(The photograph above, showing the Metropolitan Opera House and Palace Court, was taken by C.J. Hubbard in 1914, Minnesota Historical Society)
Historical and contemporary Minneapolis is not particularly known for its public alleys. They have served a more discreet role in the lives of Minneapolitans, unsung for getting private vehicles off city streets. Of course, today, the city’s neighborhood blocks feature mostly orderly, bisecting service corridors, accommodating rear access to gardening plots and single-car garages. Until the onslaught of automobile culture, alleys had commonly woven throughout downtown city blocks too. Most of them were usurped by private development, surface parking lots, and hybrid facilities of transit centers and car storage, giving rise to the superblock. Surprisingly, a pivotal period of two decades during the early 20th Century, consisting of scandal and singled-out saloon operators, fueled the Temperance Movement and paved the way for alley obsolescence.
The nameless, linear alleys in Minneapolis share much more in common with Chicago – the deservedly and self-proclaimed City of Alleys – than in cities that were founded and expanded earlier. Minneapolis has 3700 alleys that span over 400 linear miles, according to a 2013 story from the Southwest Journal about snow maintenance. Then-Public Works supervisor Mike Kennedy called alleys, “a hidden part of our infrastructure that people don’t really think of.” Not much has changed since the article was written, save for the elimination of most downtown alleys. But one hundred years earlier, an effort initiated by lumber industrialist and Alderman Joseph DeLaittre – possessing a familial connection with then-Alderman Karl and likely lineage with John DeLaittre, the tenth Mayor of the City of Minneapolis (1877-1878) – proposed an official name for a public alley running from Nicollet Avenue to 1st Avenue South (now Marquette Avenue) between South 3rd & 4th Streets: PALACE COURT.
“ALLEY: An alley is a public thoroughfare less than thirty (30) feet in width.”Zoning Ordinance of the City of Minneapolis (1928)
The Identity of Palace Court
Palace Court had an illustrious story and, briefly, it was a downtown alley with a name. In 1913, the Minneapolis Journal reported on DeLaittre’s naming proposal, with a member of the Civic and Commerce Association mentioning that Palace Court had actually been named unofficially for twenty years, having featured a street sign until around 1912. During the late 1890s, the Palace Clothing store had moved from North Washington Avenue to the northeast corner of 4th & Nicollet. Around the same time, the Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1894 at the corner of 4th & 1st Avenue South. If an inner block public corridor were to have had its own identity, these two mainstay businesses served as prominent anchors. The alley took on the namesake of the clothing store, at least colloquially. But it was the establishments serving liquor that defined the alley’s legacy.
Several businesses used Palace Court as their address. The Metropolitan News Company ran out of 39 Palace Court from 1899 to 1901, in a one-story building behind 43 South 3rd Street. The National Chemical Company held an office at the same address in 1901, selling Fade Away, a magical bed bug repellent. For a brief moment in 1903, a buffet called The Rookery was opened at the address by the reputable Paul Schemedemann. The establishment offered fine wines, liquors, cigars and “John Gund’s Bohemian beer on draught” at reasonable prices. But it was a saloon space across the alley that made the corridor a place of legend.
Liquor Control and Racism Plague the Alley Saloon
Opera Café (1899 to 1907) began operating at 40 Palace Court, behind the theater building. Opened by Scott Blake, patronage from the Postal Café in Post Office Alley brought its allegiance to the new saloon. For several years, classified ads innocently sought “a good girl for second work” or “a second cook and dishwasher.” By 1903, the Café began offering oysters and game cooking as a specialty. But any effort to elevate the respectability of the saloon was likely undermined by racism. Upon two different occasions in 1905, Black waiters were arrested for “selling intoxicants without a license,” or on a Sunday. Two years later, owner James McCarthy gained approval for a liquor license, but Alderman Perry Starkweather objected. A drawn-out debacle ensued, during which the city wavered on its approval for a liquor license for the alley saloon, frequently being referred to committee. It took Starkweather’s absence to allow approval of the license.
Changes in name and operator were efforts by McCarthy to keep the saloon in business on Palace Court. The Old Style Inn opened in the space on November 6, 1907, specializing in German, Swedish, and American dishes. A selling point, apparently, was that the “Anderson Bros. eat in their own restaurant,” perhaps to draw customers to an address plagued with employee arrests. That same year, the liquor license at 39 Palace Court was transferred to 2524 27th Avenue South in Seward, on behalf of the John Gund Brewing Company. (That area of Seward, clustered near Mr. Nibs and the Hexagon Bar was long known as the Hub of Hell, due to its illicit reputation.) 12th District residents objected to the license transfer, favoring constriction of the liquor control area within the downtown district. This prompted Alderman Starkweather to initiate discussion about a proposed ordinance that would limit the number of liquor licenses approved for alley saloons. Under the ordinance, there would be no protection for saloon owners seeking to transfer their business interests. In less than a year of the Old Style Inn operating, employee John Grosheck was arrested for selling liquor without a license, while saloon manager Robert Hayden allegedly sold liquor to a 20-year-old. McCarthy himself was arrested and arraigned for selling liquor to a minor. But the saloon at 40 Palace Court endured.
