Skyline Tower, the largest low income hi-rise in Minnesota, is on St. Anthony Avenue between Griggs and Syndicate Streets.

The Ever Evolving Midway

September 10, 2019

13.4 Miles

Lexington-Hamline, Midway

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Midway shopping, eating, walking, biking and waiting at stoplights over more than three decades in Saint Paul. Even so, I knew I’d spot many things on this ride that I’d never noticed.

This patch of green grass near Allianz Field is a very welcome addition to the Midway.
This patch of green grass near Allianz Field is a very welcome addition to the Midway.

First thing to scout out was the new streets that surround Allianz Field, the soccer stadium for Minnesota United that opened in 2019. The stadium, parking lots, a bit of green space and new streets replaced a large open lot and the western part of what was the declining Midway Shopping Center. The developers’ Master Plan for the 34.4 acre site was approved by the City Council in 2016. It included several major goals. In the vernacular of urban design, they included:

  • “mixed-use” – offices, retail, residential and entertainment venues
  • “pedestrian friendly” – wide sidewalks and places for the public to hang out
  • amended street grid – streets that align with those on the other side of University and Snelling Avenues which creates more standard size blocks

Pascal Street borders the east side of the stadium property. The almost block-long Central Avenue cuts west, nearly splitting two stadium lots in half.

Central Avenue, looking northeast. Allianz Stadium is to the left and Midway Center to the right.
Central Avenue, looking northeast. Allianz Stadium is to the left and Midway Center to the right.
Central ends at Simpson Street, which was extended to University Avenue on the north and St. Anthony to the south, as part of the stadium project.
Central ends at Simpson Street, which was extended to University Avenue on the north and St. Anthony to the south, as part of the stadium project.
Simpson Street.
Simpson Street.
Shields Avenue mirrors the arc of the stadium’s exterior. The blocks of rock are benches but also keep errant vehicles from straying from the road.
Shields Avenue mirrors the arc of the stadium’s exterior. The blocks of rock are benches but also keep errant vehicles from straying from the road.
The northwest quadrant of the former Midway Center property remains effectively untouched. The parcel is along University, Snelling and Shields Avenues was surrounded by a fence, Even the old parking lot lights remained.
The northwest quadrant of the former Midway Center property remains effectively untouched, down to the old parking lot lights. The parcel along University, Snelling and Shields Avenues was surrounded by a fence.
The undeveloped lot along Snelling, looking north at University Avenue.
The undeveloped lot along Snelling, looking north at University Avenue.
While these new streets are public, they become less so on soccer days or nights. Numerous barricades go up to restrict or eliminate motor vehicles.
While these new streets are public, they become less so on soccer days or nights. Numerous barricades go up to restrict or eliminate motor vehicles.
Sure the 50 beers and 100 whiskeys looked good, but it’s Big Boy that got me to take the photo. What was Big V’s at 1567 University became the Midway Saloon earlier in 2019.
Sure the 50 beers and 100 whiskeys looked good, but it’s Big Boy that got me to take the photo. What was Big V’s at 1567 University became the Midway Saloon earlier in 2019.
Big Boy really is a big boy.
Big Boy really is a big boy.

William Edwin Mowrey founded the W.E. Mowrey Company in 1899 as a refiner of gold dental fillings. He moved the company from 414 Robert Street to this building at 1435 University in 1911. Today W.E. Mowrey, according to its company profile, is a refiner and manufacturer of precious metals, including gold, silver, platinum, palladium and more. While not a unique business, it has never been the typical University Avenue establishment. The exterior of the building hints at its unusual status.

W.E. Mowrey Refining at 1435 University is an interesting building and business.
W.E. Mowrey Refining at 1435 University is an interesting building and business.
One of two frescos on the front of the building hint at the science behind precious metal refining.
One of two frescoes on the front of the building hint at the science behind precious metal refining.
The other features a vintage balance that was used for weighing precious metals.
The other fresco features a vintage balance that was used for weighing precious metals.

I noticed an abundance of open space while buzzing around the Midway, a preponderance of it dedicated to lightly used parking lots. Notice the meager amount of grass (green space.) It makes sense when you consider the nearly 100 year of manufacturing in the area and the automobile-centric nature of University Avenue.

