HHM Gateway178-The Palms

The Persian Palms

Published July 21, 2016
James Eli Shiffer

Today’s guest blogger is James Eli Shiffer, author of the newly published book, The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis.

If Minneapolis were to create a dive bar hall of fame, the Persian Palms would be the first inductee. A bland office block now sits at 109-111 Washington Avenue. But back in the 1950s, the three story brick building with the garish marquee on this site sounded a siren song to both habitual drinkers and upright citizens, who risked body and wallet to revel in its free-flowing liquor and transgressive sexuality. Like Moby Dick’s, Stand Up Frank’s and other vanished venues, this bar was a notorious landmark in a city deeply conflicted about alcohol and sex.

The bar cultivated a salacious appeal that drew customers from far and wide. People from all over the region knew the Persian Palms as a place to defy 1950s-era expectations of respectability. They could walk on the wild side at this strip joint, which was known for its live and sometimes bizarre entertainment. The bar advertised “three floor shows nightly.” One city alderman called the Palms “one of the raunchiest joints in town.”

The Persian Palms was in many ways the fake jewel in the tarnished crown of the Minneapolis Gateway District, the heart of the old city where Hennepin, Nicollet and Washington Avenues came together. The Gateway was the region’s largest Skid Row, home to thousands of retired or disabled laborers, drunks, loners and lost souls.

HHM Gateway095-The Palms, Valhalla

Streetscape showing the Persian Palms in the Minneapolis Gateway District, shortly before its demolition. Image is from the Hennepin History Museum.

The sale of liquor was banned in most Minneapolis neighborhoods until 1974. Alcohol was concentrated in the city’s 20-block Gateway district, which was awash in saloons, beer parlors and liquor stores. Researchers counted 62 of them in 1952. Most were shunned by anyone who lived outside the neighborhood. Few remember the Pastime Bar, the Old Bowery, the White Star Saloon, the Hub or the Valhalla. These were pedestrian purveyors of liquor, utilitarian service stations for men determined to drink the most they could for the least amount of money.

The Persian Palms was something else altogether.

Since I published a book this spring about the last years of Minneapolis’ notorious Skid Row, everyone I meet seems to want to talk about the Persian Palms. One man told me his late great-uncle was the manager of the place. Another one told me his uncle Clyde used to drink himself into oblivion there, and would occasionally have to be dragged out, dried up and sent back home to Rochester. Another recalled a troupe of plus-sized dancers at Palms that performed weekly can-can routines. They were known as the Beef Trust Chorus, somewhat of a fad at the time, and its “captain,” Violet Morton, tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds.  

January 18, 1951 Violet Morton Captain, "Beef Trust Chorus Persian Palms. January 1951

Violet Morton, Captain, Beef Trust Chorus. Persian Palms, January 18, 1951. Image is from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and is used with permission. All rights reserved.

One woman wrote me a letter recalling a visit to the bar in September 1950. She ordered a beer so she wouldn’t have to drink from the glasses of questionable cleanliness. The main attraction that night was Divena, a stripper who performed underwater, in a very large fish-tank. It wasn’t especially sexy, but memorable nonetheless, she wrote.

Divena wasn’t the only celebrity in town that fall. Weegee, the famous New York photographer, visited Minneapolis and ventured into Skid Row late at night. He snapped a photo of a bloodied man, his hand over his face, sitting on the sidewalk right in front of the Palms. He’s probably just been tossed out of the place and he’s too drunk or stunned or both to get up. Two men with push brooms are behind him, sweeping him off the sidewalk like so much trash. Nobody knows whether he got a chance to see Divena, whose act is advertised in the window.

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Photograph by Weegee, 1950. Image is from the Hennepin County Libraries Special Collections.

Any male who approached the bar would quickly be accosted by a female requesting a drink, in exchange, naturally, for conversation. These were the B-girls, who operated in cahoots with the bartender to encourage as much spending as possible by the customers. She would get a cut, of course.

The owner of the Persian Palms was Harry Smull, a Russian immigrant who built a small liquor empire in Minneapolis, despite a city ordinance that said an individual could only own one liquor permit. That was an effort to keep the liquor business as clean as possible, by discouraging monopolies or mob control. It failed utterly. People like Smull registered the permits in the names of relatives and employees, and for the most part the aldermen and the police, often paid for their courtesy, looked the other way.

