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New tavern in Superior evokes history and Old World grandeur

Jeff Heller, owner of the Spirit Room, is thrilled with the new mural that features a jazzy night theme painted by artist Erik Pearson on a wall of the new tavern set to open June 16 at the Trade and Commerce Building in Superior. (Bob King / / 6
The new Spirit Room sports a 1900-era look with period chandeliers, wainscoting and a bar fashioned by local carpenters Bob Leith and Jeff Dorfman to match the original woodwork. The tavern, geared to an after-work business crowd, will open on the building’s first floor, across from the Red Mug Bakery. (Bob King / / 6
The Romanesque Trade and Commerce Building, built in 1890 at Hammond Avenue and Broadway Street in Superior, is better known as Old Superior City Hall. (Bob King / 3 / 6
Lindsey Graskey, bar manager at the Spirit Room, pours a Bent Paddle IPA from the tap. (Bob King / / 6
The Spirit Room team includes (from left) owner Jeff Heller; bar manager Lindsey Graskey; Suzanne Johnson, co-owner of the Red Mug; and chef Curtis LaBreche. (Bob King / / 6
Painters Brett Lisdahl (left) and Michael Leland spruce up the entryway to Superior’s Trade and Commerce Building on Thursday afternoon. (Bob King / / 6

For 26 years, Jeff Heller has held steadfast to his vision for one of Superior’s most iconic buildings — the 1890s Trade and Commerce Building at Hammond Avenue and Broadway Street, better known as Old Superior City Hall.

Heller envisioned a center for arts and artists, food, and health-promoting and community-building businesses.

And slowly over the years, it happened.

Today, the five-story brownstone and the 1940s-era former police headquarters next door house 11 tenants, including the Red Mug coffeehouse and Bake Shop, Yoga Tree Studio, an art gallery, artists and a chiropractor. And an acupuncturist may soon move in.

But the biggest addition to the building in years — the Spirit Room, a tavern and eatery geared to businesspeople — is opening June 16 in a 1,000-square-foot first-floor space formerly occupied by Art in the Alley.

“It will not be your run-of-the-mill bar,” said Heller, 55, who owns the bar and the building with a silent partner. “We’ll have a good stock of liquor and craft beer. It will be more of a destination to talk, a place to carry on after the business day.  Superior is really in need of a place like that.”

The tavern’s name — the Spirit Room — was inspired by the full line of quality liquor that will be served as well as talk that the building has some spirits of its own, said Heller, a civil engineer and partner with Krech Ojard & Associates.

“Like anything, it gives people one more option,” Dave Minor, president of the Superior-Douglas County Area Chamber of Commerce, said of the new business. “It extends beyond business. People are always looking for where else they can go.”

Matching new with old

Months of construction are nearing an end, creating a tavern that is modern while staying true to the building’s historic roots, from the period chandeliers hanging from the 12-foot-tall ceiling to the quarter-sawn oak wainscoting and the bar area painstakingly crafted with raised panels to duplicate the building’s original woodwork.

“It took a lot of time to fit this period,” Heller said, adding that finding the wood was especially difficult.

Salvaged building materials have been repurposed. Ornate ironwork from the original elevator cages provides decorative fronts for the space’s radiant heat. Marble from the original lavatory stalls serve as window sills for the 5-by-9-foot windows. One of the space’s original walk-in vaults has been converted into a beer cooler, the other into a dishwashing area.

The new floor features an older-style tile. The space will be furnished with antique and refurbished oak tables and matching high-top and other chairs to complete a period look.

Artist Karin Kraemer, who has a ceramics studio on the lower level, has contributed by creating decorative tiles for the tavern using a pattern repeated in the building’s original architecture.

The remodeling extends into the building’s grand front entryway, where walls are being refinished, marble polished and woodwork cleaned. The space will be used for overflow seating.

The result will have a stately Old World feel where visitors can sip premium liquors and local craft beer and enjoy a tapas-style menu of high-end appetizers, such as seared scallops, bruschetta, spicy beef skewers and smoked salmon.

Drink prices will start at $4 to $5, while small food plates will range from $4 to $8.

Heller has assembled a team to run the tavern, starting with bar manager Lindsey Graskey. Suzanne Johnson, co-owner of the Red Mug, will supply the food prepared by chef Curtis LaBreche. When the Red Mug bakery kitchen shuts down for the day, it will become the tavern’s kitchen.

While the Spirit Room will be open 4-11 p.m. weekdays and noon to 7 p.m. Saturdays, a private luncheon room will be available for meetings from noon to 4 p.m. The room sports a colorful mural painted by Superior native Erik Pearson that’s alive with images of people, musicians and references to the building’s history.

Some businesspeople have said that if such a meeting room were available in the area, they would use it, Heller said. He noted the building is easily accessible from Superior and less than 10 minutes from downtown Duluth.

“When people have the opportunity to go in there, and see the beautiful woodwork and how they tied in new woodwork with existing woodwork, I think it will be a huge draw,” Minor said.

Persistence pays off

The five-story Romanesque building was built in 1890 as the Trade and Commerce Building. It features a marble stairwell, extensive natural woodwork, iron grillwork and large, sunny rooms. It housed the Superior City Hall from 1904 to 1970. In 1979, it became a historic landmark in Wisconsin and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

After the city moved its offices to the then-new City/County Complex up the avenue, it eventually sold Old City Hall for $1 to a team of developers that included Jeno Paulucci, Heller said.

Their idea of opening a Grandma’s-type restaurant there never happened, but they did renovate much of the first and second floors, he said.

Heller and some friends bought the building for less than $100,000 in 1988.  

Over the years, they have done extensive work on the building’s infrastructure, including plumbing, heating, wiring and interior work. They repaired the severely damaged roof, did masonry work and put in a new gas furnace. In more recent years, they replaced the building’s more than 100 windows with energy-efficient, historically appropriate double-hung windows.

And they did it all with private funding — no grants, historic tax credits or other public money.

“There’s too many strings attached,” Heller said of such funding. “We do it ourselves, and we do it right.”

He’s not sure how much he and his partners, who have changed over the years, have invested in the building in the past 26 years, but it’s been substantial. More than $100,000 has gone into the tavern alone.

 With the opening of the Spirit Room, the building’s usable space will be fully occupied

“Right now, the tenant mix is good,” Heller said.

Three more floors

There’s much more space in the building that could be utilized. The top three floors — each with 2,600 square feet of space — largely have been gutted and cleaned up, the floors leveled, ceilings re-plastered and other repairs made. But they remain undeveloped open spaces. Heller envisions two or three loft-style studio apartments on each floor, perhaps for artists to live and work.

But the upper floors can’t be occupied until a new elevator is installed. And the building’s historic status limits construction to the rear, brick side of the building, where the elevator would be built onto the structure without detracting from its historic architecture.

The cost for an elevator: $900,000.

While Heller doesn’t know how they’ll manage to pay for an elevator, he says they’ll get there eventually.

“So we’re full until we get an elevator,” he said.

While much is left to do, they’ve come a long way from the early years when finding a tenant was a big challenge and naysayers were plentiful.

Today, few skeptics remain and support has grown dramatically.

“The city is starting to embrace the building,” Heller said. “Now, everybody is behind keeping this place going. It’s how can we help it succeed?”

The answer, Minor said, is to support the businesses there. He credits the building’s turnaround to Heller’s persistence.

“He had a vision for this building,” Minor said. “It shows things don’t necessarily happen overnight. It takes time. He stuck to his dream and his passion, believing he could make this work, and he has.”