By 1908, the Civic Federation to Fight Saloons declared war on ‘the evils of liquor traffic,” as investigators claimed that many alley saloons – Shiek’s, Lally’s, and “The Nugent” – were running rushing business after hours. (Rushing business often consisted of liquor delivery for home drinking and consumption in a private clubhouse.) The liquor license at the notorious alley address was transferred to E.J. Nugent from James McCarthy, when Gene White’s Café debuted briefly. The turkey dinner and bread pudding were not enough to deflect the arrest of Nugent for serving liquor to an 18-year-old.
A Disorderly House Fuels Temperance Efforts
The reputation of 40 Palace Court would soon shift from the battle of the struggling saloonkeeper against weaponized police power toward irreparable damnation. John R. Henderson was granted a liquor license there in 1910, with Louis Graves as saloonkeeper – Opera Café had risen again. In March 1911, J.J. Stickney and his accomplice, Lillian Bowvette, were found guilty of soliciting young girls for immoral purposes. Together they were found guilty for the abduction of young girls to a resort in Wausau. The saloonkeeper had introduced the two to each other, so he was arrested on charges of “keeping an disorderly house.” The operator, Samuel Shulman, was indicted for being implicated for his role in the “white slave traffic.” All the while, the Chief of Police, the Mayor, and Aldermen alleged that E.J. Nugent had not divested his business interests, despite his supposed transfer to Charles Smith and his move to Beach, North Dakota. It was reported that there was no record of the liquor license transfer, leaning on the Mayor to make a decision on whether the business was to be shuttered.
“Council Hits at Alley Bars”
The writing was on the wall for the old Opera Café and the future of Palace Court. Scandal overshadowed all prior business struggles to compromise the alley’s reputation. Citing seclusion from police oversight, the License Committee of City Council would decide on whether to refuse license requests for alley saloons. The animosity against E.J. Nugent served as catalyst behind the measure, as a license inspector interviewed by the Morning Tribune plainly stated on July 13, 1911, “The elimination of the alley saloon was intended to put the Nugent saloon out of business. If the committee expects to take such action, it is time to get busy, as the council granted one alley saloon [Tip O’Neil’s saloon in Post Office Alley], and there are others pending.” Another member of the License Committee was quoted as saying, “We can adopt such a rule next September and in that way do away with the Nugent saloon.” Within the same month, the License Committee recommended an amendment to limit the number of liquor license from 435 to 408.
While creditors forced the Opera Café to close, Henderson reapplied for a license. His application was denied repeatedly on the basis of the address’ connection to the “white slave trade” prosecution earlier in the year. Several more attempts to revive the business were for naught: the Opera Café and alley businesses were no more. An ordinance proposed by Alderman C.D. Gould went into effect on December 1, 1911, limiting the number of saloons to 408 and banning alley saloons outright. By the end of the year, dispensing liquor in alley establishments was effectively illegal. Also made illegal was the sale of malt in pool or billiard rooms, much to the detriment of a small-time pool hall operator at 29 Palace Court.
Aftermath, Swindle, and Fake Horse Races: the “Turf Exchange”
Newspaper accounts of commercial activity in Palace Court went dormant after the Gould Ordinance. After Alderman DeLaittre proposed naming the alley in 1913, the concept was backed by the Civic and Commerce Association. And yet, City Council did not take up the issue with a vote, perhaps hoping that Palace Court would go away all together. (Conversely, during the same year, an alley one block to the north was officially named “King’s Court” to honor the late William S. King.) The only notable activity in the alley’s afterglow was an elaborate wiretapping scandal, which occurred in a place called “The Turf Exchange,” located in the old Opera Café space at 40 Palace Court. In 1914, Charles Carlson and Edward Dixon used a fake pool room to swindle E.W. Coyle of Mason City out of $5000 (equivalent to nearly $142,000 in 2022 dollars). Coyle was led to the second floor of the building and engaged in a wiretapping scheme for a fake horse race, before he was assaulted and locked out of the front door. Another man won a judgment in his favor against Dixon, when a fight was staged after he put up $5000 for winning twice that amount. A Turkish bath business operated at 40 Palace Court from 1914 until 1919, a relatively nonthreatening and conforming land use that did not warrant the attention of city inspectors.
