The Black Hart of St. Paul is on the cusp of building the outdoor space its owner has long wanted — and that much of University Avenue has long lacked.
Wes Burdine, who opened the Black Hart under the concurrent banners of gay bar, neighborhood bar and soccer bar four years ago, announced on social media Tuesday that he bought the vacant lot next door. The purchase clears the way for the bar, near Allianz Field, to create one of the few outdoor dining and drinking spots along this thoroughfare.
For an area that has seen ambitious development plans stalled by unrest and pandemic, a new patio could kickstart the area's transformation into a destination before and after games, said Bill Lindeke, author and urban studies expert.
"I think it's really great news," Lindeke said. "Bars have been struggling over the past 10 years [along University]. Just the fact that Black Hart is thriving and expanding is a good sign."
Burdine had been inquiring about the grassy vacant lot for as long as he's owned the bar. But it wasn't until Tuesday — when his purchase closed — that he could dare to think it would happen, he said.
"The city still needs to approve the construction plan. And, at the end of the month, we'll have the hearing for expanding the liquor license to serve out there," Burdine said. "But if all goes well, we could maybe start [construction] this winter and have it done in time for the next soccer season. We want to be able to host people as soon as possible."
Burdine said he bought St. Paul's oldest gay bar, the Town House, with the idea of embracing its legacy while also creating a hub for some of the 19,000 or so Minnesota United soccer fans flocking to Allianz Field. He said he hopes his neighbors will embrace a new outdoor space, which will feature a large patio, a bocce court and parking for food trucks, he said.
"We want to grow University and the Midway and our bar at the same time we're building all of this, together," Burdine said. "We just don't have spaces like that in our neighborhood."
Despite the city's ongoing ambitions for the area, surface parking lots and struggling bars remain common, Lindeke said. But the opening of a new outdoor gathering spot connected to a successful business is reason for optimism, he said.
"Seeing a different vision and a different way of thinking about St. Paul is really wonderful," Lindeke said. "It's awesome to see a local business thriving, and new outdoor space on the way."
Lindeke, who has written about dive bars of the Twin Cities, recounted some of the building's history.
Built in 1924 as a laundry, the building became a bar with the repeal of Prohibition. Once known as the Tip Top Tap, the bar became the Town House in 1946. Lindeke said the interior was remodeled in Streamline Moderne fashion by Werner Wittkamp, a former Hollywood set designer who also designed the interiors of the Lexington and the Commodore in St. Paul.
In 1969, Lindeke wrote, the Town House's owner "quietly transformed the place into what he thought would be the city's first gay bar."
Burdine bought the bar in 2018 with the idea of making it a soccer hangout after plans were finalized to build Allianz two blocks to the west across University. It remains not only a neighborhood joint, but a gay bar complete with drag shows. The crowd's composition often depends on whether there's a Minnesota United home game that day.
Burdine, who is gearing up to show the upcoming World Cup's matches at the Black Hart, said he hopes the patio continues the evolution of his bar — and its neighborhood.
"This is something I've wanted to do from the beginning," he said. "I just think being able to see my neighborhood grow and have great things on the light rail, it's really important."