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Arson investigation launched in burning of historic Duluth mansion

Duluth police and fire officials said Tuesday that the Monday fire that caused major damage to a historic mansion on East Superior Street was a case of arson. Bob King /

As investigators from the Duluth Fire and Police departments continued to comb the scene of Monday’s fire at a historic mansion, the tenants involved adjusted quickly Tuesday while juggling their emotions.

“Yesterday I was flying on adrenaline,” business owner Marsha Hystead said outside the charred Oliver G. Traphagen House at 1511 E. Superior St. “This morning it was sadness.”

Meanwhile, Duluth Fire Department Fire Marshal Marnie Grondahl confirmed the arson investigation initially reported by the News Tribune on Monday.

“We are investigating it as arson,” Grondahl said. But she did not elaborate due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.

Investigators are offering a reward to anyone with information about the fire.

Hystead is a partner and chief creative officer for HTK Marketing and Communications, which had been housed in the Traphagen House since 1987. She and her business partner, Mike Seyfer, president and CEO of HTK, moved their 19-person operation that specializes in health care advertising to Hystead’s house near the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“Our goal is to meet every expectation,” Seyfer said. “To not have one hiccup or miss one deadline.”

All of the company’s pertinent work and data was cloud-based, Seyfer said, explaining that payroll, accounts and project files were available on demand on the Internet.

The partners were still hoping to retrieve a computer-network server from the building later Tuesday.

Duluth police were assisting in the fire department’s investigation and have maintained a presence at the crime scene both days. A Molotov cocktail was found Monday morning in the basement of the Real Living Messina & Associates building across the street from the mansion at 1512 E. Superior St. That firebomb failed to ignite, and was discovered by the business owner when he got to work that morning.

“At this time it is unclear if there is any connection,” joint press releases from the fire and police departments said.

Longtime owner and landlord of the Traphagen House, Howard Klatzky, was at the scene again Tuesday, carrying a heavy duty flashlight. He’d been escorted through the inside of the building once Monday and was planning another tour with an insurance investigator Tuesday. Electricity, water and gas had been cut to the building as firefighters battled the blaze.

While the fire was restricted to the west side of the building, starting on the middle of the first floor and following up the stairway to the second, Klatzky said, the damage inside was profound.

“The area that burned was the fanciest part of the whole building,” Klatzky said, describing cherry wood features, quarter-sawn oak wainscoting and ornate tiled fireplaces. “How do you replace that?”

Plaintive was the mood to describe Klatzky and others. Klatzky founded HTK and many years later sold it to his colleagues in the business, Hystead and Seyfer.

The three-story, 9,200-square-foot Traphagen House was built in 1892, designed by renowned architect Oliver Traphagen for his personal use. Mining magnate Chester Congdon purchased the home five years later and the Congdon family lived there until Glensheen Mansion was completed in 1908.

It was Klatzky who identified a home for the business in the Traphagen House. When looking to relocate his growing marketing firm, he first toured a building across the street. The Traphagen House caught his eye. He walked through it and found its insides painted white. Against the protests of his peers, he saw the possibilities underneath that white coat of paint.

“After it was sold by the Congdons it went through a series of owners,” Klatzky said. “I bought it from a slumlord who’d owned it four different times.”

Klatzky restored the building and watched his business flourish. Hystead noted how the company would commemorate its employees’ important milestones with posters of photo collages created by the company’s design team. Those are now all burned.

“That’s the emotional part of it,” Seyfer said. “The 20-plus years of memories and collaborations are all very tied to this building.”

The company had planned to move in October to the DeWitt-Seitz building, where contractors are building out the new HTK office space. The new home will have a more open floor plan to foster a more modern approach to collaboration and communication, according to Seyfer and Hystead. They knew when they bought out Klatzky that they were going to have to modernize their facilities, so they didn’t buy the Traphagen House. Instead, the Traphagen House was for sale for $750,000. It had been the subject of serious interest until Monday’s fire.

For now, HTK will move from Hystead’s home into the former P.S. Rudie Medical Clinic office in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Duluth.

Ledingham Promotional Advertising, which also had offices in the burned building, is operating out of a temporary location but will join HTK at the P.S. Rudie office, and then at the DeWitt-Seitz Building in October.

Tip lines

Anyone with any information about the origin of the Traphagen House fire is asked to call (800) 723-2020. Tips may also be left with Duluth Police Officer Gregg McCullough at (218) 730-5472.