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Performer Mayyadda singing at the University of Minnesota Juneteenth Celebration “We Are The Noise: The Echoes of Our Ancestors” captured on Saturday, June 15.
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Published June 23, 2024

MHNA seeks to designate Varsity Theater as independent historical landmark

Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association board of directors discussed designation in response to the Varsity being listed as non-contributing in the draft guidelines for the Dinkytown Commercial Historic District.
Image by Grace Aigner
The Varsity Theater on Nov. 6, 2023.

The Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA) Board of Directors discussed seeking national recognition for the Varsity Theater as an independent historic landmark in their monthly meeting on Tuesday.

The Varsity Theater was constructed in 1915 and remodeled to its current form in 1938-39. The period of significance outlined in the draft guidelines for the Dinkytown Commercial Historic District is from 1899 to 1929, meaning the Varsity is non-contributing because it was significantly altered after 1929.

President of the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association Vic Thorstenson said in Tuesday’s meeting he believes there would be shared community sentiment in favor of independently designating the Varsity. He added the MHNA has two options to protect the theater.

“One [approach] would be to provide protection of the Varsity Theater as a standalone historic property because of its significance to the community, whether it’s since 1915 or since 1939,” Thorstenson said. “The other approach that we could use for this is to convince the city council to move its date.”

According to Thorstenson, registering a location with the National Register of Historic Places is a multi-step process. To designate the Varsity, it would require a written request to the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC), a formal nomination by the HPC for designation, approval from the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office and registration with the National Parks Service.

Thorstenson said the legacy of the Varsity as an entertainment venue in Dinkytown is what makes the building worth designating.

“[The Varsity’s] been part of the entertainment scene, interrupted only by a few years of closures and stuff like that, for that long of a period of time,” Thorstenson said. “Nothing else in the neighborhood has been that continuous as a single purpose.”

Another factor Thorstenson said motivates the MHNA is the Varsity being currently owned remotely by Los Angeles real estate firm Downtown Properties Holdings LLC.

“Had they included it as a contributing structure, we probably wouldn’t be nervous about it, but the building isn’t owned by anybody locally,” Thorstenson said. “So if they wanted to tear it down and put up something else, they could.”

Ted Tucker, an MHNA board director, shared Thorstenson’s support for designating the Varsity in Tuesday’s meeting. Tucker said Marcy Holmes has already set a precedent of valuing and protecting the Varsity which he hopes will continue.

“[The Varsity] is something in the past we have indicated is of importance as something signifying Dinkytown,” Tucker said. “So I would love to see us repeat that message.”

Kent Kramp, president of the Dinkytown Business Alliance and a board director of the MHNA, cautioned against taking on the exhaustive process of designating the Varsity in Tuesday’s meeting. Kramp said seeking independent designation might be more redundant than productive given the protection non-contributing status may provide a building.

“Somebody couldn’t go and just completely tear off the front of it or change it dramatically and still have to go through the historic preservation committee,” Kramp said. “So it just might go on to be that it might not be necessary and also if there’s any risk involved.”

Emily Hogan, the box office supervisor at the Varsity Theater, said that although getting the Varsity historically designated could create more hoops to jump through regarding building repairs and upkeep, she believes preserving the theater is more important.

“Maybe a few of these buildings like the Varsity have to go about it in a little bit of a different way to make sure that they’re not one day just another apartment building,” Hogan said.

MHNA’s official action on the issue remains undetermined at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. Thorstenson said at the end of Tuesday’s discussion, the MHNA plans to continue gathering information on how to proceed with seeking independent historic designation of the Varsity Theater.

Hogan said simply having this conversation about designating the Varsity is crucial to deciding the legacy of the Varsity and the Dinkytown neighborhood as a whole.

“With the neighborhood right now, I think a lot of people are either on one side or the other about where Dinkytown is going,” Hogan said. “That just makes it even more important to have this conversation now of what we really want to leave for future students.”

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