West Duluth gains an architect

Bought out by Essentia, Bob Fern found welcoming neighbors by moving his firm to West Duluth.

Robert Fern sits Wednesday in the conference room at the new location of RW Fern Associates on Grand Avenue in Duluth. (Clint Austin /

Renovations on his architectural firm’s new location seemingly complete, Bob Fern remained one touch short — something to hang on the wall.

“I want to get a picture of the building from when it was a Bridgeman’s,” Fern said from outside R.W. Fern Associates at 5517 Grand Ave., in West Duluth.

Built in 1955 to house the popular ice cream parlor, it was later home to Joyce’s Cafe, a commercial human services agency and, most recently, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor headquarters during the 2018 midterm elections.

R.W. Fern's arrival figures to endure longer than a campaign rental. Fern’s firm was displaced by the ongoing Essentia expansion, which found him selling his previous office building at 413 W. Superior St., across from the Pickwick Restaurant and Pub. That was in 2018.

“We were on the second floor and had a great view of the lake,” Fern said. “They convinced me I needed to move."


Fern said he was open to moving anywhere in the city, and landed on the Grand Avenue location for its on-site parking lot and the size of the building being similar to the space occupied by the firm at its old location.

Fern started operating out of the new building in February, but exterior work didn’t finish until September. His arrival has been praised by the West Duluth Business Club.

“We lacked a local architect in our West Duluth business district,” said Susan Coen, president of the business club. “We’ve gained a new service that wasn’t locally offered in our area. Plus, he gave it a beautiful facelift and made that section of the block active and owner-occupied again. It makes us look like a more vital community.”

From Detroit Lakes, Minn. originally, Fern has lived in Duluth since 1985. His firm has a long lineage, having started out in 1961 as Thomas and Vecchi Architects. Different iterations followed until Fern took over in 2014.

Projects from the firm include the Congdon Park and Homecroft elementary school renovations as part of the Red Plan, the renovation of nearby Public Schools Stadium, the J.R. Jensen Construction headquarters in Superior, the Dave Evans Transport building in Superior, the restoration of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Duluth following its 2016 fire, and ongoing projects with Duluth City Hall and the St. Louis County Assessor’s Office.

“We’ve got our fingers in a lot of things,” Fern said.

Fern knew that remodeling his new location was critical given that people would judge his work by what they saw.

“It has to fit,” he said. “I've always found it funny when an architect is in a crappy building. And this building was kind of ugly to start with. But the potential was there for fixing it up.”


He gutted the interior, creating an open floor plan while also adding several large windows to bring natural light into the building. French doors open to a modern conference room looking out onto Grand Avenue.

“We had to revamp the building to work how we work,” Fern said while standing near a series of three tall drafting tables.

Outside is where the building is most transformed with new cement siding — a product Fern hadn’t used before. The earthy tones and molded wood-grain accents make it appear as if the building is sided with fine wood.

“It’s a really nice product,” Fern said. “I wanted to try something different.”

The rest of the exterior has been accented with planters and other landscaping touches. Fern also extended an overhang at the east-side main entryway and used the flourish to add the RW Fern sign.

“He went all out and spared no expense,” Coen said.

Fern was quick to thank the contractors on the project, including Four Star Construction, the general contractor from Superior, as well as Benson Electric and A.G. O’Brien Plumbing and Heating Co.

“It was a marathon to find a place, renovate it and get moved in,” Fern said. “They’re the ones who made it happen.”


As for a photo of the original building, which was about half the size it is now, Fern has some leads. He’d like to put a framed photo on the wall, so that he can connect history as well as satisfy curiosity seekers. He had a woman come in one day this summer.

“She used to work here,” he said, “when it was a Bridgeman’s.”

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