gardner, and her son Fred joined her as Fred E. Gardner, while they stashed Helen Ferguson, “swindler” Earl Christman’s girl friend, upstairs in apartment 404. Ma Barker’s first and only meeting with Fred’s new girlfriend Paula Harmon took place at the Commodore. And Maccabee quotes Bill Greer, a veteran St. Paul crime reporter, as having said Al Capone stayed there: “Capone, when he came to town the two times that he did, [stayed] in the Commodore Hotel (incognito, of course).”

Despite such claims to fame, the Commodore is perhaps most renowned in local lore for the famous 1978 explosions that nearly ruined it. The mirror bar, fortuitously, was unscathed, though all 700 windows in the building were shattered. As Jasmina Wellinghoff recounts in her 1982 story, local architect Thomas Blanck, whose office was in the building, was the first person to notice the gas leak. He alerted the front desk and started evacuating residents when the first blast hit, followed by another, even stronger explosion. The explosions caused 71 people to be hospitalized and the fire chief was injured in the second blast. According to Wellinghoff, “there was a huge hole in the north side wall where the kitchens had been, and a neighbor from across the street came home that night to find his house twisted on its foundation.”

The Commodore’s owner at the time was Thomond O’Brien, who had added a squash club to the building in 1976. He and others later successfully sued the city of St. Paul and Northern States Power Company, claiming the hotel’s equipment had not been adequately inspected. Eventually, O’Brien decided to convert the hotel to quality condominiums, and when he did that he moved the main building entrance to the north side, where it is today.

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Wellinghoff’s story recounts memorable people who were part of the Commodore in this later era, like Ralph Setley, the “venerable Commodore bartender who became as much a part of the hotel as the hotel was a part of St. Paul’s Hill District,” and Isabella Capser, who moved into the hotel after living across the street from it for most of her life and remembered the roof garden restaurant far more fondly than Scott Fitzgerald, whom she recalled as “just an eccentric.” There was also manager/con artist Brad Duvall under O’Brien’s tenure, who one night hired a truck, emptied the lobby of furniture, took the silver and around $100,000 in cash and disappeared with his girlfriend. He was later arrested, but by then had spent all the money.

Wellinghoff also recounts the hotel’s decline along with the neighborhood’s in the postwar era when so many people moved to the suburbs. The hotel, however, “managed to hold its own,” she says, “recruiting residents from the ranks of the old well-to-do neighbors and living on its reputation.” Some credit for its survival goes to Yale Johnson, who purchased it in 1947, and was experienced in running hotels as well as being a good businessman. Later, the urban renewal movement in the 1970s helped the old hotel survive.

Currently the Commodore remains as condominiums and a few offices, while the first-floor area houses the popular Commodore Bar and Restaurant, once again open to the public.

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April 2012, revised November 2016 and September 2018

3 thoughts on “The Commodore: Former hotel and hotspot rose like a phoenix from 1978 explosions

  1. Ok, so why did the Fitzgeralds keep getting kicked out of their residences, other than for “letting the pipes freeze”? Inquiring minds want to know. 🙂

    Like

  2. Interesting and intriguing history of a classic St. Paul hotel. It is wonderful to see that the hotel has been repurposed. I love the architecture of the Art Deco age. So many treasures have been destroyed, but this building still serves as a reminder of that memorable time in America. Lisa, thank you for another great article on the architecture and history of St. Paul.

    Like

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