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Preservationists, hot rodders cite drive-in's historical value

Efforts made to save Porky's drive-in before it's too late

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Save it, don't pave it?

The end of Porky's is nigh, but a loose coalition of historic preservationists and classic-car enthusiasts are racing against time to save one of St. Paul's last 1950s-era drive-in burger joints from the wrecking ball. With a sale pending to a neighboring senior housing developer, the University Avenue icon closes Sunday.

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The word on the avenue is that Porky's will soon be dismantled, right down to the 8-foot-tall pig sign that has lured generations of hot rodders to its secret-recipe onion rings. Manager Tryg Truelson, son of Porky's founder Nora Truelson, told the Pioneer Press there will be an auction from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday.

The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, a nonprofit group that releases an annual top 10 list of endangered historic sites, revealed Friday that Porky's has made the list, which the group hadn't planned to release until May 12.

Could Porky's be relocated to another block and run under new ownership? Erin Hanafin Berg, the alliance's field representative, said the nonprofit contacted the Truelsons in January about saving the restaurant but did not receive a reply.

"Now, it seems it's right upon us, and we need to do something," Berg said. "We would at least like to discuss some alternatives. I don't know if the owners plan to demolish the building next week. They're certainly having an auction and selling off some of the signage."

The St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, an advisory

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group to the city council, is singing a similar "save Porky's" tune. So are some members of the Minnesota Street Rod Association, who treated Porky's as their regular summer haunt and a way to relive '50s car culture.

A statement from commission president John Manning and the commission's executive committee reads: "We are concerned about the plans to demolish Porky's; once this historic resource is torn down, it can't be replaced. This is happening so quickly that there hasn't been enough time for adequate consideration of any alternatives. Much has been done to preserve St. Paul's heritage, but many historic resources -- like this one -- remain at risk."

The Preservation Alliance maintains that demolishing Porky's could jeopardize federal funding for whatever materializes there, such as subsidized senior housing. The drive-in and 22 other sites along the construction path of the Central Corridor light-rail transit line have been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, though they have yet to be added to the official list.

Whether they're on the list or not might not matter, according to the alliance. In 1976, Congress expanded the National Historic Preservation Act to require special reviews of federally funded development projects that might affect a historic site, even if the site is not officially listed on the National Register.

The "Section 106" clause of the act obligates federal agencies to withhold federal assistance in cases of "anticipatory demolition," where owners destroy their own properties to avoid historic reviews.

"Tearing down the building without formal consideration of alternatives might be considered 'anticipatory demolition' that could jeopardize access to future federal funding for new development on the site," reads a news release issued Friday by the alliance.

The federal historic designation, however, carries no actual restrictions for property owners and would not prevent a demolition.

It's unclear whether the Section 106 federal funding restrictions would still apply if the Truelsons tear down Porky's and then sell the land to Episcopal Homes, new owners who might try to build a federally subsidized project, such as senior housing. In any event, the family is within its legal right to remove the drive-in.

"Ultimately, quite honestly, we can't do a lot except to try to persuade the owner not to (destroy) the site, or to try to sell it off piecemeal," Berg said.

Officials with Episcopal Homes -- which plans to purchase the site -- have not released specific plans for the location, except to say it won't be a burger joint.

"It will be more of what we do," Episcopal Homes spokesman Paul Hagen said. "We're looking closely at our mission. Where do we need to shore things up, and what capabilities have we been wanting to add? It goes without saying, housing will be a component."

A secure "memory care" unit for people with Alzheimer's and dementia is one option, but the site probably will host a mix of uses, he said.

Hagen said nothing is imminent, and he could not predict when the restaurant will be torn down.

A call to the drive-in Friday went straight to voicemail, which was full.

Porky's, which opened in 1953, is not the oldest drive-in in the city. The Italian-American themed Dariette Drive-In at 1440 E. Minnehaha Ave. on the East Side opened in 1951. "We're on our 60th year this year," said third-generation owner Angela Fida.

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