The Garden Wedding and Event Center opens in Canal Park
Formerly known as Grandma's Sports Garden, the historic building celebrated its official reopening on Wednesday.
DULUTH — "There was that crane thing with stuffed animals," said Jessica Lind Peterson, sitting at a banquet table and reminiscing about the venue formerly known as Grandma's Sports Garden. "Kids could crawl in there, and would get stuck."
The games are gone now, and so are the venue's eclectic trappings. "Every time we took something off the wall," said Angela Dormanen, "we thought, wow, that place looks a lot better than it used to look."
Dormanen is now general manager of the venue officially renamed The Garden Wedding and Event Center. Still under Grandma's ownership, the former entertainment venue celebrated its rebirth with a ribbon-cutting and public open house Wednesday.
"This was a special one for me, because I had worked out of this building for about 10 years," said Matthew Baumgartner. President of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce since 2021, Baumgartner was formerly general manager and director of government affairs at Grandma's.
"We've transformed," said Dormanen, addressing the gathered group after doing her duty with the giant scissors. "You can have an event here if you want to have your Rotary group, if you want to have your wedding here, if you want to have your corporate function here."
While Wednesday marked the venue's official reopening, with the public invited to take a look inside the renovated space, it's actually been active with rentals for the past six months, Dormanen told the News Tribune.
"We had our first wedding when the paint was still wet on the walls," said Dormanen, who said she's seeing high demand for the space. "From June to November, we're booked every weekend with events."
As Grandma's Sports Garden, the venue was a popular destination for families during the day, turning into a nightclub in the later hours and also serving as a venue for everything from live music to professional boxing. Until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Sports Garden's closure in 2020, it had been a top spot for late-night revelry. In the years leading up to the pandemic, those nights were getting later — and shorter.
"Night life had been a profitable, exciting part of the economy to be a part of," said Baumgartner. "And over time, what that segment of business has seen is that people are staying in and going out later. So some of that opportunity for revenue no longer was there anymore. And instead you had more liability, because people would come (out and) they'd already been doing things."
"They talked about actually even knocking the building down and doing something else in this location," said Dormanen. "Whether that was a hotel or parking, you never know what could have happened. But with the historical part of it, we really wanted to bring it back to life."
The reimagined Garden is a strikingly open venue, with spaces like the "Bayview Room" (to the north) and the "Lift Bridge Lounge" (to the south) accessible for additional seating or more intimate gatherings.
"It was truly an industrial building. It's all Wrenshall, Minnesota, brick," said Elissa Husby, catering and events director. The building dates to the first decade of the 20th century, and has served a variety of uses ranging from boiler manufacturing to coal wholesaling. The Garden's original builder, Gogebic Steam Boiler Works, erected it when business was booming, replacing and expanding upon a previous building from the 1880s.
"The plant was greatly enlarged and thoroughly equipped with the most up-to-date machinery and every facility called for in a modern manufacturing establishment," read a history of Duluth published in 1921. According to that book, Walter Van Brunt's "Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota: Their Story and People," the Gogebic facility was the first in Duluth to use hydroelectric power generated by the Thomson Dam on the St. Louis River.
That stretch of Lake Avenue, leading up to the Lift Bridge, was ground zero for Duluth's industrial development in the 19th century, said local historian Tony Dierckins.
"It was called 'no man's land' at one point, and it was heavily industrial," said Dierckins, reached by phone. "The whole right side, or west side, of Lake Avenue at one point was full of jobbing warehouses."
Today, The Garden sits on prime real estate for the tourist trade: "So close to everything and Canal Park," said Dormanen, "from restaurants to hotels to the Lift Bridge to the water." Clients "can do so much more than just come to the event center for their business dinner. They can go on the Vista (Fleet)."
"Grandma's Restaurant Company is iconic in this region and in Canal Park, and they were a part of the revitalization of Canal Park after the old industrial age," said Baumgartner. "Now, hopefully, it can be a part of the revitalization of the hospitality industry here as we get out of the pandemic."
Husby described The Garden's aesthetic as "blank-slate industrial chic meets modern romance." Indicating gray tiles on a pillar, she said: "This tile was a really good color to go off of because it reminded us of Lake Superior rock. So we went dark charcoal, and then a light gray for a ceremony accent wall. Couples are loving that."
One potential client, said Husby, "was standing right in the middle there and looked around and said, 'Wow, now this is great! So how do I get to the Sports Garden from here?' We said, 'You're in it.' The transformation is so big, it takes people a while to remember it as it used to be."
This story was updated at 6:35 a.m. April 29 to correct a misspelled word in the caption of the historical photo. It was originally posted at 4:57 p.m. April 28. The News Tribune regrets the error.