Woolworth’s building reborn in downtown St. Paul

Elsewhere on the blog, there’s a pretty good debate about the suburban design principles of sameness that have transformed South Washington Avenue in Minneapolis from its surface lot-and-liquor-store past.

Developers in downtown St. Paul take a somewhat different approach to diversity in architecture and design, converting old buildings to new uses, each with its own design personality that doesn’t scream, “Hey, it’s better than nothing.”

It’s not, for example, a sin in St. Paul to incorporate the past with the present. The 1916 Foot-Schulze Co. shoe factory, now the Rossmor lofts building, has anchored a renaissance of street-level retail with the aid of the Penfield, a relatively new condo building that incorporated pieces of the old St. Paul Police headquarters.

A Lund’s has made retail on the street the norm. Good design can do that.

Down the street, the old St. Paul Post Office was converted — somehow — into apartments and a hotel. The most beautiful building downtown — the old Pioneer Press building — is now apartments and a celebration of its own history.

The former Dayton’s is now a hockey rink and retail complex, its 1960s-era facade mercifully removed from Wabasha Street downtown.

And Lowertown has maintained its railroad-and-lumber-baron personality as developers have discovered the area since the building of CHS Field, whose designers thankfully resisted the temptation to develop a 19th century-styled baseball park on the site of an old factory. The building has curves!

St. Paul gets it.

Navigating the new with the old is a design challenge but the newest addition to the St. Paul streetscape has faithfully lived up to it.

It’s this old building…

… which has now become this one.

The old Woolworth’s building closed in 1993 and sat empty for more than 20 years until a developer saw the potential. It might’ve been easier to knock it down, but then you don’t get to consider the design sensibility of history.

The expanded building kept the original brickwork color and style (the old bricks were given away as keepsakes), which evoked Woolworth’s all over America in its heyday.

The door was open today, long enough for me to discover this on the floor in the foyer before I was kicked out.

From every angle, the building looks different, no small feat considering it is essentially a box. From each, however, it’s also clear that it was intended to honor its neighbors, not rising above them.

It might well be mere coincidence that the coloring on the stonework matches that of the window frames of the next-door Golden Rule Building, which was built in 1900. But I doubt it.

The building, now known as The 428, will hang a vertical sign on the southwest corner, the same spot where the Woolworth’s sign once hung.

From the looks of things, developers are going to give the possibility of street-level retail a go. That hasn’t worked anywhere in the nearby area so far.

There’s only so much good design can do for a neighborhood, of course.  The new building still sits in the considerable shadow of a behemoth across the street.

It remains a St. Paul curse that when a raccoon garnered international attention for the city, it chose an architectural insult to climb.

The building isn’t expected to open until next month.

  • Gary F

    Little gun’s downtown in front of Woolworth’s tryin’ out his attitude on all the cats….

  • MrE85
    • boB from WA

      Man that building takes my breath away. 🙂

  • Mike Worcester

    Before you were kicked out? Didn’t the press pass on your fedora give you some privileges? 🙂

    Seriously though — The difference between the approaches taken by Mpls and StP are stark. The Lost Twin Cities books tell that tale.

    • I really miss Larry Millett. It says something that it was the St. Paul paper , not the Mpls one, that saw fit to have an architecture critic.

      • Jim in RF

        Linda Mack would have a quibble with you.

      • JamieHX

        I was just going to suggest you consider being the new Larry Millet cuz your post here is so good! Maybe an after-retirement thing?

        • I don’t have any training in architecture (Millett did). I just know what I find interesting and what I find boring.

          • JamieHX

            Well, maybe not the new LM, but a thoughtful “layperson’s” perspective CAN be an interesting read, as is evidenced here.

  • KariBemidji

    I stayed in the Old Post Office building last spring and I wish would’ve had more time to explore.

  • Jeff

    I walk by there every day and was clueless it was an old Woolworth’s. I’m a a little meh on the architecture. Maybe the sign will help.

    They built the stairwell (the tall brown part) during the winter. I was trying to survive the frigid trek to the office while the workers were out climbing on beams in zero degree weather. I don’t know how they do it.

    • Take a long look at it. I think you’ll see some things that are pretty cool.

      what would have been REALLY cool is if a deli or something had leased the first floor and they used the old Woolworth’s lunch counter. But I suppose that’s just dreaming.

      • Jeff

        Yes, I’ve only seen it from one side. I need to consider some other points of view instead of just the 7th St. echo chamber.

        • I do think the north side of the building is awful. I don’t think there are even any windows. I also thought it fascinating that the beams on the west side are right up against the windows.

          I think there’s a parking lot on that north side, which makes me think there might be plans for another building to go up there.

      • JamieHX

        I would love to see a good deli in downtown Saint Paul.

        • Golden’s Deli was pretty good, but that’s in Lowertown and they have stopped doing the “deli” thing, which is sad.

      • Jack

        That would quite a cool place if it happened. I’d make the trek back to St. Paul for that.

