comScore

Deer murals and bullet holes: 50+ years of art and mischief at the Black Forest Inn

The original mural on the Nicollet Avenue side of the Black Forest Inn
depicted vibrant scenes of the Rhine River region of Germany.

The original mural on the Nicollet Avenue side of the Black Forest Inn depicted vibrant scenes of the Rhine River region of Germany. Courtesy of the Black Forest Inn

What follows is an excerpt about Minneapolis' Black Forest Inn from Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities (Minnesota Historical Society Press) by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant.

Tomorrow (Thursday, November 7 at 7 p.m.), Bill and Andy will regale attendees with tales from the book to celebrate its release at the Black Forest. Hard copies of their work will be available for purchase. Don't think you can make it? Find the authors in St. Paul on December 12 at Waldman Brewery & Wurstery as part of Ramsey County's History Revealed series.

 ***

Standing next to his Black Forest Inn mural 50 years later, artist Mike Lynch looks at it again. It’s held up well, despite a spot near the street where some graffiti has been painted over, maybe ten or twenty years ago. The colors are bolder, and the forms are a little more clearly defined than those in many of Mike’s scenes. “I had to simplify it. Although the deer came out pretty realistic.” He remembers, after it was first painted, that a dog bounded out of a car that had just parked, looked at the wall, froze, and then started barking wildly at the deer.

The Black Forest Inn has been a hangout for artists since the 1960s, and over the years, it has accumulated one of the best collections of original and commissioned artwork around. Mike points out it wasn’t just artists. That was a big part of the mix, but everyone dropped in. “Hippies and cops and all kinds in between,” he says. “Not one single kind of crowd. Gay people, black and white, rich and poor. It was better than most in that way.”

The larger part of the bar’s appeal is probably that it’s a cheap, cozy spot to get a drink. In the spot you might expect to find a television, over the bar, there is a shimmering galaxy of hanging glassware. For years, regulars had personalized steins hanging overhead, a program that ended when they all came crashing down one night.

A magazine profile of Minneapolis nightlife from the year the Black Forest Inn opened, 1965, showed scene after scene of youth gyrating, dancing, and hoisting glasses of beer in bars and clubs around the city. Except for the Black: it’s two guys intently playing chess, each with a stein of lager.

Erich Christ purchased the Black Forest Inn in 1965 with his brother Gerhard, hoping to open a German-style restaurant and bar after training as a butcher and a stint cooking in the army. The bar had most recently been known as the Swinging Door, and before that it had been known as the Flamingo, Korsmo’s Club, and Nellie Stevens’ Cafe, the latter owned by a woman whose suspicious death in 1944 was initially pinned on her ex-husband. The Swinging Door owner got wind of the fact that Christ was interested in a German establishment, and he renamed it the Black Forest Inn to sweeten the deal. (Ironically, if Christ had had his way, he’d have given it a flashier name, along the lines of the famed Purple Onion in San Francisco.)

Mike Lynch, who had a studio around the corner, doesn’t remember who approached whom first, but at some point, Mike got the commission to begin a beautification process.

The first request was for a logo: a deer’s head. Mike collaborated with sculptor and employee Bruce Thomas on creating a metal version to hang above the door. Though the deer’s head has remained the logo, each artist who came after changed it in some way. “That kind of pissed me off at first,” says Lynch, “but that’s the character of the place—no consistency! Whoever was next did whatever they wanted.”

For many years, the Black Forest Inn was a 3.2 bar, which allowed it to have a later closing time than full bars but was tough for a place serving German beers. The problem ultimately was solved in a very Black Forest Inn sort of way: an artist drafted up a postcard, and the Christs started a letter-writing campaign to the city council. “If the choice was mine / Wine would be fine / When we dine / At the Black Forest Inn,” read the postcards.

Getting the liquor license gave the Christs the opportunity to turn the bar into its present-day configuration and, later, to open the adjoining beer garden, which was the first German-style garden in the city in perhaps seventy-five years, since the days of the Jumbo. Inside, the bar took its place on one side of the room and the restaurant on the other. “Like cousins,” is how the Christs describe the two sides of the establishment today. “Same family, but different upbringing.” When Erich unpacked the bar and had it set up, he thought it didn’t seem, or smell, quite right.

He opened a bottle of scotch, poured it all over the bar, and let it sit overnight. “It’s smelled right ever since,” he said.

The bar side could get out of hand once in a while, although sometimes people got booted for being too casual. Mike remembers Twin Cities musician Willie Murphy getting thrown out for monopolizing a round table by the entrance with his pals for too long, stretching out one or two beers to the length of an afternoon one too many times. There’s another story about a fight that broke out between two painters late one night. One had the other on the floor, about to pummel her. “Fellow realist! Fellow realist!” she yelled, throwing up her hands. The other combatant relented on the grounds of shared aesthetic sensibility.

The best-known piece of bar art—not just in the Black Forest, but perhaps in the whole city—is a print of Richard Avedon’s 1963 photo The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR Convention, Mayflower Hotel, Washington DC. The piece was gifted to the bar during Avedon’s show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, one of his first major retrospectives. He enjoyed his time hanging out at the Black, and he gave the print to the Christs with a fond dedication and signature in the corner. The print in its original state is worth a quarter of a million dollars today.

It’s not in its regular state, though. In one of the most famed acts of aesthetic vandalism in the city’s history, in November 1986, a regular named Nelson who was sitting at the bar arose from his seat, produced a .357 Magnum pistol, and, without warning, fired three shots at the photograph, two of them hitting their mark. He hit one of the subjects right in the eye. “He became,” the official complaint said, “frustrated and angry while looking at the photo.”

“That photo always bugged the hell out of me,” he said later. He turned himself into the Fifth Precinct down the street and was ultimately sentenced to probation. In lieu of a fine, he was required to donate three hundred dollars to arts organizations. The bullet holes remain today, poked, prodded, and examined like a holy relic. “In the wisdom of the people whose opinion we most value,” Joanne says, they never repaired it. Avedon came in years later, took a look, shook his head, and left. Everyone else, though, seems to love the piece. Nelson, in his inexplicable frustration, turned the photograph into a three-dimensional object to be investigated by everyone who walks by.

Famed though the Avedon print is, three charcoal drawings by artist Birney Quick from 1980 hanging in the back of the dining room best capture the spirit of the Black Forest Inn: a festive environment, blue-checkered tablecloths, patrons sitting around with steins of beer, Erich’s housemade sausages being unveiled. In the one on the right, a woman leans toward her companion, whispering conspiratorially in his ear with some piece of gossip, or observation, or something else entirely, a quiet scene of easy familiarity that is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever hung out in a bar.

That easy familiarity is very attractive in a regular hangout. Mike remembers a night at the CC Club, just down Twenty-Sixth Street a few blocks on Lyndale Avenue. The CC is a storied hangout, too, but certainly has a different atmosphere.

“It’s so noisy in there,” Mike says. He remembers telling his friends, “It’s too damn noisy in here. Let’s go to the Black.”

***

Closing Time provides a glimpse into our local history as viewed from the barstool.

Closing Time provides a glimpse into our local history as viewed from the barstool. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press

Closing Time Book Launch
Thursday, November 7, 7 p.m.
The Black Forest Inn
1 E. 26th St., Minneapolis
612-872-0812