The 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16th, 1919, with Prohibition going into effect a year later. The Palace Court name was never mentioned again … until now. Much like the alcohol industry, it would take decades for alley identity and versatility to recover. Until more recently, stigma attached to booze and back alleys have been difficult to shake, considering one-dimensional narratives portrayed in the media and by socially conservative interests. The era of urban renewal would claim both inner block corridors and long-time watering holes, altering where we walked, where we drank, and where we sought entertainment.
Gateway Center and a Lost Palace
Palace Court appeared to remain intact by 1960, but its days were numbered. The Metropolitan Opera House had been razed in 1937, leaving the first gaping void of many to follow. As shown in John Bacich’s “Skidrow”, portraying the Gateway District, the high concentration of saloons, liquor stores, boarding houses and missions corralled by liquor control boundaries gave way to widespread demolition. In 1957, Mayor P.K. Peterson garnered federal funding to help support replacement of Downtown between 3rd Avenue and 1st Avenue North, from 4th Street to the Post Office after a Sheraton Hotel concept was proposed for the entire city block bound by Nicollet, 3rd, Marquette, and 4th Streets. This aggressive exercise of urban renewal replaced the oldest segment of Downtown Minneapolis, and 40% of the commercial district, with the sprawling new Gateway Center. Donald T. Knutson, president of the Knutson Company, said that the new district would be a “prestige area of beautiful and functional office buildings.” The Gateway Project claimed a number of notable buildings in Downtown Minneapolis, including the opulent, Richardson Romanesque- designed Metropolitan Building and the Old Post Office and Federal Building. A fervent effort would soon follow in 1963 to gain support for the Nicollet Mall transitway, and the contagion of elevated skyways rushed in.
As a direct consequence of district-wide erasure, any remnants of the public alley bisections, former commercial uses, and smaller enterprises were eliminated. The Sheraton-Ritz Hotel complex lasted from 1963 until 1990 – just 27 years. The entire city block remained as surface parking until the construction and completion of 365 Nicollet in 2018. The completed rehabilitation of Nicollet Mall in 2017 reinforced the transit and pedestrian mall as a focal point of walkable commerce in Downtown Minneapolis. However, the surrounding energy has largely been driven by large-scale, full-block redevelopment, leaving fewer dimensions available for exploration while walking, rolling, or biking.
Remnants of Named Alleys in Minneapolis
Very little remains of the Gateway District in Downtown Minneapolis. When including the Palace Court of legend, six of the sixteen named alleys in Minneapolis were lost by the time demolition commenced in 1961 for the sprawling Gateway Project. Only one public alley has gained an official name since 1913: Azine Alley in the Warehouse District (1997). While the City of Minneapolis often claims that it does not have a process for naming alleys, as it did in response to the request from the Federal Reserve Bank, all it takes is a member of City Council to put it before a vote. If we are to expect differently from these nestled, walkable corridors, beyond relegation of basic service utility, we must consider their identity and their commercial role together. Only then will may they become places to be remembered.
Named Alleys Within Downtown:
• Aldrich Alley (10 ft wide, expanded later to 16-20 ft wide) – official
From Hennepin Avenue to South Washington Avenue, L-shaped
Only mentioned in 1870-71
Block was replaced by Gateway Park in 1913, following demolition of the old City Hall and Post Office.
Named after Cyrus Aldrich (1808-1871), Postmaster of Minneapolis from 1867 to 1871.
• Jumbo Alley (20 ft wide) – official
From 2nd Avenue South to 3rd Avenue South, between South 2nd & Washington Avenues
First reference in 1893, referred to as “Sodini’s Alley” in 1901, last mentioned in 1912.
Likely vacated prior to 1915 for construction of the Post Office, now the Federal Building.
• Lockup Alley (16 ft wide) – official
From South 2nd Street to South Washington Avenue, between Nicollet and Marquette Avenues
First referenced in 1876, at the time needing to be “put in passable condition, and a sidewalk laid therein”; paved with cedar block in 1890.
Likely vacated in 1961 for construction of Northwestern National Life Insurance Company Building, designed by Minoru Yamasaki.
The old police station was built in 1887, then vacated in 1905 when it relocated to the fourth floor of today’s City Hall. The old jail was built in 1884, became a police barn and stable in 1902, then accommodated 136 men seeking sleeping quarters in a bitterly cold January 1908. The building was abandoned by the city in 1921, then converted into a municipal lodging house in 1910, which closed in 1923 and was razed in 1933 for use by a taxi service.