That is, until 1961. That year, the redevelopment project that would wipe away Skid Row and 40 percent of downtown Minneapolis was underway. The city was also determined to clean up the liquor business, so they rounded up dozens of liquor permit holders, including Smull, on charges of violating the one-permit rule. A judge eventually threw out all of the charges, and determined that ordinance was illegal.

Despite skepticism from some council members, who welcomed the demise of the Persian Palms, the liquor license was transferred to a bar called the Copper Squirrel on Hennepin Avenue. Yet the Palms endures in the city’s collective memory. It was campy, sordid and outright dangerous at times, like the neighborhood around it. And at the same time, irresistible.


The Pioneer Hotel: Welcome to your cage

Published April 6, 2016
James Eli Shiffer

Today’s guest blogger is James Eli Shiffer, author of the newly published book, The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis. This Thursday at the Mill City Museum, James will be talking about his book at the opening of a new exhibit  that features previously unpublished images of the city’s lost Gateway District.  

In the pantheon of vanished Minneapolis accommodations, the Pioneer Hotel ranks exceedingly low. In fact, there probably aren’t many people around who even remember the place, which was swept away with other low-end hotels during the Gateway urban renewal project of the early 1960s. The Pioneer had the distinction of being photographed extensively by the city Housing and Redevelopment Authority in 1960, shortly before its destruction, making it perhaps the best-documented flophouse in Minneapolis history.

The Pioneer occupied the upper floors of an old commercial building at the corner of Nicollet Avenue and 2nd Street South, in the heart of the old Skid Row. It was a cage hotel, also called a cubicle hotel, meaning that its tiny rooms were constructed of plywood and tin dividers, with chicken wire over the top. The residents of the Pioneer, single, aging men who were primarily retired railroad or other seasonal workers, shared bathrooms and found companionship playing cards or just letting their bellies hang out in the day room.

Cage hotels emerged in Minneapolis in the late 19th century, as a way to house the migrant laborers who came to the city to find work and then to stay while they spent their earnings from the railroads, the farms and the logging camps. By 1895, there were 50 cage hotels in Minneapolis. While these hotels provided a cheap place to stay, the rest of Minneapolis found them increasingly distasteful. The city outlawed new cage hotels in 1918, but they were such an established institution that some of them lasted for four more decades.

The Pioneer Hotel was owned by Charlie Arnold, whose own accommodations reportedly included a mansion in southern California. He told a reporter from the Minneapolis Star in 1958 that he owned four Skid Row hotels, and said he provided a home to “many fine old gentlemen.” One of those guests, Adolph Karlsson, said he was amenable to moving out of the way of the impending redevelopment “if we can have another place where men like myself can stay and have companionship. When a man reaches middle age and he can’t get a steady job, he needs a place where he can get a cheap room and cheap meals,” The Star’s photographer, Larry Schreiber, snapped a photo of three residents of the Pioneer playing cards in the dayroom.


William Bridges, Gust Tarsuk and Clifford Christjohn playing cards at the Pioneer Hotel. Minneapolis Star Tribune photograph. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Two years after the Star’s story, Richard Palen, a photographer commissioned by the city, visited the Pioneer to document the condition of the building and its interiors. The men he found lounging in the day room or reading on their beds were merely bystanders as the city documented its “blight.” The bathrooms were dismal, the basement was heaped with liquor bottles and the whole place looked like a firetrap. But for generations of seasonal laborers, pensioners and others who helped build Minneapolis and the upper Midwest, the Pioneer was home.

Photographs by the city of Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority, ca. 1960. From the Special Collections, Minneapolis Central Library, Hennepin County Library.

Where did the Gateway Turtle Fountain go?

Published June 4, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

One reader asked me yesterday whether the Gateway Turtle fountain had been destroyed. The fountain–which sat at the center of the park’s Beaux Arts Pavilion–features prominently in images of the district. Once it became a gathering spot for Skid Row denizens in the 1930s, the city drained the water from the basin to keep men from bathing and drinking from it.

The fountain survived the demolition of the Gateway and now lives in the Lake Harriet Rose Garden, where it now serves as a backdrop for many wedding photos.


