The St. Paul Athletic Club was designed in 1915 by architect Allen H. Stem, who with Charles A. Reed had recently completed Grand Central Station in New York City. Like Grand Central, the Athletic Club was threatened with demolition in the 1990s but survived because preservationists valued its sound construction, central location, and fine craftsmanship.
In 1884, the St. Paul Athletic Club organization started out in a gymnasium with a reading room nearby at Seven Corners. Thirty years later, in 1914, fundraisers promised that the new clubhouse would make club members and citizens of the prosperous young capital city proud.
Early fundraising success encouraged the club’s board to add two more floors to the plan, increasing the total cost to $1 million—an astounding figure that had only been exceeded by, respectively, the costs of the state capitol and the 1885 Ryan Hotel, which had seven stories and 335 rooms. (The Ryan Hotel was torn down in 1962, shortly before the modern historic preservation movement was born.)
Concerns about World War I slowed the fundraising effort after 1914. Construction didn’t begin until 1916 and continued through wartime. The members of the St. Paul Athletic Club offered their new building as an emergency hospital for the returning wounded, but the war ended before it was needed.
The St. Paul Athletic Club was the last neoclassical building of more than a few stories (it had thirteen) to be built downtown. Following the standard set by the great cities of the Eastern United States, the architects selected a Renaissance Revival-influenced Beaux-Arts style. The variety of window sizes on the thirteen-story façade reflects the range of amenities available to members, including two-story gymnasiums, a pool, a ballroom, and a lobby. There were also locker rooms, restaurants, a barber shop, and small guest rooms. The two-story lobby featured a baronial fireplace, ornate plasterwork, and unusual terra-cotta railings on the balconies made by artisans at the Brioschi-Minuti Studio, originally located on University Avenue. Stem had encouraged them to move their workshop to St. Paul from New York City.
A two-day celebration was held for the city when the club opened in September 1918 with two thousand members. An editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, pointing out that the club’s social functions made it more than a gym, called the club “one of the city’s biggest assets” and “an altar for friendship” for St. Paulites from all walks of life.
After World War II, the urban club continued to grow, even as people and businesses were moving to the suburbs. In 1960, a glass-walled penthouse dining room was added. In the 1970s, as women became more active in the business community, they were invited to join as members.
Membership peaked at four thousand in 1980 when an addition featuring squash, handball, and basketball courts was built. Over time, however, the debt load was too much for the organization to bear. The club closed abruptly in December 1989 after declaring bankruptcy.
Thousands of people attended an auction for all items unattached to the building. Demolition was scheduled. A second auction to sell structural fittings—the artisan tiles, fireplace, carved wood, marble columns, and trim—was stopped an hour before it was to start. Wallace Orfield, Sr., purchased an option to buy the building and cancelled demolition. He later decided to waive his option. The building stood empty for years.
In 1995, local developer John Rupp purchased and renovated the abandoned building for tenants and catering events. By 2008, he opened Hotel 340, an award-winning boutique hotel with fifty-six rooms. Renovation of the building continued, and in 2013 the new St Paul Athletic Club opened on six floors, an independent, locally owned health and social club.
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