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Duluth's jewel from the 1800s, Spalding Hotel fell to urban renewal 50 years ago

This undated postcard view shows the Spalding Hotel at the corner of Superior Street and Fifth Avenue West in downtown Duluth. At this time 50 years ago, in late 1963, the grand old hotel was being turned into rubble. (Image courtesy of Zenith City Online)

At this time 50 years ago, a Duluth landmark had been reduced to a pile of rubble along Superior Street.

The demolition of the Spalding Hotel in 1963 marked the end of the line for a building that had housed visitors, dignitaries, business meetings and banquets for decades. It also marked the beginning of a redevelopment project that would forever change the face of the west side of downtown Duluth.

"It was a gorgeous building, but when it got caught up in the urban renewal it was a train that was hard to stop," said Duluth historian and author Tony Dierckins, who included the Spalding in the 2012 book "Lost Duluth."

The opening of the Spalding on June 10, 1889, was -- as reported in the next day's Duluth Daily News -- "the great social event of Duluth's history."

"The formal opening of the Spalding (Hotel) last evening is an event which marks a new era in the development of Duluth and ranks in importance with the coming of a new railroad," the paper reported. "A city may have advantages of many kinds (but) the impression of a city which the traveler on business or pleasure carries away with him depends chiefly on the character of the hotel at which he stops."

And the character of the Spalding, at Superior Street and Fifth Avenue West, was spectacular for its time: a mammoth brownstone-and-brick building anchoring the west side of downtown with an airy lobby and every modern convenience in its guestrooms. Its main dining room, on the sixth floor overlooking the harbor, had a view that "will make the dining room of the Spalding famous from one end of the country to the other," the Daily News proclaimed.

Deals and transactions that shaped the history of the Northland were conducted within the Spalding's walls; community celebrations were held in its dining rooms and bar. Among its famous guests was Theodore Roosevelt, who stayed at the Spalding in October 1912 while campaigning as the Progressive candidate for president.

Tough times

The Spalding's standing took a hit in 1925 when the flashy new Hotel Duluth -- now known as Greysolon Plaza -- opened up at the other end of downtown.

As it was knocked from its perch as the city's premiere hotel, the Spalding found itself in a neighborhood of declining reputation. The Bowery, as that stretch of Superior Street was called, was home to dive bars and many other, less-reputable hotels.

"Prohibition didn't end the Bowery's ills, and the city's clearing of saloons and brothels on Minnesota Point ... in the 1930s only increased the Bowery's marginalized population," Dierckins and Maryanne Norton wrote in "Lost Duluth." "After World War II, the area became populated by retired laborers with no pensions and troubled young men returning from service overseas. Many had alcohol problems."

The solution to the perceived blight? A massive redevelopment plan called the Gateway Urban Renewal Project that eventually would see nearly every building in the Bowery demolished -- the Spalding, the Lyceum Theater, the Soo Line Depot and many others. The only major building to survive was the Union Depot, joined by new buildings such as the Duluth Public Library, the Gateway and Lenox towers and the Radisson Hotel.

Spalding's final years

Amid the colorful -- or shady, depending on how you saw it -- Bowery of the 1950s, the Spalding remained busy, but more so as a venue for dinners, meetings and parties. Many of its rooms were long-term rentals. Its public spaces projected a faded elegance.

"The lobby was quite quaint; it sort of represented the 1890s," retired Duluth newspaperman Jim Heffernan said. "You'd walk in there, and to me it was a step back in time."

The Minnesota Arrowhead Association -- which promoted Northland resorts and outfitters -- had offices in the Spalding, and Gloria Brunette worked there in the late 1950s for Executive Director Lee Vann.

"It was one of the most fun jobs I had, and one of the most fun places to work because there was always something going on," Brunette recalled about the Spalding, remembering the various businesses -- the candy counter, a public stenographer -- that operated in the hotel and formed a close-knit community. "It was like entering a different world because it was so different from the neighborhood around it."

But the reputation of the surrounding area, and the building's age, doomed the Spalding. In late 1963, wrecking balls demolished the walls that had been labeled "as solid as the hills" when the hotel opened in 1889. Today the Ordean Building and its adjacent plaza occupy the site.

Remnants survive today

The building may have vanished 50 years ago, but traces of the Spalding survive to this day.

Perhaps most prominently, a massive, intricately carved wooden archway from the Spalding lobby entrance was salvaged and -- after a circuitous route -- now anchors the Minnesota State Fair booth of St. Paul's O'Gara's Bar and Grill.

"It looked like it was built for that," owner Dan O'Gara said. "It's definitely the focal point of our building there."

With a carved "S" and "H" in either corner, for "Spalding Hotel," O'Gara said a few visitors have recognized the arch since it was installed in 2010.

On a smaller scale, dishes, postcards and other items emblazoned with the Spalding name can still be found in some Northland homes.

Walt Pietrowski of Duluth has a creamer from the old hotel, along with stationery and other artifacts. Bricks from the Spalding were dumped into the harbor during demolition, and Pietrowski salvaged some for use in his home.

Not long before the hotel was demolished, Pietrowski stepped inside for one more look.

"The building was quite elegant," he recalled. "It just made me kind of sick, thinking that they were destroying all of this downtown area. ...

"I remember going up the stairway (from the lobby) and looking down, and seeing the registration desk, and thinking, 'How can they do this? Why would they tear this down?'"