It's official. The Victoria Theater is now a Heritage Preservation Site of the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota.
As a primary cause, the city's preservation commission cites the building's role in Harry Smith's influential Anthology of American Folk Music. The Victoria's 1927 house band recorded "Moonshiner's Dance Part One," now familiar from the 1952 Anthology.
The Victoria appears to be the first historic site— anywhere, at any level of government —protected by means of an Anthology connection.
Five years ago, I faced a different and rather depressing situation, being the only person alive who'd connected the dots between this building, "Moonshiner's Dance," and Harry Smith's Anthology.
Nobody interested in the Anthology knew where the Victoria Cafe had been. And Saint Paulites didn't know about the recording — including the historians who'd been commissioned over the years to survey the Victoria building. Worst of all, the very day I understood this, the building seemed to be under imminent threat from multiple directions.
Well ... now, things have changed.
The point of my work has never been to save any old buildings. My project has always been to deeply understand the cultural context of "Moonshiner's Dance," and to develop ideas about what this fresh history really means to us, now.
And yet, when the Victoria Cafe itself — the recording's immediate context — was about to become a pile of bricks, I knew I had to set aside the microfilm and speak up. I figured I could sleep at night if Saint Paul let the building be torn down — but only if I could have my say first.
In the past 18 months, I've attended dozens of hearings, written a slew of nominations and articles, been interviewed by journalists dozens of times, networked feverishly. I've also thought a hell of a lot about Wordsworth's "Happy Warrior," and decided I am not he.
Now, after a unanimous city council vote and the mayor's signature, I feel I've come out of a dark tunnel, blinking at the sunlight. I intend to re-focus on my history research and writing, and on blogging.
Still, there's more work to do on the Victoria's future. It's a vacant building with an owner who doesn't respect its history — a point he's emphasized many times. Until the building finds a respectful use, it will remain threatened.
I also can't help wondering ... would the Victoria's working-class neighborhood still have this cultural resource if I hadn't begun poking around at the Historical Society five years ago?
What other buildings, maybe in comparable neighborhoods down South, would benefit from somebody — particularly a fan of the Anthology — just showing up, doing some research, and doing a little writing?
It's odd to consider how important, as tangible assets, "Moonshiner's Dance" and the work of Harry Smith have become to a hard-working neighborhood in the capital city of Minnesota.
Here's a little further reading:
History of the Victoria Theater — a short sketch at the Frogtown Neighborhood Association website.
Save the Victoria Theater — the Facebook group with nearly 700 members.
A Geography of the Anthology — a map of the influential Anthology, a reminder of the geographic element in the idea of American "roots music".North Country Blues — thinking about the American musical canon, and what it means that the Upper Midwest is too often neglected.
Moonshiner's Parking Lot? — when the wrecking ball was coming for the Victoria, I shared a little of my thinking, at the time, on why I thought the building mattered.
Louis Armstrong at the Coliseum, 1939 — Frank Cloutier, the Victoria's bandleader, moved to the Coliseum at Lexington & University, where he became Musical Director.
Harry Smith Archives — the Victoria's preservation is announced at the Archives.
Email Me — if you have questions, or answers, about the Victoria or Moonshiner's Dance, or anything else.
See also "Anthology of American Folk Music" links at the upper left of this blog.