The area around St. Anthony Falls was rapidly becoming a commercial strip in the early 1900s. In 1904, Wilbert H. McMullen opened a store on the corner of Fourth Street and what was then called Central Avenue.
McMullen changed careers often. Minneapolis City Directories for the early to mid-1880s record him working at a wooden shingle plant on Hennepin Island “at the foot of 3rd Ave. S.E.” with his father, James, and brother, A.E. McMullen. During the winter of 1878, the mill ran through 100,000 lineal feet of lumber and produced 100,000 shingles every ten hours. Fire destroyed the mill in 1877 and the brothers bought and expanded the Eastman, Bovey & Co. mill next door, which operated continuously to at least 1893. The mills stood approximately where Xcel Energy Water Power Park is today.
The following decade, McMullen served as president of the Minneapolis Fuel Company, “the oldest coal company in the city,” according to one directory ad, which supplied families “with the best grades of coal, coke and wood.”
In September 1904, James McMullen hired contractor F. G. McMillan to build a 26-ft. by 104-ft. two-story brick store building. McMillan was paid $11,000 for his work; total costs came to $20,000 – more than $564,000 in today’s money. McMullen’s Fancy Grocery opened at the end of December with Wilbert as its manager. A Jan. 26, 1905 article in the Minneapolis Tribune, “HAS ATTRACTIVE WINDOW DISPLAY,” described the building as a “two-story pressed brick structure of which the first floor was designed especially with a view to accommodating a business of this kind [groceries]. It is thoroughly fireproof and heated by steam and is equipped with modern conveniences.” The article continued, “The second floor has been arranged for offices, which are all occupied by doctors and dentists.”
An April 7, 1905 Minneapolis Journal article noted that Clinton L. Edgerly had opened an “up-to-date” barbershop in the basement.
An insurance agent, James Donaghue, also had an office in the building. Donaghue filed for the Democratic nomination for state representative in the 38th district in 1906. The Irish Standard reported, “He is a Democrat all the time and only needs a chance to show the members of the lower house of the legislature that the First ward of Minneapolis has a man who can hold his own with the best of them.”
It wasn’t long before the building became known as the McMullen Building and the rest of the block became the McMullen Block. In 1905, the Chute Realty Company donated and dedicated “to the public use forever the alleys of said block.” It was recorded on the plat map, which shows the block sandwiched between Central Avenue and First Avenue SE. In 1916, that portion of Central was renamed East Hennepin Avenue and First Avenue SE was renamed Central Avenue. By 1920, W.H. McMullen had “severed his business connections in Minneapolis” and moved to Portland, OR.
Joseph J. Meurer ran a pharmacy on the first floor during the ‘teens. Meurer seemed to have a certain amount of bad luck. In 1913, he was involved in a $25,500 lawsuit that claimed he had dispensed bichloride of mercury to a customer instead of elixir of uritone (a urinary antiseptic made of formaldehyde and ammonia). The customer suffered loosened teeth, headaches, permanently damaged internal organs and a “shattered” nervous system. In 1916, Meurer’s car was taken from his garage and the thief, Ernest Gamish, crashed the car at Fifth and East Hennepin. Garmish “was sent spinning through the air” and “the machine was wrecked.” Meurer sold the pharmacy in 1918.
On March 17, 1917, as the U.S. got involved in World War I, East Side Pharmacy No. 1 ran an ad in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune urging customers to buy Diamond Parcel Post Egg Carriers to “help the government save beef, pork and mutton for ‘the boys over there’.” Customers could choose a farmer from a list posted at the store, purchase an egg carrier mail it to the farmer and receive fresh eggs at their homes via parcel post.
The pharmacy installed a new soda fountain in 1922.
East Side Pharmacy No. 2 opened at 431 East Hennepin, about where Wells Fargo Bank stands today, in January 1923.
A Star Tribune ad later that year touted a Trade Expansion Campaign by the East Hennepin Retail Merchants Association. “Great savings in 75 leading East Hennepin stores,” it trumpeted. The campaign also offered shoppers the chance to win $5,000 in prizes: “Every dollar spent with East Hennepin merchants during this Trade Expansion Month, entitles the purchasers to a ticket which may secure a free gift. Gifts range from a $1,420.00 six-cylinder 1924 model 5-passenger Buick; super-quality 3-piece living room set and down to a turkey, duck or barrel of flour.” Both East Side Pharmacies were listed in the ad.
East Hennepin was the place to shop for clothing in the 1940s and ‘50s. Men and boys shopped at Eklunds, directly across the street at 401 (where the Stray Dog is now). Women and girls shopped at the Columbia Store at 400. Help wanted ads indicate it was a going concern at least through 1955.
An ad in the March 6, 1955 Star Tribune invited women to visit the Columbia and meet a minor celebrity, Betty Marsh, who would model the latest spring coats. Marsh was the star of a travelogue, “Cinerama Holiday,” which featured an American couple traveling in Europe and a European couple traveling in the U.S. (Cinerama was the IMAX of the ‘50s. It used three synchronized projectors to show a movie on a curved screen.)
The building continued to pass from owner to owner, its use changing with the times. In the 1960s, it housed a loan office. In the mid-‘70s, it survived eminent domain proceedings which would have made the entire block and a good chunk of Central Avenue part of 35W. The river crossing was moved east of Central and the freeway skirted Northeast.
By the ‘90s, the old building was a nightclub, St. Anthony East. It hosted a variety of performers including the Ranchtones, Colleen Martin, Bar Stool #9, Planet Swing and Fast Spider. In 1994, Randy “Whitey” Rodgers took over the space and made it Whitey’s World-Famous Saloon.
With a figure of a stripteaser from the old Copper Squirrel Lounge perched above the bar, Whitey’s soon became a neighborhood watering hole known for its tasty burgers and Chicago-style hotdogs.
After 25 years serving up local beers at the bar, Rodgers sold the building and bar business in January to Erik Stadstad. Stadstad told Finance and Commerce magazine that he’ll do some light cleaning and painting, and the staff will remain. Looks like 400 East Hennepin is here to stay.
Atwater, Isaac, History of the City of Minneapolis, 1893
City of Minneapolis building permits
Hennepin County property records
Irish Standard, Sept. 8, 1906
Minneapolis Journal, April 7, 1905
Minneapolis Tribune, Jan. 26, 1905
Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Oct. 27, 1916
North Western Druggist, February 1918 and April 1922
The Timberman, Sept. 1920, Portland, Oregon
Below: The recent sale of the building that houses Whitey’s Saloon got us to wondering about its origins. Above, in 1926 the building sign read “Knowles & Moudry” and there was a Red Owl store in the white building in the left part of the photo. In the lower photo, from 1940, 400 E. Hennepin is the Columbia Store. (Photos courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society). An ad in the Star Tribune Sunday, March 6, 1955, for the Columbia store, and a current banner celebrating Whitey’s (Randy Rodgers) career in the building. Below, the Copper Squirrel girl, a ceramic figure, hovers above the bar. (Photos by Cynthia Sowden)