LOC Gateway fountain image, Lee, 1937, 8b36603v

Looking for the lost Gateway District of Minneapolis

Published June 1, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

On Saturday morning, Historyapolis will again team up with James Eli Shiffer to lead a Preserve Minneapolis tour of the lost Gateway district of Minneapolis. This will be our third year doing the tour, which poses some challenges since we have to re-create a world that no longer exists. To be successful, this expedition into the past demands the active participation of tour-goers, who have to make heavy use of their historical imaginations. If you’re willing to do some work and some walking, click on this link and join us for the fun.

For some people at least, the effort is worthwhile. This lost world holds riches for anyone interested in understanding the city in all of its seamy complexity.

The infamous Gateway, which became the region’s largest skid row around World War I, began to disappear under the bulldozers in 1959. That was the year the city launched its massive, federally-funded effort to redevelop downtown. When the dust settled, the city had flattened 40 percent of the central business district. City planners envisioned a futuristic cluster of skyscrapers rising from the rubble.

mpls_hra_081950_200, photo of Rod Engelen, Gateway model

Rod Engelen and other Minneapolis city planners. From the personal collection of Derek Engelen.


Some new, modern buildings did appear, like this structure constructed by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance company. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also was the architect of the World Trade Center in New York City, it was the pride and joy of the city’s urban planners.

Northwestern Mutural life insurance building, gateway, CPED collection

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Building, CPED collection, Hennepin County Library Special Collections.


But the clear-cut area was dominated by surface parking lots which are only now starting to be developed, more than 50 years after the wrecking balls did their work.

Before it was flattened, the district was known for everything that city boosters hated. Minneapolis was built on a river and tied to  the power of water. But its founders imagined it as a “city on a hill”: a model metropolis with no urban problems. This civic ideal persisted, despite the regular intrusion of reality. But it was the Gateway–perhaps more than anything else –that constantly challenged the city’s claim to be an urban paragon.

In the historic heart of the city, the alcohol flowed freely, the idlers wiled away their days in the park and on the sidewalks; the prostitutes were brazen; men sought sexual encounters with other men; the buildings were dilapidated and vermin-ridden; the communists and Wobblies called for the overthrow of capitalism and the American political system. Its flophouses sheltered people not welcome elsewhere. In these squalid conditions, a community took shape that included exhausted lumberjacks and harvest hands; alcoholics wanting to drink out their last years in peace; Chinese men seeking respite from West Coast racial violence; Native Americans looking for anonymity in the big city.

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Radical speakers in Gateway Park. From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.


During the Great Depression, the district drew journalists and photographers who wanted to document the human suffering of the economic crisis. Photographers from the Farm Security Administration–like Russell Lee who shot the image of men in Gateway Park that is featured at the top of this post–immortalized Gateway denizens as the urban counterparts to Dorothea Lange’s migrant workers. And when a reporter from Fortune magazine visited the city in 1936 to investigate the origins of the Truckers’ Strike, which had been organized by Trotskyites but supported by thousands of working-class Minneapolitans, he concluded it was from the Gateway that “the revolution” so feared by many Americans “would come.”

smaller version, bemelmas image of gateway, fortune magazine 1936

The Gateway distilled the city’s social problems, concentrating them in a few overcrowded blocks that offered adventure, oblivion and community. Here was everything the city wanted to hide. Which is why a close examination of this one neighborhood reveals so much about Minneapolis.

It is this symbolic power of the Gateway that fascinates me. But for James, it is the culture and stories of Skid Row that draws him to this lost world. He has just completed a new history of the Gateway–which will be published by the University of Minnesota Press–that uses vivid storytelling and description to transport readers to this world in its twilight moments. The narrative centers on the life of John Bacich, aka Johnny Rex, the self-appointed “King” of Skid Row.  Bacich owned a bar and liquor store and flophouse in the Gateway. He also had a documentary impulse and shot home movies of these venues right before they were demolished. This footage was incorporated into a 1998 TPT documentary which James happened upon several years ago. Inspired to track down Bacich, James spent three years interviewing him before his death in 2012.

Beyond the Bacich footage, there is rich visual documentation of the Gateway, which has attracted generations of artists, documentarians and city planners. Over the course of the week to come, I’ll share some of my favorite of these images, which never fail to transport me to world that is utterly foreign to modern Minneapolitans.

smaller version, HHM Gateway182-Political signs posted along fronts of building, can see ...Club, but can't make out what club

Election Hangover

Published November 5, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

Long after the final votes are counted, the political signs remain. The Gateway District in the heart of the historic city was a favorite place for campaign posters before it was finally demolished in 1963. This photo shows the remainders of the 1961 city election, which saw Arthur Naftalin, longtime aide to legendary politician Hubert Humphrey, unseat Kenneth “P.K.” Peterson from the mayor’s office. Naftalin was the first (and only) Jewish mayor in the history of the city. He would guide the community through the tumultuous years of the 1960s, when racial tensions were high.