Aerial photo courtesy Google
The open space and buildings in the central Midway in 2019. Aerial photo courtesy Google
Just a handful of cars dot the parking lot between W.E. Mowrey and Black Hart of Saint Paul bar in the 1400 block of University.
Just a handful of cars dot the parking lot between W.E. Mowrey and Black Hart of Saint Paul bar in the 1400 block of University.
The Furniture Barn took over the spot vacated by Midway Chevrolet. Midway Chev opened in 1922 and was the last new car dealer on the street once favored by more than a dozen new car dealers. Midway Chevrolet closed in the spring of 2007 when it merged with another Chevy dealer in Maplewood.
The Furniture Barn took over the spot vacated by Midway Chevrolet. Midway Chev opened in 1922 and was the last new car dealer on the street once favored by more than a dozen new car dealers. Midway Chevrolet closed in the spring of 2007 when it merged with a Chevy dealer in Maplewood.
This corner of Furniture Barn at 1389 University Avenue West still resembles the car showroom that it was.
This corner of Furniture Barn at 1389 University Avenue West still resembles the car showroom that it was.
Midway Chevrolet's University Avenue building about 1925. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
Midway Chevrolet’s University Avenue building about 1925. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
The 1952 Midway Chevy building. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
The 1952 Midway Chevy building. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
The signs along University Avenue for the suburban-style Midway Marketplace, built in 1994. Two of the main stores had been shuttered – Herberger’s in 2018 and Walmart in 2019, though their names remained on the signs.
The signs along University Avenue for the suburban-style Midway Marketplace, built in 1994. Two of the main stores had been shuttered – Herberger’s in 2018 and Walmart in 2019, though their names remained on the signs.
Lots of rules in the Midway Marketplace parking lot. I'm glad I was on my bike.
Lots of rules in the Midway Marketplace parking lot. I’m glad I was on my bike.
Part of Target's north parking lot. The 108 unit Hamline Station Apartments, owned by the nonprofit Project for Pride In Living, (PPL) is in the four story building.
Part of Target’s north parking lot. The 108 unit Hamline Station Apartments, owned by the nonprofit Project for Pride In Living, (PPL) is in the four story building.
The giant parking lot at Target has plenty of space when I stopped at about 2:30 p.m. The high-rise in the background is Skyway Tower Apartments on Griggs and St. Anthony, which I visited later in the ride.
The giant parking lot at Target had plenty of space when I stopped at about 2:30 p.m. The high-rise in the background is Skyway Tower Apartments on St. Anthony, between Griggs and Syndicate, which I visited later in the ride.
The Bigelow building, 450 North Syndicate Street, houses several nonprofit organizations including the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, Children’s Law Center of Minnesota and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
The Bigelow building, 450 North Syndicate Street, houses several nonprofit organizations including the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, Children’s Law Center of Minnesota and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

Redevelopment has been a relative constant in the Midway over the past 100 years.

As you can see from the 1922 plat map, the parcel of the Midway between University Avenue on the north and St. Anthony to the south, and Hamline and Griggs on the west and east respectively, was highly industrial.

In this part of the Midway there is a complex mix of decades old factory buildings serving new purposes and relatively recently built stores and apartments. The Bigelow Building at 450 Syndicate Avenue is a textbook example of the former. It has been an office building for many years and its current look disfigured the gorgeous building completed in 1914 as the block-long headquarters of the Brown & Bigelow Corporation.

Brown & Bigelow headquarters in 1914 on University Avenue between Griggs and Syndicate Streets. Most of the right portion of the building stands today (without the tower) as the Bigelow Building.
Brown & Bigelow headquarters in 1914 on University Avenue between Griggs and Syndicate Streets. Most of the right portion of the building stands today (without the tower) as the Bigelow Building.
The Brown & Bigelow Band poses in front of the University Avenue headquarters in 1924.
The Brown & Bigelow Band poses in front of the University Avenue headquarters in 1925.

At one time Brown & Bigelow was the largest manufacturer of calendar and advertising specialties in the U.S.

B & B employees assemble paper pads for "pocket secretaries" in 1948. Minnesota Historical Society
B & B employees assemble paper pads for “pocket secretaries” in 1948. Minnesota Historical Society

Brown & Bigelow’s much diminished headquarters remain in Saint Paul in an unimaginative warehouse on the West Side near St. Paul Downtown Airport.

The less frequently seen and even less visually stimulating back of the Bigelow Building.
The less frequently seen and even less visually interesting back of the Bigelow Building.
This designated smoking area behind the Bigelow building was so small that smokers must have to take turns puffing.
This designated smoking area behind the Bigelow building was so small that smokers must have to take turns puffing.

Cutting through the parking lots of these University Avenue buildings was like riding an alley in a residential neighborhood in that I saw the less public side of these buildings. And there were some interesting things to see.

