Santaland and memories: Last Christmas at 700 Nicollet Mall?

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
The Oak Grill

“It’s been like this all day, packed since we opened,” said the hostess at the Oak Grill, the venerable 12th-floor restaurant at Macy’s, gesturing toward the 114–year-old department store’s festive dining room Saturday evening. To be sure, a healthy parade of diners, shoppers, and Santaland pilgrims were eager to take in what might be the last Christmas season at the Macy’s downtown Minneapolis location, as sources say the retail giant plans to shutter the store as early as January. 

Time marches on, and the building is just another bricks-and-mortar carcass waiting to be carted off by the digital future, right? True enough. But before Macy’s decision comes, Minneapolitans like this kid are hastily returning to the site of where so many memories where made, including, for me, working as a clerk in the vinyl and cassette tapes department in 1981, and as Santa Claus for one memorable month in 1989.

“Who didn’t work at Dayton’s?” my 88-year-old father said to me the other day. “Everybody worked at Dayton’s.”

As the death knell first sounded this time last year, the Strib’s Rick Nelson championed the Dayton’s/Marshall Field’s/Macy’s building on 7th and the Nicollet Mall as, “one of the city’s most enduring landmarks, and although the name on the door has read ‘Macy’s’ for the past nine years, for many Minneapolitans — present company included — 700 Nicollet will forever be ‘Dayton’s.’ Like most 20th-century downtown department stores, Dayton’s was more than a one-stop shopping destination. It was a civilizing force, a cultural nexus, an idea factory, a memory maker, the heart of the city, a way of life.” 

"I was a Department Store Santa" City Pages cover by Jim Walsh
“I was a Department Store Santa” City Pages cover
by Jim Walsh

Most of the memories have to do with annual trips made to the eighth floor auditorium of the former Dayton’s, which has hosted Christmas displays since 1963 (including the debut of the freaky phenomenon that was Santa Bear in 1986), and the same place where the likes of John Denver, Jimmy Page and the Yardbirds, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Simon and Garfunkel played— prompting the August 22, 1966 edition of Newsweek magazine to call Dayton’s “the swingingest spot in Minneapolis.” 

Saturday night, the swingin’ party was a pale imitation of its heyday, and one man’s stroll through the old warhorse made for a festively nostalgic trip that’s sure be taken by thousands of Minnesotans in the holiday weeks to come. The doomed ship may be taking on water and sinking fast, but as the endless foreboding construction on the Nicollet Mall outside portends the end of an era, inside the joint is festooned with Christmas trees, lights, discount gifts-to-be-had, and plenty of when-humans-in-retail-mattered ghosts.

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

On the 12th floor outside the Oak Grill sits the store’s museum, which charts the building’s history and speaks to the philanthropy of the Dayton family, including a 1931 letter from founder George Dayton and plenty of other memorabilia and artifacts that should find its way to the Minnesota Historical Society straightaway.

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Santaland’s photo ops, bakery, and gift shops did brisk business Saturday night just before the store closed at 9 p.m. Dozens of families took part in the time-honored ritual of taking the elevator up to the eighth floor, turning the corner and waiting in line for what Macy’s officials have claimed for years is “the real Santa.” 

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Once upon a time, in a city much different from the toddlin’ town it now reigns as, the building’s most famous Hollywood moment came when Mary Tyler Moore tossed her hat into the air on the corner of 7th and Nicollet in front of Dayton’s. Sooner or later, barring a redevelopment miracle, that moment will become part of the corner’s history, and it’s hard not to think that something more than a department store will be lost.

“Send emails to Macy’s and tell them not to close. Tell everybody to send emails to keep us open,” said one of Santa’s elves who declined to be identified, which sounded an awful lot like a Christmas wish that has but a snowball’s chance in hell of coming true …

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