In the 1910s, St. Paul was nothing short of a boomtown, bursting with wealth and industry. Great fortunes were assembled here – think names like Weyerhauser, Hill, and Ordway. Individuals who’d reached the pinnacle of their careers started thinking about legacy projects. What would they be remembered for? How could they give back to the communities that had so richly rewarded them for their hard work.
The answer: Landmark buildings. Specifically, landmark clubhouses. A few examples:
• The Minnesota Club (1910)
• The University Club on Summit Avenue (1913)
• The Saint Paul Athletic Club (1917)
The Saint Paul Athletic Club wasn’t just an important building for the city of St. Paul; it also garnered national attention. There wasn’t a finer space under construction for 1,000 miles. President Wilson himself pushed a button in the White House, releasing a wrecking ball that made way for this building.
It took just over a year to build the Saint Paul Athletic Club. Construction funding (over $1 million in 1917 dollars) was raised from the founders selling bonds to other members and supporters. If this building were built today, some estimates put the cost at $75 million.
Created in English Renaissance style, the building was designed by Allen Stem (from the architectural firm Stem and Reed) – the renowned architect behind New York City’s Grand Central Station (as well as the St. Paul Hotel and the University Club).
It was designed to be not just a meeting place, but a place of recreation, relaxation, and community. As such, it was created with enormous amenities – like a bowling alley, barber shop, billiard room, sleeping rooms, squash courts, and a sun deck, among others.
The building thrived through decades. In 1959, an expansion added penthouse dining to the 14th floor.
With membership at a peak in 1980—and no debt on the building—the owners added a large addition for additional athletic facilities.
That expansion, along with a tax change law that excluded membership dues as a deductible business expense, tipped the scales, because the member-owned club went bankrupt nine years later, closing abruptly in late 1989.
The building was scheduled for demolition, with an auction held for everything that wasn’t nailed down. Thousands of people crammed into the ballroom to buy a piece of history.
Another auction was scheduled to strip the building of all the valuable structural elements, such as the stunning marble columns, carved stone banisters, and the quarter-sawn English Oak paneling. (Perish the thought!)
With only one hour to spare before the auction started, Wallas Orfield Sr. purchased an option to buy the building. There was a true movie moment: Stop the auction I just bought the building!
While Mr. Orfield ultimately decided not to pursue the option, his actions saved the building, and we are forever grateful.
Meanwhile, the building sat vacant for five long years. It fell into disrepair. Pipes burst. There was ice on the floors. John Rupp saw beyond the mess and decided to buy it out of bankruptcy. He had great respect for the historic space and envisioned a bright future for it. Rupp secured Lifetime Fitness as his first tenant, and together, they spend millions of dollars renovating the club.
The University Club rented the ballroom and penthouse for event space and Rupp included commercial tenants on the remaining floors. In 2008 he changed strategy and opened the only boutique hotel in St. Paul on floors 10 and 11. In 2014 he expanded to the 12th floor. Hotel 340 includes 56 guest rooms.
Lifetime moved out in 2010, giving Rupp an opportunity to re-evaluate the 68,000 square feet of athletic space. He decided to restore it to its original glory as the Saint Paul Athletic Club. He wanted to recreate the space at it was originally intended: as an integral part of the community where people could connect, relax, unwind, pursue wellness, and celebrate.
The club underwent an additional, massively ambitious round of renovations. The uncompromising approach created balance between preserving history and yet modernizing the space to suit today’s needs. The result: historic grandeur existing in harmony with amenities that rival the nation’s top-tier facilities.
After three years of meticulous renovations, the Saint Paul Athletic Club reopened to great fanfare in February, 2013.
The rest, as they say, is history.