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Roller Garden, St. Louis Park's grand old roller rink, will transform into a gym
The Roller Garden has hosted tennis and polo matches, rock concerts and, soon, gymnasts.
By Richard Chin Star Tribune
APRIL 27, 2021 — 11:36AM
J.T. Williams taught his daughter Clara,then 4 and dressed as Batgirl for a super hero-themed skating party, how to stay balanced on her new skates at the Roller Garden in St. Louis Park in 2017.
Over the past 91 years, a big fieldhouse-like building in St. Louis Park has seen tennis playing, ice skating, horses galloping in polo matches and kids dancing to surf rock bands.
And for decades, it's where generations of Twin Cities residents roller skated to live organ music, rock 'n' roll records, disco and contemporary Christian music.
That's coming to an end as the family that owns the venerable Roller Garden skating rink announced it is going out of business in May.
But the historic building near Minnetonka Boulevard and Hwy. 100 will still retain its recreational heritage. It's been sold to another family that will turn it into a gymnastics gym, according to Bill Sahly, one of the longtime owners of the Roller Garden.
Sahly's family, which has owned the roller skating venue since 1969, announced recently that 52 years of birthday and bar mitzvah parties on wheels, Prince and Michael Jackson theme nights, dress as your favorite superhero skates, New Year's Eve balloon drops and spinning disco balls are coming to an end.
The last dance, last chance, to skate, as disco queen Donna Summer would put it, is on May 8.
Roller Garden, a St. Louis Park fixture for generations, will have its last skate on May 8.
Sahly said the decision was motivated by the desire to retire from the demanding job of running a skating rink that has involved four generations of his family.
The online announcement also cited the impact of the pandemic, which led to a temporary closing of the rink and then a reopening to reduced capacity.
"The challenges of this past year made us realize how short life is, and the amount of time we've missed with our own families in order to run this business," the announcement said.
The news has sparked an outpouring of memories on the Roller Garden's Facebook page, including hundreds of comments like: "Thank you for the lessons, the Girl Scout parties with the Roller Girls, the Friday night disco funk and most of all for being the most diverse and inclusive place I have ever known."
The 30,000-square-foot building with its distinctive curved roof was originally built in 1930 as a riding arena back in the days when wealthy Minneapolis residents would ride horses on bridle paths around the lakes, according to Sahly.
"They wanted to have the finest riding facility west of the Mississippi," he said of what came to be known as the Lilac Way Riding Academy and Pastime Arena.
But the early owners of the building also found other uses for the large indoor space.
The facility was equipped with a portable floor for roller skating and in the winter, part of the floor would be flooded for ice skating, according to a St. Louis Park Historical Society account.
The building was later renamed the Roller Garden as horseback riding was displaced in the area by the post-World War II housing boom.
The facility also sometimes served as a rock 'n' roll concert venue, once hosting a dance show by Minneapolis surf rock band the Trashmen that drew 2,000 people.
They also set up nets in the building to make it the first indoor tennis venue in the Minneapolis area.
That's how Sahly's family started getting involved. Sahly said his father-in-law, Russell Johnston, was a tennis player who helped set up indoor play at the Roller Garden. He ended up buying the place in 1969 when the previous owners wanted to sell. He roped his son-in-law into running the place.
"He said, 'How would you like to run a roller rink?' " Sahly said. "I reached for the carrot. And I went 14 years without a weekend off."
Johnston used to play a Hammond organ for the skaters while Sahly played rock 'n' roll as DJ.
The roller rink was known for the big fiberglass statue of a dinosaur, sometimes painted in polka dots, that once perched on the roof of the building. It was moved inside after some high school students took it down as a prank and brought it to the St. Louis Park High School.
Sahly also once painted a 100-foot-long tennis racquet on the roof, drawing objections from the city of St. Louis Park which said it exceeded sign size limits. The city backed off after Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan wrote about the flap, according to the St. Louis Park Historical Society.
The Historical Society account documents other complaints the city or residents have had with the roller rink over the years, ranging from concerns about noise, rowdy behavior and what young couples were doing up in the balcony.
Concerns reached a peak in 1990 when several shooting incidents and fights broke out outside the rink. Since then, the Roller Garden made families and adults their target market rather than hosting teen nights.
"As it evolved, we evolved," Sahly said.
The end of the Roller Garden will leave only two other roller skating venues in the area, Skateville in Burnsville and Cheapskate in Coon Rapids.
The Roller Garden building is being purchased by Brian Meeker, owner of Kenwood Gymnastics Center, which is being displaced from its current location in St. Louis Park by light rail development.
Meeker said the open space offered by the building is perfect for a gymnastic club, which will retain the building's hardwood floors and preserve photos and memorabilia from the building's history.
"I did ask him to leave the disco lights," Meeker said of Sahly. "I look at this as the next step of this grand old building."
Richard Chin • 612-673-1775
Richard Chin is a feature reporter with the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. He has been a longtime Twin Cities-based journalist who has covered crime, courts, transportation, outdoor recreation and human interest stories.