Oh, if these walls could talk.
Design Consign, a high-end consignment store specializing in fine furniture, home decor and antiques in downtown Brainerd, is housed in what used to be First National Bank. The bank was shot up and robbed in 1933 by Lester Joseph Gillis, better known as Baby Face Nelson.
“When I was, I think, about 5 years old, this used to be Thrifty White Drug, and I remember coming in here with my grandpa, and, of course, I heard about the history … and even as a 5-year-old, I thought ‘Wow! That’s big news.’ He was public enemy No. 1 in the country,” said Matt Foy, co-owner.
He and his parents Steve and Julie Foy, also co-owners, saw the need in 2011 for a quality consignment retail space, so Design Consign was created as an upscale venue to sell items. The family spent three months restoring the building, which led to exposing its historic roots.
“Many people come in here just to see the history as well just because it was of national significance … people that are into John Dillinger, Al Capone and Baby Face Nelson, who started with Al Capone down in Chicago and was with Dillinger in St. Paul,” Matt Foy said.
The First National Bank on South Sixth Street was built in 1876. The building gained national attention on Oct. 23, 1933, when it was held up by George “Baby Face” Nelson.
“We have one of the ceiling tiles that has 22 rounds that have been fired through it, two of the original money bags from the bank, the vault timer and an adding machine from the bank, and then the wanted poster and then the Brainerd Daily Dispatch from the day after,” Foy said.
The biggest reason why gangsters came to Minnesota during that time was because of then-St. Paul Police Chief John O’Connor, who invited them to the city in the late 1920s to early 1930s, according to author Chad Lewis.
O’Connor invited the criminals to the city and said if they register with police they can do whatever they want, including gambling and prostitution; they just couldn’t do it in St. Paul, according to Lewis
“There’s quite a following, actually, of people that, you know, just really like the history of that time, so, yeah, we get a lot of people in here just for that,” Foy said of Design Consign, which opened in March of 2012.
On the morning of the robbery, Nelson and his gang waited for the maintenance man to come to work. They came up behind him and forced him to open the front door of the bank. The gang was successful in getting $32,000 in cash, equivalent to $585,954 five years ago.
“When we first took over the building, we noticed — as we started peeling back the ceiling — there was the drop ceiling. We started peeling it back to expose as much of the original crown molding as possible,” Foy said of his and his parents’ efforts to preserve the building’s history.
Foy enlarged photos from the Crow Wing County Historical Society that would represent the view from that era from inside the buildings’ original windows and applied the enlargements to a series of windows depicting Brainerd’s water tower in 1919 and the former Ransford Hotel.
“The exterior (of the building) covers all of the windows now. There used to be eight of those windows around our building, and back in the ‘70s they stuccoed right over them, so if the (photo enlargement) paper was down, you’d just be seeing the back of the stucco,” Foy said.
The Foy family takes pride in their store “and it shows not only in the quality inventory we carry but the care we take to create a unique experience in a historical venue,” they said on the store’s website.
“My mom and dad and I, we don’t have any, you know, construction history or anything. We just kind of pieced it together,” Foy said.