The back side of Rayven Inc.’s facility which is at 431 North Griggs.
The back side of Rayven Inc.’s facility which is at 431 North Griggs.

Rayven Inc. is likely using at least one structure remaining from what was known as both Gopher Lime & Cement Company and The Speakes Company. Rayven manufactures a variety of pressure sensitive and custom adhesives, tapes and films for packaging – all stuff I have no clue about.

In reality, Rayven Inc. occupies several connected buildings, including this obviously older one.
Rayven Inc. occupies several connected buildings, including this obviously older one. My guess is this is a remnant of the long-gone Gopher Lime & Cement Company/Speakes Company
The front of Rayven Inc. at 431 Griggs Street North. They need to buy a vowel for the sign.
The front of Rayven Inc. at 431 Griggs Street North. They need a “T” for the sign.
This wide angle shot of Rayven Inc. from Griggs gives a better idea of the number of buildings in the facility.
This wide angle shot of Rayven Inc. from Griggs gives a better idea of the number of buildings in the facility.

Right across Griggs Street from Rayven Inc. some serious moving of earth was happening. My initial thought was another apartment building with underground parking. Thanks to the miracle that is the internet, I learned that by summer of 2020, this dirt would morph into the city’s newest park, Midway Peace Park.

The heavy equipment began converting old parking lots into Midway Peace Park. The much needed new park is slated to open in summer 2020.
The heavy equipment began converting unused lots into Midway Peace Park. The much needed new park is slated to open in summer 2020.

The opening of Midway Peace Park will bring outdoor space to this area, which for decades has been seriously short of parks and play areas. The nonprofit Trust for Public Land purchased the five acres of land and transferred them to the City of Saint Paul, according to the Trust. The park will feature a field for sports and play, walking paths, a playground, full basketball court, benches and tables, an outdoor amphitheater/classroom, works of art, gardens, trees and plants. Additional details about the park can be found here.

A bird's-eye view of the Midway Peace Park design looking the north. Courtesy City of Saint Paul/Trust for Public Land
A bird’s-eye view of the Midway Peace Park design looking the north. Courtesy City of Saint Paul/Trust for Public Land

Midway Peace Park will be especially welcomed by the residents of Skyline Tower which is on the other side of Griggs Street. Students from Gordon Parks High School and the High School for the Recording Arts are expected to make frequent use of the park.

Gross Metal Products Company had 1263 Bohn Street (later renamed Donohue Avenue) built, or at least was the first occupant in 1919 or ’20. Gross Metal manufactured reinforced metal doors and door frames, several of which were granted patents.

The plat map from 1922 showing Gross Metal Products at the corner of Syndicate Avenue and Bohn Street.
The plat map from 1922 showing Gross Metal Products at the corner of Syndicate Avenue and Bohn Street.

The company was purchased and moved to Como Avenue about 1927 and remains in business as Trussbilt, according to the company website

The metal beams may date back to the days of Gross Metal Products Company. Perhaps it was part of the system used to move steel in and out of the plant.
The metal beams may date back to the days of Gross Metal Products Company. Perhaps it was part of the system used to move steel in and out of the plant.
In 1920 when this building was built, it was on Bohn Street which wasn’t a dead end.
In 1920 when this building was built, this street was Bohn Street and it wasn’t a dead end. Mysteriously, the street sign spells “Donahue” with an “a” but the official city map and plat maps spell the name “Donohue.”

Today a plumbing supply company operates out of 1263 Donahue Avenue. But strangely, Star Supply uses 410 Syndicate as its address.

One other company that occupied 1263 Donohue and that I could find a sliver of information about was Peham Plastics, Inc. From what I could determine, Peham Plastics moved here in the late 1960s and remained into the mid ‘80s. Company owner Engelbert J. (Bert) Peham patented some offbeat hats that were produced and sold by his company. Here are a couple examples of Peham’s oddly inventive mind:

In March 1971, Peham applied for a patent to turn plastic mini-hats into coin banks, while still allowing the hats to be stacked for easy shipping and storage.
In March 1971, Peham applied for a patent to turn plastic mini-hats into coin banks, while still allowing the hats to be stacked for easy shipping and storage.
Peham received a patent for this hat in October 1980 and it’s a surprise that we don't see these every Saturday and Sunday during football season.
Peham received a patent for this football hat in October 1980 and it’s surprising that we don’t see these every Saturday and Sunday during football season.
Mr. Peham got more creative as he aged. The snap action hinged support for top hats is by far his best invention. The plastic snap action support would allow a top hat to be collapsed and re-extended many times. According to the patent application from 1987, the snap action support would allow top hats to be used “as a novelty item or for formal wear.”
Mr. Peham got more creative as he aged. The snap action hinged support for top hats is my favorite of his inventions. The plastic snap action support would allow a top hat to be collapsed and re-extended many times. According to the patent application from 1987, the snap action support would allow top hats to be used “as a novelty item or for formal wear.”
Looking west at Donohue Avenue such as it is. The brick building at the middle right is 1263 Donohue.
Looking west at Donohue Avenue such as it is. The brick building at the middle right is 1263 Donohue.