This image is part of a treasure trove of color slides from the city’s forgotten Skid Row that team Historyapolis recently discovered at the Hennepin History Museum. Thanks to museum staff for giving us generous access to these unique sources. The  concerted efforts of citizen researcher Rita Yeada and Historyapolis intern Heidi Heller–who worked together to digitize and organize the images– makes it possible for us to enjoy these images online.


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“The sale of alcoholic beverages never really stopped in the Gateway . . .It probably never even paused”

Published April 14, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

It’s map Monday. This diagram shows liquor raids in Minneapolis during 1928. The data for this info-graphic was collected at the height of Prohibition, eight years after the Volstead Amendment banned the sale and consumption of liquor in the United States.

This map was published as part of a Minneapolis police survey compiled in 1930 by August Vollmer, who was known as the father of American criminology. As chief of police in Berkeley, California, Vollmer developed systems of record-keeping and training that were adopted throughout the United States.

This diagram shows police liquor raids clustered in the old Gateway neighborhood on the banks of the Mississippi River. This was the heart of the liquor patrol district. Enshrined in the city charter in the 1880s, this ordinance required bars and liquor stores to be concentrated in select parts of town, with the rationale that police could more easily control liquor-fueled crime if all of these types of businesses were in one place.

A constitutional ban on alcohol did little to slow the consumption of liquor in the Minneapolis Gateway. “Drinking  and the sale of alcoholic beverages never really stopped in the Gateway,” historian David Rosheim concluded in his history of the neighborhood. “It probably never even paused.”

After the Volstead Act, Gateway saloons were converted into “soft-drink bars,” which supposedly limited their offerings to sandwiches and soft-drinks. The Salvation Army was the first to open this kind of establishment; it was probably the only one in the neighborhood to limit its patrons to root beer. Most Gateway soft-drink bars made their money from moonshine and prostitution. And they came under the control of local bootleggers, who worked with the police department’s Purity Squad to ensure they could operate without interference. This system of payoffs was described by Paul Ferrell, who described the Minneapolis Gateway of the 1920s in his memoir Michigan Mossback. Ferrell does not paint a flattering view of the Mill City.

Vollmer’s liquor raid map does sheds little light on the actual consumption of alcohol in Prohibition-era Minneapolis. At best, it illuminates which establishments were late on their required payments to the Purity Squad.

The liquor patrol limits were rescinded in 1974, though it is still difficult in Minneapolis to get a liquor license or serve liquor outside of these historic limits.

Map is from the Minneapolis Police Survey, which is held in the Hennepin County Special Collections at the Central Library.

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Why is it so hard to get a drink south of Lake Street?

Published September 16, 2013 by Kirsten Delegard

It’s map Monday. Ever wonder why it’s so hard to get a mixed drink south of Lake Street in Minneapolis? We can thank the historic “patrol limits,” which were incorporated into the city charter in the 1880s. The ordinance required bars and liquor stores to be concentrated in select parts of town, with the rationale that police could more easily control liquor-fueled crime if all of these types of businesses were in one place. The city’s largest liquor zone was the Gateway district on the banks of the Mississippi River.  Another was the “Hub of Hell”–shown on this map at the intersection of 27th Avenue and 25th Street.

This map delineates the liquor patrol districts in 1935, about 18 months after Prohibition was rescinded. It also shows the 37 establishments allowed to serve liquor outside of the districts. This group includes legendary institutions like the Nankin Cafe and the Curtis Hotel; it also includes highly selective locales like the Minneapolis Club and the Minneapolis Athletic Club, which were renowned for barring anyone who did not belong to the city’s Yankee elite. City voters were being asked to determine whether these outliers could continue to serve liquor. Voters must have approved this request, as a defeat would have provoked a revolt of the well-heeled. The first families of Minneapolis would not have ventured into the increasingly seedy Gateway for their daily cocktail. The liquor patrol limits were rescinded in 1974, though it is still difficult in Minneapolis to get a liquor license or serve liquor outside of these historic limits. Clipping is from the Minneapolis collection, Hennepin County Central Library.