Dania Hall

The Gathering Place

The colorful pillar in the middle of this lot commemorates a once thriving cultural institution for Scandinavian communities and other residents in Cedar-Riverside: Dania Hall.

Dania Hall was the cultural and entertainment center of Cedar-Riverside for almost 100 years. It was built by Society Dania, a fraternal organization organized in 1875 to help young Danes coming to America. By 1885 it had raised funds to purchase a lot and Dania Hall was completed in 1886. The dedication ceremony was an elaborate affair, including singing and a march down Cedar Avenue and Washington Avenue to the Union Depot and back again. Speeches were given by Scandinavian community leaders and the mayor of Minneapolis.

Norwegian architect, Carl F. Struck, designed the building for multiple uses: The top two floors were a theater and dance floor surrounded by a horseshoe balcony, the first floor had meeting rooms, a bar and retail spaces, and the basement included offices, a dining hall and a barbershop. Dania Hall quickly became a popular place for dances, weddings, cultural events, and get-togethers for multiple Scandinavian communities. It hosted plays, concerts and lectures and became known as the home of Swedish American vaudeville. Dania was one of five theaters in the area (including the Southern Theater, Normmanna Hall and Mozart Hall) that catered to Scandinavian communities and helped make it an entertainment district.

As older immigrant groups moved out of Cedar-Riverside, Dania Hall remained a popular place to hang out. Phil Richter established a pharmacy there in 1948, and in 1963 bought the building from Society Dania. He kept the top two floors open for community use. In the 1960s and 1970s, hippies and countercultural groups gathered here for dances, community meetings and (sometimes) a toke or two. Suburbanites would drive into town to see Cedar-Riverside’s new residents hanging around outside Richter’s pharmacy.

Dania Hall was saved from the wrecking ball during the urban redevelopment of the 1970s. The Danish American Fellowship, the Minnesota Historical Society and neighborhood preservation activists helped get it on the National Register for Historic Places in 1974, which helped keep it from being demolished by its new owners, Cedar Riverside Associates. However, CRA refused to maintain the building and let it fall into decline. The Hall failed to meet new building codes and was left unused for several years. In 1991, a fire severely damaged the building. Restoration efforts were underway, thanks to a Neighborhood Revitalization Project grant, but right before it was finished, another fire burned Dania Hall to the ground.

The Dania Hall pillar was a community art project that was built in its memory. Its tiles reflect the many communities that were served by this extraordinary cultural space.

The memories of Dania Hall are part of Cedar-Riverside’s history. If you listen closely you might still be able to hear the fiddle play “Nikolina,” one of the most popular Swedish-American songs of the early 20th century.

Images

Dania Hall, ca. 1900

Dania Hall, ca. 1900

This five-story building was a beehive of activity for Scandinavian communities and neighborhood residents. Patrons entered the building through a large iron gate on Fifth Street (center right). The basement included offices, a kitchen, a dining hall and a barbershop, once owned by the “swarthy and vivacious,” J. M. Jakobsen. The street level included retail spaces including a dry goods store, once owned by S. L. Everson, and a saloon, owned by Laura Engelstad after the death of her husband (initially Dania Hall prohibited alcohol but soon changed its policy). The second floor included offices, a billiards room, a reading room, a small hall and the Society Dania fraternal rooms. The top two floors were a large hall with a proscenium stage and horseshoe balcony. Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: “Dania Hall, Minneapolis" View File Details Page

Dania Hall Interior

Dania Hall Interior

With the laying of Dania Hall's cornerstone on June 5, 1886, community leader and Norwegian immigrant, Judge Lars M. Rand, envisioned a space for all Scandinavians, “the foundation of a building within whose walls the spirit of intelligence, unity friendship and brotherly love will be cultivated and taught, and I trust and sincerely hope not only among Danish citizens of Minneapolis, and the Norwegians and the Swedes as well.” His wish came true as Dania Hall quickly became a gathering place for many Scandinavian-American communities in Minneapolis. Most mingled during dances in the hall on the top two floors, where they listened to Scandinavian performers such as Olle I Skratthult, the Olsen Sisters, Ted Johnson and his Midnight Suns and Thorstein Skarning and his Norwegian Hillbillies. Images of these events are hard to find, so one must rely on more recent images which show the dance hall empty (deemed unsafe by the time this photograph was take in 1974) and imagine hundreds of Scandinavians once filling this space. Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: “Dania Hall, Fifth and Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis,” 1974 | Creator: Charles W. Nelson View File Details Page

Olle i Skratthult with Gustav Nyberg, 1919

Olle i Skratthult with Gustav Nyberg, 1919

Olle i Skratthult (“Olle from Laughtersville”) was the stage name for Hjalmar Peterson (right), a Swedish immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1906. He settled in Minneapolis and became a popular singer and vaudeville performer. He gained national recognition with his 1915 recording of the song, “Nikolina,” a song about two young lovers, which sold over 100,000 records. Most of Olle's performances were in Swedish, the first language of many of his audiences. | Source: "Hjalmar Peterson, aka Olle i Skratthult (1886 – 1960) (right) with Gustav Nyberg (left)," 1919 View File Details Page

Maria Sonander Rice

Maria Sonander Rice

Maria Sonander was a Swedish American singer and actress who performed in theaters and halls along Cedar Avenue and in Minneapolis from 1910 to the 1960s. She got her start at Dania Hall when another performer called in sick. After that night she recalled, “I made such a hit. I was really quite popular and I was there for eight years.” Maria regularly performed in “Varmlandingarna,” a popular Swedish folk play from the Varmland province and she is shown here in a Varmland costume. Image courtesy of American Swedish Institute View File Details Page