As I mentioned earlier, Bohn Street was renamed Donohue Avenue in 1957 to honor John H. Donohue (who died the year before), founder of the Corning-Donohue Brick Company. Corning-Donohue remained on Donohue Avenue until 1970 was it bulldozed to make way for the Skyline Tower Hi-Rise.

The Corning-Donohue Brick Company in the 1922 plat book. Corning-Donohue expanded north toward Bohn years later.
The Corning-Donohue Brick Company in the 1922 plat book. Corning-Donohue expanded north toward Bohn years later.
Skyline Tower, the largest low income hi-rise in Minnesota, is on St. Anthony Avenue between Griggs and Syndicate Streets.
Skyline Tower stands tall on St. Anthony Avenue between Griggs and Syndicate Streets. It is the largest low income hi-rise in Minnesota.
Skyline Tower has a small playground and a bit of green for children.
Skyline Tower has a small playground and a bit of green for children.

Skyline Tower, a subsidized housing complex, is the Midway’s most recognizable landmark. The 24-story, 240 foot tall building soars over the businesses, stores and homes that rarely top three stories in the neighborhood.

For many reasons Skyline Tower was controversial from the moment it was proposed. One of the earliest was over vacating parts of Bigelow Street and Donohue Avenue for the tower’s parking lot.

An article from the January 21, 1970 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The biggest objection, at least publicly, was the density of the proposed tower – nearly 50% higher than city code allowed. (NIMBYism and attempting to restrict lower income and people of color were undoubtedly also factors.) Representatives of some nearby businesses challenged the lack of open space for residents.

Timothy Quinn, an attorney for the Central Medical building located just east of the Skyline Tower site was quoted in a 1970 story in the St. Paul Dispatch as saying, “The playground for the 150 to 250 kids expected to live here will be this tree.”  In the same article, an attorney for Whitaker Buick said the development would lead to vandalism of vehicles parked across the street in the company’s new-car storage area.

From the January 23, 1970 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

In fact, the city Zoning Board voted unanimously to reject the developer’s request to change the city code from the required 1,000 square feet of land per apartment unit to 500 square feet. But the city council and Mayor Thomas Byrne overruled the Zoning Board and authorized construction 5-1 in 1970.

From the January 5, 1972 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Skyline Tower was plagued with crime almost from its opening in September 1971, according to newspaper accounts. Round-the-clock security guards, improved lighting and creation of a tenants council were initial responses to the incidents that brought police to Skyline Tower more frequently than any other location in Saint Paul from September to mid-December 1971.

Crime and its associated problems at varying levels continued at Skyline Tower until it was purchased in 2000 by CommonBond Communities. CommonBond spent more than $15 million to replace plumbing and appliances in each apartment, add a fire sprinkler system and fix the decaying exterior. CommonBond’s purchase and renovations are credited with significantly improving the livability for Skyline Tower residents.

The St. Anthony Avenue entrance to Skyline Tower's parking lot.
The St. Anthony Avenue entrance to Skyline Tower’s parking lot.

In 2015 windows were added and replaced and more plumbing work was completed. About the same time a new entrance was added to the south side of the building. The project also added a computer lab, learning center, offices, meeting rooms, and a large community room.

The most recent improvement to Skyline Tower is this structure that includes new entrances, computer lab and community room.

Skyline Tower, according to Emporis, an online building database, is the largest single-building subsidized housing facility west of Chicago. Nearly 1,000 residents, many from East Africa, live in Skyline Tower.

A car passes Skyline Tower on St. Anthony Avenue.
A car passes Skyline Tower on St. Anthony Avenue.

The map of this ride through the Midway is below.

7 comments

  1. I always appreciate the history you bring to your bike rides. These are places I’ve spent a lot of time and it is great fun to see (again, sometimes) what had been there. Keep biking and stay curious!

  2. Pat Donohue, a local guitarist and singer is from the Donohue family of Corning Donohue.

    1. Dick, that’s a nice bit if information. Do you by chance happen to know Pat Donohue? It would be fun to see what he knows about Corning Donohue.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Wolfie

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