Frogtown: Centers of Commerce

Tour curated by: Special thanks to author Jane McClure

University Avenue is Frogtown’s best-known commercial street. It was once home to one of the Twin Cities’ busiest streetcar lines. The University Avenue line connected the downtown areas of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and also served the University of Minnesota. It also connected to several other streetcar lines including Rice Street and Dale Street. University was the premiere streetcar line in terms of ridership numbers. It served shoppers as well as commuters.

METRO Green Line light rail is slated to start operations here in 2014.

Just as much of Frogtown’s residential areas have been succession neighborhoods, so too have its commercial districts. That’s especially true along University Avenue. Although the south half of the avenue is in the Summit-University planning district, Frogtowners always considered University to be one of their main streets.

Over the years the ethnicity of the business community changed with that of the surrounding neighborhood, with many Asian, Hispanic, and African nationalities represented today in ownership of restaurants, grocery stores, and retail and service businesses. The east end of University Avenue was recently designated as the Little Mekong District, in recognition of Asian businesses there.

A look at business owner names of the past shows German, Scandinavian, Irish, Polish and Eastern European names. Many people lived and worked in the neighborhood, some living above their businesses.

Well into the 20th century, Frogtown’s stretch of University Avenue was where neighborhood residents could shop for anything. Small family-run grocery stores, meat and fruit and vegetable markets provided food. General merchandise stores provided a wide variety of household goods. Confectionaries provided sweets and in some cases, a soda foundation counter. Millinery shops provided fine ladies’ hats. Cobblers made shoes for the entire family. Tailors made clothes although many families bought fabric by the bolt and made their own garments.

University had tobacco shops, harness and buggy shops, liveries, livestock dealers, lawyers and more. At one time there were three movie theaters. Longtime residents recall that no one had to leave Frogtown to get anything that was needed.

Many of today’s University Avenue buildings are second- and third-, even fourth-generation structures on their sites. A number of Victorian-era and early to mid-20th century commercial buildings remain. Many storefronts have been altered at the expense of their historic character, but other commercial and industrial buildings are well-preserved. While traveling University Avenue, seek out these buildings and note the unique brick and stone work, and other architectural details. Often a clue to what a building used to look like can be found on its upper floors.

Locations for Tour

St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood has always been one of the city’s succession neighborhoods, welcoming generation after generation of newcomers to the capital city and the United States. Frogtown also has been home to several generations of the…

This building at 312-316 University Av., with apartments above and main floor retail and office space below, is one of University Avenue’s remaining and largely intact Victorian retail buildings. It has housed many different retail businesses over…

This structure at 344 W. University Av., which is more than 70 years old, has retained much of its original character. It was one of a handful of funeral homes in the Frogtown neighborhood and is the only one left today. The National Funeral Home,…

University Avenue was once one of Saint Paul’s “auto row” districts, where people could shop for cars. Owens Motor Sales (now Lifetrack Resources) at 709 University Av. (1917, second floor 1922-23) is one of the last vestiges of an auto…

Hooray for Hollywood! Frogtown’s unique contribution to the early film industry began at 823 University Avenue. A film projectionist named Charles Bell came to St. Paul from Seattle in 1908. He operated his own movie theater for a short time before…

The Victoria Theater, at 825 University Av., was one of three University Avenue movie theaters that catered to Frogtown children and families. The other was the Faust at University and Dale (see tour Frogtown: Lost Frogtown) and the Centre Theater…

The Brioschi-Minuti Studio and Showroom at 908 W. University Av. is one of University Avenue’s most well-preserved storefronts, even though the use of the property has changed. Brioschi-Minuti was an ornamental plaster and sculpture showroom. Its…

The Schott Building at 935-937 University Av. is a prime example of a well-preserved University Avenue storefront. The building, which currently houses a secondhand store, has been home to many different types of retail businesses over the years. It…

Other key commercial districts in the neighborhood include Dale Street and the Dale-Como-Front intersection, which abuts the North End, Lower Rice Street and several small pockets of commercial property and converted commercial and small industrial…

Manufacturing uses were present along University and throughout the Frogtown neighborhood. Examples include the 1914 Ford Building, 117 W. University, an early motor vehicle manufacturing building and the former Old Home Dairy building at Western and…

The Ford Building, 117 University Av. W., was built in 1914. It was designed by John Graham, with the firm of Keyes and Coburn. It was a sub-assembly plant for ford motor vehicles, only turning out about 500 vehicles per year. It and a Minneapolis…

The Old Home building was built in 1912 for the Minnesota Milk Company. Its original, more utilitarian design gave way in 1932 to a sleek Art Deco exterior, with a black stone base and many distinctive details. One prominent feature was a bas…