Lowertown Depot is how most people know it, thanks to the white letters plastered across its red brick façade. The few people who notice it do not like it.
So, Why Write About It?
East Fourth once had a few more disconnected rail bridges, abandoned by all but the homeless, I would wander around the dead rail yard. In all my memories of it, Lowertown Depot is a building in the background, something inescapably incidental, peripheral.
When it was sealed, the homeless sheltered under the abandoned railroad bridges.
When it was not sealed, there was a roof over their heads. Enough said?
No, not quite.
For some reason, in 2012 I gravitated back to the area, which the city has spent some money to remediate and rebrand. They call it the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, but to me it will always be another dead space between the bluff and the rail yard.
As I sat in the corner of the new park with my headphones in, the ground vibrating to the frequency of distant steel wheels, I stared at the Depot as two teenagers drove golfballs into it. It occurred to me, this was the most attention I had ever given it.
If I do indeed aspire to be a historian of forgotten places, how could I ignore this brick blight so easily? When I got home that afternoon, I began researching.
What follows is, to my knowledge, the most accurate and complete history of the building available online today.
Northern Pacific, Lowertown’s Secret Architect
Since the late 19th century, this area belonged to trains.
More accurately, the trainmasters who tamed the bluff. If you are a Saint Paul native you may have heard of Carver’s Cave, a once-famous landmark that marks the founding of the city, now mostly destroyed and totally sealed in a corner of Bruce Vento.
Carver’s Cave was destroyed, in part, by the Northern Pacific Railroad’s expansion in 1885. It was then that the railroad pushed the bluff face back from the Mississippi about 75 feet. They drilled and blew up the bluff face and hauled it away to help to push the river bank 200 feet closer to West St. Paul, all to lay more track.
The area would be known as the Northern Pacific Coach Yard, making it a yard dedicated to serving the Saint Paul Union Depot and its local subsidiaries. In addition shops were erected for the repair of passenger cars and their auxiliaries.
Near the yard, in the vicinity of the spot where Lowertown Depot is today, was the neighborhood known as Connemara Patch, an Irish extension on the south of the locally famous Swede Hollow. At the time, many of the immigrants worked in the Coach Yard for very little, but steady, pay.
Lowertown Depot = Standard Oil’s Branch Warehouse
Northern Pacific’s expansion and activity ensured low property prices, in spite of its closeness to downtown, ideal for industrial companies hoping for ready access to the population. Standard Oil saw the opportunity, and in March of 1914, applied for a permit for a coal gas plant adjacent to the Coach Yard. It was approved.
The Standard Oil complex would eventually consist of a branch office, the coal gas plant itself, and a brick warehouse.
That warehouse is what we call Lowertown Depot today.
More recently, the area went through changes with the expansion of Interstate 94, which cut off Standard from Conway Avenue, the road that the company helped pave in 1918. In the 1970s, the Coach Yard was abandoned, and over the following decade most of the shops and rails were removed from the area, the foundation for Bruce Vento today.
So, where does the name ‘Lowertown Depot’ come from?
In 2002, a developer declared they would be turning the warehouse and former rail yard into a new neighborhood. The yard would become 250 homes, while the warehouse itself would become 15 condos, priced between $100,000 and $500,000. Project Lowertown Depot was valued at $50 million.
The recession of 2002-2003 put an end to the big plans; the only work completed on site, apparently, was the addition of the letters ‘Lowertown Depot’ across the Standard Oil Warehouse.
While the letters have yellowed over time, they remain, as if a developer will return to the industrial shell and spend millions to produce more excess housing.
Visitors to the site today will see little change to the building over the last decade. More graffiti, more broken windows, but essentially the building has not changed in the last century.
I leave it to them to decide whether this is just another warehouse, or whether every nameless, faceless brick box has an interesting, if elusive, past.
Update: Lowertown Depot was demolished in 2015.