When the Selby Avenue horse-drawn cable car began to carry passengers up the steep hill, in 1887, the isolated upper-class neighborhood experienced a building boom. Patrick Dwyer, owner of Patrick V. Dwyer Bros., plumbers and glass fitters, built the Dacotah Building in hopes of attracting solid tenants, both commercial and residential.
Completed in 1889, the three-story building at the corner of Selby and Western Avenues was built by Hennessey, Agnew and Cox at the impressive cost of $70,000. The name of the original architect has been lost, along with the first building permit, but the design reflected the massive Richardsonian Romanesque style that was popular at the time.
Charming rounded oriel bay windows added interest to the dark red brick walls above a pink sandstone foundation, fourteen feet deep. Elegant apartments on the upper floors featured fireplaces, ornate plasterwork, and tile floors.
Several years later, the pharmacist W. A. Frost relocated his downtown business to the Dacotah Building. Born in Newfoundland, he came to St. Paul fresh from pharmacy school in New York. One of the founders of the University of Minnesota School of Pharmacy, Frost enjoyed a distinguished career in that location until he died in 1930.
It featured a soda fountain, and a young F. Scott Fitzgerald, who grew up in the neighborhood, was a frequent customer there when he ran errands for his father. Later, he would stop in for Cokes and smoke breaks and to buy his favorite cigars.
Other commercial tenants included a florist, a shoe repairer, and a tailor and dressmaker. The building served as a short-lived second location for the Andrew Schoch Grocery business, which featured imported, unusual, and hard-to-get food items. Piggly Wiggly, America’s first self-service grocery store chain established in 1916, also occupied the space.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression drastically changed the neighborhood. Many families could no longer afford servants to maintain their mansions on Summit Avenue, so the jobs and small businesses on Selby that supported them closed.
Large houses on Cathedral Hill were subdivided into apartments, and some stood empty when elderly owners could no longer manage them.
The pharmacy closed in 1950 as people and businesses began moving to the suburbs. Local crime rates rose after the opening of Interstate 94 in 1968, and the area declined.
The Rebirth of the Dacotah Building
In 1974, John Rupp, a law school graduate from the neighborhood, purchased the nearly empty Dacotah Building with the help of a friend. It was an act of faith because “suppliers of foodstuffs and servicemen” were often unwilling to risk working in the dangerous neighborhood at Western and Selby.
Inspired by a European tour, Rupp restored the distinctive building and created offices from the apartments.
W.A. Frost & Company
He opened a bar, taking the name of the original pharmacy, W. A. Frost & Co., and finished the space with architectural salvage. In 1977, the business expanded to include a kitchen, dining room and St Paul’s first city-approved outdoor patio.
A year later, Brenda Langton opened her first restaurant in the building, Café Kardamena, featuring locally sourced vegetarian cuisine and fish. She was helped by her best friend, Nan Bailly, whose family had produced the first Minnesota wine at their Alexis Bailly vineyard in Hastings. (Langton later became a successful Twin Cities restaurateur, Nan Bailly an award-winning winemaker; W. A. Frost started listing her wines on their wine list.) In 1981, Eileen Shapiro opened Paper Patisserie next door.
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright August Wilson wrote his most memorable work during his years in St. Paul, often at the bar at Frost’s, which was near the Penumbra Theatre.
Chef Lenny Russo took over W. A. Frost’s kitchen in 1998, and for the next four years he refined his skill creating meals with locally sourced ingredients. He left to open Heartland, his signature restaurant, where he earned five nominations for Best Chef of the Midwest from his peers in the James Beard Society.
A new generation of Frost executive chefs opened their own three-star neighborhood restaurants in 2014 and 2016: Leonard Anderson (Tongue in Cheek) and Wyatt Evans (Heirloom).
The site of many a business deal, or marriage proposal, and a cozy place to gather with friends, W.A. Frost once again welcomes neighbors and visitors to Historic Cathedral Hill.