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F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul

Posted on September 26, 2012 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Solo UK and France by Train

Downtown St. Paul

The day after I arrived in Minnesota, I took a long photowalk around St. Paul. Although I've visited the city many times since childhood, only recently have I begun to really notice its history and architecture. When David and I visited in 2009, we explored the Cathedral, the Capitol, and the Science Museum, all of which were interesting, but that was about all we had time for. This time around, I focused on some sites associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the architecture downtown. I found the former much more interesting than the latter, so I'll focus on that here, but both were worthwhile.

The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), best known for The Great Gatsby (1925), is primarily associated with the more glamorous cities of New York, Paris and Hollywood, but he was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although he moved to New York with his family a year later, he returned at various times later in life - including when he wrote and published his first novel (*This Side of Paradise, 1920) and when his daughter Frances Scott was born (1921).

Fitzgerald Theater

The Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul, which is owned by Minnesota Public Radio and broadcasts The Prairie Home Companion.

So, with the help of this online walking tour, I started my exploration of St. Paul in Fitzgerald's old neighborhood. Fitzgerald's birth house, a house he occupied later, and various other Fitzgerald-related sites are all conveniently located within a four-block square in the Summit Hill district of west St. Paul. It is a lovely neighborhood and I really enjoyed my time there.

Selby Avenue

Selby Avenue, with Dacotah Building on left

I began my tour on Selby Avenue, a leafy historic street populated with restaurants, little shops, old houses, and young hipsters - it reminded me of Northwest Portland. Here I stopped for a quick snack and drink at Great Harvest Bread, which I was pretty excited to stumble on - it's one of my favorite places and I didn't know they had it in the Midwest.

Nearby on Selby is the Dacotah Building, which is a cool building in its own right (built in 1868), but it also used to be the neighborhood drugstore and soda fountain, so Fitzgerald likely visited when he lived nearby in 1919-20. It is now a nice restaurant that highlights the building's historic features.

Dacotah Building

Dacotah Building

Even more fun? When I got home from my walk and showed the photos to Grandma on my laptop, explaining the above background, she said, "I wonder if that was Laska Drug - I worked there when I was young. Richard Laska, the owner, was so nice. He always worried about me taking the streetcar home late at night after work." So I Googled it, and indeed it was Laska Drug at one time! And Richard Laska's obituary said what a nice man he was. So there's a nice family connection as well.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Birthplace

My next major stop was Fitzgerald's birthplace, at 481 Laurel.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Birthplace

He was born on the second floor, left side, on September 24, 1896.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Birthplace

These lovely ladies were coming out of the building when I arrived, and they joked about ruining my pictures. They asked if I was a Fitzgerald fan, I said I was, and so they told me a bit about the house, and the lady with the cane used it to point out the apartment in which he was born. They also talked about the previous owner, who sadly recently died. I had read about him in an online newspaper article - he was very interested in his home's literary history and he worked to preserve it. He was also known for inviting tourists in for an informal tour and chat when they showed up outside! I'm sorry I missed him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Birthplace

The house was recently named a National Literary Landmark.

F. Scott Fitzgerald House

The main Fitzgerald attraction is not the birthplace, however, but the "F. Scott Fitzgerald House" at 599 Summit Avenue, at far left of the rowhouses pictured above.

F. Scott Fitzgerald House

This one is a National Historic Landmark, a prestigious title bestowed by the National Parks Service on only a small percentage of historic sites.

F. Scott Fitzgerald House

The house (far left again) actually belonged to Fitzgerald's parents, and he returned here after running out of money in New York and consequently being dumped by Zelda. It was here that he finished his first novel, This Side of Paradise, in 1919. (Interestingly, the main character in the novel is from Minneapolis.) The online tour says that when he heard it would be published, he ran out into Summit Avenue and stopped traffic to tell random drivers the news. I've been reading This Side of Paradise on the trip, so it was fun to imagine him working on it here, and his excitement at his first success.

Commodore Hotel

The success of his first novel also won Zelda back, and a year later they were living down the street at the Commodore Hotel, awaiting the birth of their daughter. They had already been evicted from their first home in White Bear Lake (incidentally where my grandparents had their family farm and my mom grew up), when they let the pipes freeze while out partying.

Commodore Hotel

The Commodore opened in 1920, so was brand new when they moved in. Throughout the 1920s it was quite the happening place: other residents at this time include the author Sinclair Lewis and the gangsters Al Capone and John Dillinger! The hotel had a swanky Art Deco bar that was a popular hangout spot - I wish I'd been able to see it. I believe it still exists and I don't know if it's open to the public, but I felt I didn't have time to stop and try.

Commodore Hotel

The Commodore now houses condos and the University Club of St. Paul.

There were a few other stops along the way, mostly of houses where Fitzgerald's family and friends lived and which he frequently visited. These will also be added to Go Historic eventually. In the meantime, you can see everything I've assembled on Fitzgerald so far here.

Other St. Paul Highlights

And finally, here are few highlights from the rest of my walk, in no particular order:

Landmark Center

The castle-like Landmark Center (1902), originally a federal office building. I wish I'd gone in - my feet were getting tired and I still had a long way to go, so I was speeding up by then. But if I'd known it looked like this, I would have taken the time!

F. Scott Fitzgerald Statue

Our man Fitzgerald again, standing in front of the Landmark Center since 1996. The statue (by Michael Price) was created as part of the celebrations to mark the author's 100th birthday, which were led by St. Paul's current celebrity, Garrison Keillor. He said of the statue: "This sculpture was conceived as a figure in the midst of things, a figure you could walk up to and talk to. Fitzgerald was a writer and a writer encounters his public one by one, as readers."

Saint Paul Hotel

The St. Paul Hotel, built in 1910. When Charles Lindberg returned from his transatlantic flight in 1927, a dinner was given for him here. It is still a luxury hotel and very highly rated on TripAdvisor! Its shape reminds me of the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Science Museum and Monument

The Science Museum of Minnesota and a monument to Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Minnesota State Capitol

Minnesota State Capitol.

The Modern World Rushes By

The Cathedral of St. Paul towering over the 35E freeway, which I became very familiar with during my visit! It was my route to and from the airport as well as the hotel where other west-coast relatives were staying.

Downtown St. Paul

Downtown St. Paul from the park in front of the Capitol.

Coming up next: Minneapolis, photos from two flights, and Glasgow architecture.

*For those of you with the super-secret link to the wedding photos, check it out again - more have been added! Want the link (and know me)? E-mail me!*