    • JamieHX

      >> workers were out climbing on beams in zero degree weather. I don’t know how they do it. <<
      Sounds like a topic for a future NewsCut.

    • Jerry


  • Brian Simon

    I’m not totally up on urban design, but it’s interesting that critics of Minneapolis incessantly argue for elimination of skyways in favor of street level retail. Yet, in St Paul, street level retail seems to go nowhere. Am I missing something?

    • Near as I can tell, it’s the Dayton boys who are arguing for elimination of skyways in Mpls. They pretty much are silent on St. Paul. They don’t have a restaurant in St. Paul, though.

  • >>The door was open today, long enough for me to discover this on the floor in the foyer before I was kicked out.<<


    • Jeff

      Just the one Woolworths or all of them?

  • Jerry

    It’s is important to note the difference between the Pioneer Endicott building, with the beautiful light court and elevator, and the the Pioneer Press building, which is a vacant lump of 1950s corporate architecture.

    • The Pioneer Endicott building is actually two separate buildings. The Endicott is a Cass Gilbert design. The Pioneer Press Building (1889) preceded it by two years.

      I didn’t think to point out the distinction with the newer building since no one in their right mind would ever confuse that thing with “the most beautiful building downtown.”

      BTW , I probably shouldn’t have neglected to mention Union Depot in the list of magnificent projects in the downtown area, although it’s become more of an edifice to the incompetence of state lawmakers and officials to grasp the idea of a regional transportation vision for this century.

      • Jerry

        Personally, I’d go with Landmark Center as the most beautiful building downtown, but the Pioneer Building is up there.

        • For sure. And they were going to knock that down once. Man, people in the ’70s and ’80s were stupid.

      • chucker1

        I used to work in the pioneer building on the 9th and 11th floors 20 years ago for my first two years with US Bank…..The staircase was not enclosed with glass back then, and if you were afraid of heights, well, don’t look down. I just crossed my 20th anniversary with the bank in February.

        The elevators were manually driven by building employees and I never really lost that “fair ride” tickle in the gut on the initial 10 seconds of going down. Great memory.

        I also noticed that on the pillars in the waiting area were ashtrays built in the actual construction of the pillar and I am sure are still there. Makes me wonder how it was like with all the smoking reporters back then. My grandfather told me he rode those same elevators in the 20’s trying to buy a classified ad in the paper….

  • Joe

    New “boring” buildings can be better in many ways though. Look at 3rd Ave and Washington, the area you mention.

    The two north corners are very old buildings, the Depot and the old Post Office. Both have been re-purposed. They look nice and varied (neither could be called a shoebox). Yet neither of them has any doors along Washington, nor any retail along any side. Pretty, but no life.

    The southwest corner is a 70’s building. I don’t know if you personally like the look or not, but it’s not a shoebox, doesn’t match the current style of all the rest for sure, so in that sense it provides some variety. But it has no doors, no visible windows, and a giant parking lot entrance right on Washington that makes walking/biking difficult. I hate it.

    Finally, on the southeast corner we have one of the shoeboxes you despise so vehemently. It has multiple entrances, a restaurant, a lively patio right on the corner. That new building adds so much to the sense of place of that corner. It adds actual people, and action!

    When driving through, it might be an eyesore for you, but for actually *being* there, it’s the best.

    • It’s not that I despise *a* shoebox per se. It’s when there’s nothing but shoeboxes. I don’t see where it’s much more visually interesting than the shoe section of a Kohl’s. Every now and again you gotta throw in the men’s section, maybe housewares.

  • Laszlo

    This is a bit of a disingenuous comparison.

    St. Paul renovates old buildings nicely, yes, but so does Minneapolis. They have a Dayton’s being renovated too. One block over from Washington, the Grain Exchange is a beautiful remodel. One block the other direction, all of the mills and factories were remodeled into gorgeous lofts and museums. The North Loop is full of them.

    But Washington was a bunch of one-story buildings and/or parking lots. And new construction is a whole different ballgame. I don’t think we’ve done any better at building fanciful, interesting new construction on empty lots in the fairer city.

    The new building at Selby & Snelling? A five story box.
    Hamline & University? A four story box.
    Emerald & University? A six story box.
    Wabasha & Fillmore? A five story box.
    They’re tearing down O’Gara’s, and replacing it with a… you guessed it, a four-story box.

    Granted, we don’t have as much new building going on in any one spot as Washington does, but that’s a problem I wish we had! If we had 20 new buildings popping up in small areas, that’d be a pretty darn good sign for the city, regardless of their aesthetics.

    So yes, if you compare St. Paul’s remodels of old grand buildings to Minneapolis’s new ones, St. Paul comes out looking good. But once you start comparing apples to apples, I don’t think the difference is as stark as you claim.

    • Jack Ungerleider

      You left out the building on W 7th and Chestnut (the old 7 corners hardware site) and there’s another going up behind that on Exchange between Chestnut and Eagle Pkwy. (Was a surface lot.)