W.A. Frost and Dacotah Building: Neighborhood cornerstone serves old-time ambience

WA FrostWhen pharmacist William Arthur Frost died on August 12, 1930, he had lived in Saint Paul for 47 years. He left a legacy he never expected: 45 years after his death, a restaurant opened in the building where his pharmacy was located, at the southeast corner of Selby and Western avenues. The establishment was named for him, and bears his name to this day.

The building, constructed in 1899, was named the Dacotah Building. Upstairs, what’s now 366-374 Selby Avenue was filled with fashionable apartments, and the downstairs housed Frost’s pharmacy as well as a ladies’ bath and manicure establishment, according to the W.A. Frost web page.

No expense was spared; the Dacotah Building cost $70,000 to construct. It had stone foundations 14 feet deep, creating a lower level that has housed a soda fountain, a bar, and now part of the restaurant. Larry Millett describes the Dacotah in his AIA Guide to St. Paul’s Summit Avenue and Hill District: “A pleasing Victorian commercial-apartment building with walls of dark red brick rising above a base of pink Ohio sandstone. Oriel windows dance along upper floors in a seemingly random pattern, adding to the building’s charms.” The builders were Hennessey, Agnew and Cox, and they designed it in the then-popular Richardsonian Romanesque style.

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The original owner is listed in the 1890-1891 city directory as Patrick B. Dwyer, who lived at 543 Ashland and had a company of plumbers and gas fitters located at 96 East Third Street.

According to the current occupant’s web site, “Men and women of society frequented the pharmacy for drugs, chemicals, and medicines, medicinal wines and liquors and fancy toilet articles of great variety.”

In several ways, the site’s life as a pharmacy paralleled its later life as a restaurant: it was a social gathering place. F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented it, as did playwright August Wilson. In 1919, when Fitzgerald was working on his first novel, This Side of Paradise, Frost’s was one of the places he would go for a break in his “intense, often round-the-clock work,” notes John J. Koblas in F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota:

“Two neighborhood Coke-and-smoke haunts also offered Fitzgerald escape from his labors in the summer of 1919. With Richard (‘Tubby’) Washington . . . Scott would sometimes wander to the corner of Selby and Western for Cokes, cigarettes, and conversation at W.A. Frost’s Pharmacy in the Dakotah Building or at Rietzke’s Drug just across the street in the Angus Hotel.”

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Tom Johnson, who’s been a bartender at Frost’s since 1984, recalled his mother telling him she and her friends from St. Joseph’s Academy up the street would go to Frost’s soda fountain, which was downstairs and so away from the watchful eyes of the St. Joseph nuns; the girls could sneak cigarettes there. According to Johnson’s mother, Mr. Frost would warn the girls when the nuns were heading their way.

Frost was more than just a neighborhood figure, however. His obituary in a local paper notes he was vice president and treasurer of the W. A. Frost Mystic Co., Inc., which manufactured a cleaning fluid. Another profile says he operated a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. The obituary says he was a Scottish Rite Mason, a Shriner, and a member of Christ Episcopal Church at 149 West Fourth Street.

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Frost likewise was active in his profession, as noted in a profile from Northwestern Druggist. He graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1877. He was involved in the formation of the Minnesota State Pharmaceutical Association, helped draft and get passed the Minnesota Pharmacy Law, was instrumental in the establishment of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Minnesota, was a member of the State Board of Pharmacy from 1888 to 1900, was a life member of the American Pharmaceutical Association and was elected its honorary president.

Frost came to Willmar, Minnesota, in 1878, setting up a retail pharmacy in partnership with a C.F. Clark. That lasted two years, and when the pharmacy burned down he moved on to Saint Paul. His first pharmacy was at Third (now Kellogg) and Robert streets downtown; then he moved it to Sixth and Minnesota streets before settling in the Selby-Western location.

Frost died in 1830 of a heart attack in his home at 748 Goodrich Avenue; he was 76 years old. He had been ill for about six weeks, according to his obituary. The morning he died he told friends and family he “felt his condition was improving,” so his death came as something of a surprise.

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Following Frost’s death, the Dacotah Building’s history is largely undocumented. Millett said, “It’s been a mystery for a long time,” and added that a number of buildings just don’t have a lot of recorded history.

Records show [Andrew] Schoch & Co., a grocer’s, at 372-74 Selby Avenue sometime in 1901-02. Neighborhood denizens recall a laundromat and a “hippie” café (pay as you can), Café Kardamena, run by Brenda Langton, who later operated Café Brenda and Spoon River restaurant.

The building’s current owners purchased the building in 1974, a time when the entire neighborhood was in decline, in contrast to the heydays when the Dacotah went up, when Saint Paul was rapidly expanding westward and the streetcar line ran along Selby.

The Dacotah was largely empty at the time, and everyone advised the owners not to buy it, says the W.A. Frost web site. Millett says it was among the first in the Hill District to be renovated as the neighborhood began its turnaround in the 1970s. The former upstairs apartments were converted into office space, and a small restaurant was installed in the lower level where the pharmacy had been. Challenges included the less-than-thriving neighborhood and the fact that there was no kitchen for the restaurant.

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“The restoration of the Dacotah Building during the 1970’s by the present owner John Rupp played a significant role in the revitalization of the entire Historic Cathedral Hill District,” says Robert Crew, longtime manager for W.A. Frost. “The decision to open the award-winning restaurant W. A. Frost in 1975 at this historic location enabled it to truly be the economic cornerstone of the neighborhood for the past 36 [now 43] years.”

Johnson notes that during his tenure there, the ambience is what has helped the restaurant survive, along with Robert Crew’s long-term management. J.E. Erickson and Sons restored the lovely old building; they and the owners nurtured that ambience. The original tin ceilings were kept, and the back bar, probably made by Brunswick, was rescued from a building in Superior, Wisconsin. Johnson remembers when he started working there, “You could see the whole mirror on the back bar,” now filled with various bottles. “I remember then there were only three kinds of wine—red, white, and pink.”

The interior of the bar to this day is filled with charming architectural salvage. For example, the marble tables are the walls of the old Northwestern National Bank Building in Superior, and many of the doors are from the old James J. Hill School on Oxford and Selby.

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Over the years the restaurant thrived and expanded, first adding a kitchen and dining room, then more dining and banquet rooms, three fireplaces, and a gazebo grill and garden bar. The patio is one of the most popular in the city, and the restaurant hosts more than 200,000 guests each year. The far side of the first floor is occupied by Paper Patisserie, a specialty shop.

Over the years, the Dacotah has regained its role as a neighborhood gathering place. W.A. Frost would likely enjoy its current incarnation.

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August 2011, revised February 2017 and October 2018

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