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Obscura Day hereabouts to showcase Wabasha Street Caves and House of Balls

Courtesy of Atlas Obscura
Wabasha Street Caves

Atlas Obscura is a website devoted to highlighting the most interesting places in the world – places that evoke a sense of wonder and curiosity, whether scientific, historical, aesthetic or otherwise unclassifiable. This Saturday is Obscura Day, with 150-plus events in 39 states and 25 countries.

Locally, they’ll be sponsoring tours of two of the most beloved off-the-beaten-path sights in the cities – one in St. Paul, and one in Minneapolis. This week, I spoke with event coordinator Anne Hoffman and tour guide Deborah Frethem at the Wabasha Street Caves in St. Paul, and Allen Christian, whose House of Balls artist studio just moved from its longtime Warehouse District location to the West Bank in Minneapolis.

Wabasha Street Caves

The Wabasha Street Caves on the West Side of St. Paul have had a storied history as a mushroom farm, Prohibition speakeasy, ’30s gangster hangout, storage facility, disco, and wedding venue. Carved out of the sandstone in the 1840s, the caves will be open for a tour on Saturday, highlighting some of these many uses: “We talk about the mushroom farm that was here, we talk about the prohibition speakeasy that was here,” says event coordinator Anne Hoffman. “Then it became nightclub in 1933, and it was a gangster-era club. The big bands all played here — Cab Calloway, the Dorsey Brothers. There was a gangland murder here in the 1930s, so if you hear we’re haunted, that’s why. We will talk about ghost haunting.” Hoffman answered the first questions, and then turned the phone over to Deborah Frethem, who will be leading Saturday’s tour. 

MinnPost: Who currently owns the Wabasha Street Caves? Was the idea to open it as an event space and give tours? It seems like an unusual real estate investment.

Anne Hoffman: It’s Steven Bremer, who owns Bremer Construction Company. They’ve owned the cave for about 23 years. They actually purchased the cave to store equipment in over the winter. But people kept knocking on the door, wanting to peek inside. They’d say, ‘Hey, I heard John Dillinger danced in here when it was a nightclub. Can we take a look?’ ‘We heard you have a stage – can we put on a show?’ That was not their intention at all when they bought it.

Why do you think people have such an enduring fascination with the gangsters of the 1930s?

Deborah Frethem: Here’s my take on it. To a lot of people, Dillinger and the rest of those guys were seen as Robin Hood figures at the time. People felt like the banks and the big-business people were doing them in. And Dillinger robbed banks! They saw him and others as heroic Robin Hood figures.

The other thing is that it’s history, but it’s not that long ago. People will say, “Hey, my grandfather washed Dillinger’s car.” Or “My grandma saw Ma Barker on trial at the Landmark Center.” There’s immediate family that people have connected to this era. It’s history they can relate to.

You even look at something like “Breaking Bad.” There’s a certain element of people thinking, “I would never do that, but oh, if I did, I would get away with it. …” I really think that’s a part of it. These were bad, bad men — just so you know! — and I always tell kids visiting that being a gangster is not a good career choice. But there was a certain amount of feeling that these guys were not really that bad. They had hearts of gold. But I tell people trust me, they were bad men.

MP: Besides the history as a gangland hideout and speakeasy, do you ever get visitors with intense questions about silica or mushroom cultivation?

DF: I have to say: No one has ever had intense questions about silica or mushroom cultivation. It’s not like a big thing.

MP: Aw, that’s too bad.

DF: We do have people come our tours who are legitimate gangster experts. And we have lots of people looking for the ghosts. When people ask if I’ve seen one, I say “no.” What I also say is that even people who go ghost-hunting all the time almost never see a ghost. It’s a feeling, or a flash, or a light blinking. Seeing a ghost is very rare.

That said, I do believe this place is haunted. Just so you know. Maybe not with ghosts or conscious spirits, but just with energy left over from a bygone era. The caves have certainly seen their share of events. You think about all the things that have gone in here over the years. It was a nightclub for a long time! How many people’s hearts were broken in here? How many relationships broke up? How many people saw their loved one go off with someone else? It’s got that lingering energy. 

MP: Wow, I hope nothing that traumatic happens to the tour group on Saturday.