• King’s Court (20 ft wide) – official
From Nicollet Mall to 2nd Avenue South, between South Washington Avenue & South 3rd Street
First referenced in 1913, when it was officially adopted by City Council on February 4th.
The Council resolution mentioned that the alley had been “sometimes called ‘Morison’s Alley’”.
Likely vacated around 1961, eventually redeveloped for the construction of Marquette Plaza and 111 Washington.
Named in memory William S. King (1828-1900), Minnesota State Representative, co-founder of the Minneapolis Tribune, Postmaster of the U.S. House of Representatives, founder of the State Atlas, and major stakeholder in the Pioneer Press. His name also lives on in King’s Highway and Kingfield, where he owned Lyndale Farm.
• Palace Court (20 ft wide) – colloquial/semi-official
From Nicollet Mall to Marquette Avenue, between South 3rd & 4th Streets
First reference was in 1899, last mention was in 1919.
Vacated in 1961 for construction of the Sheraton-Ritz Hotel.
In 1913, Alderman Karl DeLaittre requested that the Civic and Commerce Association choose a name for the alley. David Simon, treasurer of Maurice Rothschild & Co., suggested the Palace Court name for the alley running from Nicollet to Marquette, while suggesting the Post Office Court name from Marquette eastward to “the elbow running to Third Street in the rear of the post office.” Howard Strong, president of the Civic and Commerce Association suggested the name Palace Court. Despite these efforts and the longstanding use of the name since 1893, it was never given an official name designation by City Council.
• Post Office Court (20 ft wide) – official
From Marquette Avenue to 2nd Avenue South
First reference in 1894, last official reference in 1912, likely due to the relocation of the main post office.
Vacated prior to 1960 for construction of Hennepin County Family Justice Center.
Named public alleys outside Downtown:
➡ Extant alleys
• Azine Alley – official
From 1st Avenue North to 2nd Avenue North, north of North First Street
Named on October 26, 1997 after Sheldon Azine, former senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
• Gray Place – official
From Lowry Avenue to North 4th Street, L-shaped
Named on December 26, 1901 after the namesake of the plat of the “Solomon Gray Block”.
The named alley originally extended by ordinance from 31st Avenue North to 34th Avenue North, between North 3rd and 4th Streets.
• Inglewood Mews (16 ft wide) – colloquial
From North Queen Avenue to Glenwood Avenue, L-shaped
Provides front access to six residences addressed to Inglewood Avenue North, due to a steep incline north of Bassett Creek Park.
North-south segment was originally Sheridan Avenue South.
First mention in 2014, despite residential construction completed in 1967.
• North Traffic Street (20 ft wide) – official
From North 3rd Avenue westward 300 feet
Likely named in 1890, when it was expanded to 40 feet wide for access to the Great Northern Railroad freight depot. Reverted to 20 feet.
➡ Eliminated alleys
• Forest Place (20 ft wide) – official
From 8th Avenue North to North 7th Street, west of North Lyndale Avenue
Previously named Saginaw Place.
Likely vacated prior to 1968 for construction of a light industrial building.
• Frankman Place (14 ft wide) – official
From East 45th Street northward 100 feet
Partially vacated in 1917 for a City of Minneapolis Public Works yard
Taken over fully by Public Works in the 1970’s
Vacated by city ordinance in 2020 for the Snelling Yards development.
• George Street (30 ft wide, originally 40 ft wide) – official
From West Island Avenue eastward 150 feet
Vacated sometime between 1914 and 1940.
Originally named Nicollet Place.
• Greeley Avenue (15 ft wide) – official
From 4th Avenue North to 6th Avenue North, between Fremont and Girard Avenues North
Not connected to a segment that was a 40-foot wide street from 2nd Avenue North to Glenwood Avenue, now Western Avenue.
Likely vacated prior to 2001 for construction of the Heritage Park.
• Leonard Place (20 ft wide) – official
From Ivy Lane to West 32nd Street
Named on March 20, 2012.
Likely widened as a street around 1919 and renamed Zenith Avenue South.
• North 4½ Street (20 ft wide) – official
From Napco Avenue North, previously 10½ Avenue North westward 225 feet
Likely vacated prior to 1997 for construction of a garage building occupied by Metro Mobility.
• O’Brien Place (20 ft wide) – official
From North 3rd Street to North 12th Avenue, L-shaped
Ran along the back side of Blaine School.
Named on June 30, 1909.
Vacated in July 1968, after the City Council voted to include 354 acres in the Near North Side renewal area.