St. Paul lost a great character last week with the death of George Hardenbergh, a former Ramsey County commissioner who’ll be remembered both for his voting record — he voted no on almost everything — and for the pipe organs he stored at the old Mounds Theatre before donating the theater to a youth group.
Hardenbergh died Christmas Eve at age 89.
In 1967, he bought the Mounds Theatre, built in 1922, and used it to store his collection of pipe organs, organ parts and assorted treasures. Late at night, neighbors would hear him working and sometimes playing — it must have been almost Poe-like — in the old East Side theater.
Then, in 2001, he donated the movie theater to Portage for Youth, a nonprofit on the East Side. It’s been returned to its original Art Deco style in recent years and now serves as a community theater for stage productions. News reports at the time of the donation said there were more than 400 organs there.
Raeann Ruth, head of Portage for Youth, called Hardenbergh “eccentric but lovable. He was way off in left field, but mentally he was brilliant.”
When he owned the theater, it was so full of layers of organ parts, old computers and appliances that she considered it “an indoor junkyard.”
He was a collector who hated to part with anything, she said. When they cleaned out the theater, he had most of the contents trucked up to storage lockers in Forest Lake, even though little of it appeared to be of any worth.
Greg Cosimini, a volunteer for Portage for Youth, said some things were thrown out. “But we couldn’t do it until he was gone. He couldn’t stand to see anything thrown away.”
And even though Hardenbergh gave the theater to the group, he wouldn’t permit any formal acknowledgment of his gift.
“While he was alive, he wouldn’t allow any memorial in the building. But now I’m going to have a plaque made,” Ruth said.
Cosimini, who got to know Hardenbergh during the theater changeover, would see him buying electronics at flea markets well into his 80s. Although rich, he’d haggle, he said.
“George was an engineer from way back and worked for Univac on the really old computers,” Cosimini said. “All his life he loved to tinker.”
And he always wore a pocket protector.
Hardenbergh didn’t talk much about his past, but many longtime residents remember his stint as county commissioner in the 1960s.
As a politician, he had a one-word vocabulary, remembers retired St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Don Boxmeyer.
It was “no.”
“He had a philosophy of self-sufficiency, so he’d vote no on just about every motion,” Boxmeyer said.
“He was so used to saying no that he’d even say it during the roll call.”
“He believed it would be better to have no government at all. If your house was on fire, it was your responsibility to put it out yourself, not rely on the government to do it.
“And to everyone who complained about pot holes, he told them to keep a bucket of hot tar in their trunk. Fill it in yourself and stop whining, he’d say.”
Ruby Hunt, a former Ramsey County commissioner and St. Paul City Council member, wasn’t on the county board with him in the late 1960s but did serve on the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church Council with him earlier in the ’60s. She recalls him as “always very fair” in his church work. “I understand that if the church ever had any financial trouble, he was very generous and would step up and take care of it without being asked.”
Boxmeyer recalls Hardenbergh as a “true original, sweet in a way.”
“He was a big, floppy guy with a sweet, soft smile. He was very articulate and had a low voice. And he had that rock-ribbed determination that no government was needed,” he said.
Boxmeyer suspects that much of his libertarian demeanor was tongue-in-cheek; he recalls him as a voice in the wilderness whose far-from-the-mainstream ideas were never in danger of being implemented.
And he was certainly eccentric.
Boxmeyer remembered that once, after selling some property for what might have been more than $1 million, Hardenbergh went to a bank for his proceeds and was outraged that they wanted to charge him 45 cents for a cashier’s check.
“He raised a fuss and demanded cash. They had to scramble to find enough cash and put it into a briefcase and out he walked, down the street, with all that money.”