Wrecked in rioting, St. Paul's heavily rebuilt Turf Club looks a lot like before

·5 min read

Lucky for the crew rebuilding one of the Twin Cities' best-loved music venues, a lot of selfies have been taken in its basement bar over the years.

"It's this one!" operations manager Matt Darnell excitedly yelled out, holding up an odd, old clown painting.

Darnell was able to match the right clown portrait to the right booth in the Turf Club's Clown Lounge, using a cellphone photo from First Avenue marketing director Ashley Ryan, who happened to pose with friends in that very booth before the historic bar was nearly destroyed during last summer's riots.

Such has been the work at the venerable St. Paul watering hole. If Job No. 1 was to make the Turf look a lot like it did before, then it was a job well done. The 1940s-era bar — which became a music mainstay in the 1990s — has been under repair for more than a year but will finally reopen this week, with music starting Wednesday.

Walking up from the basement to the main-floor performance area, First Ave's director of operations Marc Dickhut recounted water flowing down the stairwell the morning last summer when he first walked in to survey the damage.

"It was like a waterfall," he recalled, looking over toward the psychedelically painted walls beside the stairs. "Luckily, it didn't ruin the mural."

The long, vintage wood bar upstairs also survived — even though that's where the trouble started.

As peaceful protests turned to riots along University Avenue three days after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, looters broke through one of the club's glassed front doors just after midnight May 28 and started a fire behind the bar. Burn marks still visible in the rafters show how high the flames got.

Fortunately, the club's sprinkler system kicked in and put out the fire. The system had gotten a $200,000 upgrade in 2014 after First Avenue bought the venue, investing in major renovations while preserving the Turf's old character (it's officially a trend now!).

Unfortunately, the sprinklers stayed on for about seven hours. With law enforcement tied up elsewhere and staffers worried about their own safety, no one could get inside the building to turn off the water until around 8 a.m.

"It was absolutely heartbreaking," remembered Dickhut, who waded through standing water for hours trying to drain the basement, which also houses the offices, restrooms and greenroom lounge for performers.

"But the sprinklers did their job. The place was still standing."

Days of mopping up and wiping everything down gave way to weeks of inspections from contractors and insurance reps. When demolition started on the old tile floor upstairs, they found cracks in the joists beneath. They knew then that they had to gut the place.

On the upside — and what an otherwise horrible upside it was — the Turf would have been closed anyway, because of COVID-19, for most of the time it was under repair.

In fact, when Gov. Tim Walz announced the loosening of quarantine restrictions in early May, the crew had to kick into high gear and First Ave's talent bookers did the same, banking on a July reopening.

"We thought we were going to have a little more time," First Avenue general manager Nate Kranz said of the repairs, "but we're certainly happy to have to hurry it."

What's old is new

Walking through the venue last week, it was much easier to recognize all the old features than to figure out what's different.

Even the posters and photographs on the west wall are exactly where they were before, saved from water damage by their glass frames. Someone had the foresight to take photos of the pictures of mainstays Grant Hart and Slim Dunlap, so they knew where those hung in comparison to the old posters for such past madhouse events as Mark Mallman's 78-hour Marathon 3 concert or the many Replacements and Neil Young tribute shows.

Foremost among the new features is the oak flooring that replaced the ruined tiles on the main level. The hardwood will be softer on the feet as well as the ears, with a slightly tweaked sound system, sound engineer Matt Johnson happily reported.

"It sounds like a brand-new room in the best possible way," said Johnson, who had brought in local rockers Tyte Jeff for a test run the day before. "They kept asking what had changed."

The stage had to be rebuilt, but it's the same height and size. The bar had to be sanded down and refinished but also looks the same. A few of the wooden doors behind it had to be replaced because of fire damage, but their charred remains have been saved for new wall decorations.

Downstairs, the Clown Lounge needed a new black-and-white tile floor while the wood booths got some sanding and heavy cleaning, but most of the quirky clown light fixtures and the vintage phone booth survived. The old house piano (already on the edge of unusable) was ruined, but a longtime patron is donating a used Steinway.

As of last week, no one had plugged in the Clown Lounge's jukebox to see if it still works; they're too nervous. But they have fired up the ovens and grill in the upstairs kitchen and will resume food service.

Among the crew working on the final touches was longtime First Ave production manager Conrad Sverkerson, who's eager to get back to work keeping bands in line instead of lining up construction materials.

"But I think I could have a bright future in cooler cleaning, if I wanted it," he said.

Showing off the new wood paneling in the Clown Lounge — which still looks exactly like the walls of your grandfather's basement bar — Dickhut half-complained and half-bragged about how many hours he put into picking the right tone of wood.

"It had to be right, or the people who love this place would notice," he said.

"The good news is, we had enough time to make sure we got everything right again."

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • @ChrisRstrib

Turf Club reopening

Wednesday: Electric Six with Volk.

Thu.-Fri.: Dessa with Lady Midnight (sold out).

Saturday: Night Moves with Tabah ($20).

Upcoming: Purple Funk Metropolis (July 16), Tina & the B-Sides (July 17), Halloween, Alaska (July 24), Run Westy Run (July 30), Martin Zellar (July 31).

Info: 1601 W. University Av., St. Paul, first-avenue.com.

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