DF: Well, if it would happen with any group, it’d be with this one.

MP: In the spirit of the day, do you have a favorite spot around the Twin Cities besides the caves for taking out-of-town guests who want to see something particularly interesting?

DF: Mickey’s Dining Car, of course. The Fitzgerald Theater, if you get a chance to see inside it. The architecture in St. Paul is fabulous: the Cathedral, the Capitol, anything along Summit Avenue. I was born in Minneapolis, grew up in Bloomington, and we moved to St. Paul 25 years ago. It’s such a great city. I like to say there is no more avid St. Paulite than a former Minneapolitan.

House of Balls

The House of Balls has, for over 20 years, been one of those spaces you’d come across some evening walking through the Warehouse District, and then rave about to your friends forever afterwards. The House of Balls is sculptor Allen Christian’s studio, but the space and its massive collection of interactive treasures have always been open irregularly to the public to investigate his work – if you got lucky, he’d be in and the door would be unlocked. Last year, Christian moved across downtown to the West Bank. This Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., he’ll be hosting an open house in the new space. “The Polar Bear we built for the [outdoor winter event] Art Shanty Projects will be out. I’m going to have the plasma cutter going, so people can make something and take it with them. Just give them an experience.”

MinnPost: Late last year, you had some public sales to empty out the old space in the Warehouse District. How did those go? How’s adjusting to the new space been?

Allen Christian: I bought the building in September, but most of my time between then and the end of December was demo-ing this place, rebuilding it, managing to somehow organize some stuff for the move. It’s exciting to be in here now, and it’s great to have warm weather. That’s one of the things that happened — there’s space outside the building, and I found I’ve been working outside a lot more in the new space. I didn’t have that before. I was really limited by the heights of the ceiling and the width of the door. This opens up so many opportunities for changing the scale. Just having the air and the light has been new. Now that there’s an outdoor area, you can interact with the art without having to peer through the window.

Sculptor Allen Christian in his House of Balls.
Courtesy of Atlas Obscura
Sculptor Allen Christian in his House of Balls.

MP: What was the West Bank space before you moved in?

AC: The last incarnation was a punk rock club called the Medusa, but it was originally built as a gas station in 1931. I’m going more for the gas station look. Those classic lines are still in there. I love having that skeleton to build on.

MP: One of the defining characteristics of the Warehouse District space was how many layers there were. Objects were piled on top of objects. It was a very condensed, tightly packed space. 

AC: It’s not like that. I really wanted to move away from that. I always felt suffocated myself, by all these old ideas. The sales were about trying to eliminate those old ideas. I really wanted to try to have a clean slate to work from.

Luckily, a lot of the older elements are gone, and there’s room to breathe. That’s the beautiful part of this place. I can actually see the work. In the old space, I’d look at something, but there was always something else behind it, something to the left of it, all these distractions around. It’s more gallery-like on some level, but it’s still got the House of Balls funkiness to it.

Only the last month have I been working on the artwork, as opposed to the space. Part of that process is having collected elements from the demo – that’s what I’m working on. Like this series of duct figures, from the duct work I pulled out of the ceiling. I never had this kind of space at the old studio. I could’ve done each figure one at a time, but now can I see them next to each other, and see the relationship between them.

MP: I’d first seen the sign for the new space from 94, near the 5th Street entrance. It’s a little like moving ahead in time from a 19th-century mercantile storefront experience to a 20th-century roadside experience.

AC: And yet — it’s interesting, because people will tell me, “We got off on that exit, but we couldn’t figure out how the hell to get back there.” The mystery lives on! It’s kind of a twisting on the same theme. The old space was “where the hell is it?” – you had to know exactly where it was to find it. Whereas here, you can see it from 94, 35W, Hiawatha, but getting here is another thing.

MP: In the spirit of the day, do you have a favorite spot around the Twin Cities besides the House of Balls for taking out-of-town guests who want to see something particularly interesting?

AC: The Atlas Obscura has many of them — I take them over to Zoran’s, I take them through Kenilworth, I take them to Franconia. I think that’s the closest thing we have to Burning Man. I take them to the Washburn Water Tower, which is one of my favorite obscure little places. I talk about the gravitational rifts in Minnesota, not far from here that we’re part of. What else? Mickey’s. 

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