Earlier this month, the old Mohawk Theater was seized by the state for back taxes. The building’s most recent business incarnation as an occasional rental hall clearly hasn’t panned out, and the owner, with an address listed in Florida, owed the county more than $72,000, according to tax records.
It’s unclear at this point what happens next for the Mohawk – a source with the city tells me a sheriff’s sale is usually the next step, and the future of the building will be determined by whomever ponies up the dough to buy it. At a listing price of $400,000, it’s been sitting on the market for years, and although lots of people have great ideas for this structure, no one so far has come forward with the business plan or the capital to open the doors again.
The theater dates to 1921 and was a movie house for much of its early life. Darlene Lewis, a former West St. Paul city council member and Smith Avenue resident, grew up on the West End of St. Paul and recalls walking up the High Bridge to see movies at the Mohawk when she was a child. A comment on this history website says a Wurlitzer organ was installed in the theater in 1927.
According to a neighborhood history compiled for the Smith Avenue Task Force by Rebecca Harnik, the theater closed in the 1960s and has gone through a series of incarnations since then, none of which lasted more than a few years. This photo from 1984 shows the building in use as a Masonic Lodge, and later it was the High Bridge Sports Club, which Harnik’s report says was controversial but doesn’t elaborate.
Which brings us to today. I’ve been unable to find any interior photos of the theater in its heyday,and the space was long ago split into two levels with most elements of the original movie house removed. While retaining much of its historic character outside, the interior can best be described as a church basement atop another church basement. It has a large commercial kitchen on the lower level, and a sort of performance space on the top floor. Practical, functional, but not exactly awe-inspiring.
By all accounts, it’s a solid, reasonably well maintained building. But what to do with it? It could be a restaurant, but with no windows, no parking and no other entertainment venues nearby it would need to be a major destination in and of itself. A small performing arts house? A church? Possibly – if a group has a large enough budget to buy and maintain the structure.
Meanwhile, we’ll continue checking for developments on this crucial piece of our streetscape.
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