Written by Erin Hanafin Berg
In St. Paul, Minnesota, when you think Porky’s you think of its big ol’ fluorescent smiling pig sign. But no one was smiling back when the staff of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota (PAM) learned that the historic drive-in restaurant would be closed in a matter of days. We were well aware that Porky’s was threatened - in January, the site was nominated to our annual 10 Most Endangered Historic Places program, and we had decided in late-February to include it on the list. We didn’t anticipate that the owners would act so quickly, though; an article in the March 31 edition of the StarTribune announced that Porky’s would be closing on April 3.
Suffice to say, we scrambled. How would our 10 Most listing - which would not be announced until mid-May - have any impact if the building was already gone? We made a hasty decision to issue a press release, tipping people off to Porky’s place on the 10 Most list, and presenting our concerns. We stated that Porky’s, located along the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line now under construction, had been determined eligible for listing in the National Register. In fact, preparation of a National Register nomination was pending as part of Section 106 mitigation for the light rail construction, and historic designation would make the site eligible for rehabilitation tax credits or state grants. We suggested that the owners and the planned purchaser, a non-profit senior housing developer, could find solutions to demolition, and we warned that “anticipatory demolition” might jeopardize the developer’s plans to obtain federal HUD financing.
Our press release caught the attention of everyone, it seems, except the person who was really in the driver’s seat - Porky’s elderly owner, Nora Truelson. Despite our calls and letters, we heard no response from the Truelson family, who were busy managing the crowds flocking to Porky’s for its last days. When Nora Truelson was interviewed by local media, she reportedly said, “it [saving the building] ain’t gonna happen.” Marvin Plakut, the housing developer, said that he fully intended to comply with Section 106 review, but that he was unable to influence the owner’s actions.
Equally as frustrating, we learned that an auction would take place the day after closing, but the online auction site did not list which items would be included until the morning it went live. Rumors swirled about Porky’s iconic neon signs, and we thought our best option to ensure preservation of these more portable elements would be to buy them ourselves. We hastily put together an online fundraising site through Razoo, received $1200 in donations in only two days, then found out that the owners planned to keep the signs, so they were not on the auction block after all.
Then, in early April, the Porky’s building, drive-in canopy, and some exterior signs were sold to Steve Bauer, who is moving them to his historic buildings collection near Hastings, MN. The housing developer closed on the Porky’s site April 21, received a $500,000 CDBG grant from the city of St. Paul, and has applied for HUD financing, but has not gone through the Section 106 process. HUD will make the final determination as to whether the developer engaged in “anticipatory demolition” and if so, whether any penalties will be assessed. PAM has offered to work with the developer to design and install interpretive plaques on the site, and will dedicate the auction funds raised to that effort.
While few preservationists would consider this outcome a rousing success, we were pleased with the heightened visibility that PAM received by engaging in the Porky’s dilemma. The pig seemed to take on a life of its own for several weeks, at a rather inopportune time (just weeks before the other nine sites on the 10 Most list were due to be announced), but we were galvanized by the amount of public support and positive feedback we received. Ultimately, Porky’s managed to steer clear of the landfill, and will still be accessible to members of the Minnesota Street Rod Association, who were probably Porky’s #1 fans.
The pig won’t ever be the same, but at least he’s not bacon.
Erin Hanafin Berg is a Field Representative for the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.