Poster for Varmlandingarna at Dania Hall

Poster for Varmlandingarna at Dania Hall

“Varmlandingarna,” was a popular Swedish folk play about two lovers, Eric and Anna, who were prevented from marrying because of class differences and their parents' disapproval. They almost drown together in a lake but survive and are eventually allowed to marry during a summer festival. The play was performed several times at Dania Hall, including a Christmas performance in 1912 with a cast of thirty starring Maria Sonander Rice. Image courtesy of American Swedish Institute | Source: American Swedish Institute View File Details Page

Cast of Bro Over Havet, Dania Hall, 1933

Cast of Bro Over Havet, Dania Hall, 1933

Dania Hall was known for the many plays performed on its stage on the top floor. “Bro Over Havet” (Bridge over the Ocean), was a play by Blinkenberg Jensen. Later visitors to Dania Hall recalled seeing the names of performers scribbled on the backstage walls, including “The Budapest Gypsies and Company” and a solo performer, Milos Ruziaksinanni. Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: “Cast of play "Bro over Havet" at Dania Hall, Minneapolis” 1933 | Creator: H. Larson Studio View File Details Page

Yiddish King Lear Poster, 1898

Yiddish King Lear Poster, 1898

Dania Hall was a neighborhood resource utilized by several immigrant communities in the area, including a small but vibrant Russian and Romanian Jewish community who lived nearby. They attended public events at Dania, but also rented space for receptions and parties. Mayer Schwartz, from Romania, was a printer who lived in the neighborhood and scheduled and promoted Yiddish theater groups at Dania Hall, including Yiddish King Lear, by Jacob Gordin. There were sometimes 6-8 Yiddish theater performances at Dania a year. Schwartz's mother Daisy was quoted, “Older Jewish people loved to go to Dania.” Image courtesy of New York Public Library View File Details Page

Richter�™s Pharmacy

Richter™s Pharmacy

In 1948, Phil Richter opened a pharmacy on the street-level retail space. The space had operated as a drugstore since about 1910. Richter added a fountain service. In 1963, Society Dania sold the entire building to him. Richter opened it up for new residents in the neighborhood, including hippies and counterculture youth who attended dances there on Friday and Saturday nights, enjoying psychedelic light shows and listening to the tunes of rock bands such as T.C. Atlantic, The Paisleys, and Jokers Wild. Suburbanites were known to drive by Richter's to get a look at the hippies standing outside. In 1968, the auditorium was closed down by city officials who cited a lack of exits from the upper floors. Many were suspicious that city leaders were trying to get get rid of the drug culture in the neighborhood. Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: "Dania Hall, Fifth and Cedar, Minneapolis," 1971 | Creator: Norma Nelson View File Details Page

Preserving Dania Hall

Preserving Dania Hall

In 1968, Richter reluctantly sold Dania Hall to local developers Cedar-Riverside Associates, Inc, who envisioned that their New Town in Town would replace most historic structures in the neighborhood. Richter's was kept open until 1975, but weekend dances were stopped, the iron gate and torches that had adorned the main entrance were removed, and access to the building was limited. Image courtesy of Hennepin County Library | Creator: Linda Gammell View File Details Page

The end of Dania Hall

The end of Dania Hall

A fire in 1991 damaged some of Dania Hall, but also brought it some much needed attention. Major restoration plans were approved by the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood association and began in 1999. Unfortunately, right before completion, Dania Hall caught fire again and was destroyed on February 28, 2000. Neighborhood residents, including old ones and new arrivals from Asia and Africa, saw the fire as a great tragedy for the neighborhood and held a memorial for it. Many had hoped that the restoration would bring new life to Dania Hall and that it could once again be used as Scandinavian immigrants had used it a hundred years before—for meetings, community events, music and theater, weddings, dances and receptions. Image courtesy of Hennepin County Library View File Details Page

Dania Hall Pillar, 2016

Dania Hall Pillar, 2016

All that remains of Dania Hall, a cultural center in Cedar-Riverside that provided newcomers with a place to meet, organize, dance and shop, is an empty lot and this memorial pillar. Titled, “Honor the Spirit,” the panels represent Cedar-Riverside's past and present. Alongside a panel of the tower of Dania Hall, and one of a fiddle, piano and drum, are panels with the blue flag and white star of Somalia, the camel of Ethiopia, the Korean flag, and the black cat of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture community. Image courtesy of Anduin (Andy) Wilhide | Creator: Anduin (Andy) Wilhide View File Details Page

Video

Nikolina performed by Olle i Skratthult, 1929

Nikolina performed by Olle i Skratthult (Hjalmar Peterson). Issued in 1929-1930 on Victor V-24031. Recorded in Chicago at 952 N. Michigan Ave., on November 7, 1929 | Source: Audio recording: Scott Musil, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TPR3C_MTwY; Translation: Masato Sakurai, 2003 | Creator: Olle i Skratthult (Hjalmar Peterson) View File Details Page

Street Address:

427 Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55454 [map]

Cite this Page:

Anduin (Andy) Wilhide, “Dania Hall,” Augsburg Digi-Tours, accessed September 20, 2017, http://digitours.augsburg.edu/items/show/14.
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