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Front Row Seat: Inside Greysolon Ballroom, where Roaring '20s still echo

Black Woods Group now runs the event spaces and Black Water Lounge in the former Hotel Duluth. As the building nears its centenary, a celebration is at hand.

view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
The Greysolon Ballroom at Greysolon Plaza on Friday in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH โ€” When I met Julie Thoreson at Greysolon Ballroom last week, she was ready with a photocopy of the Duluth Herald's coverage of the 1925 opening of the building then known as the Hotel Duluth. The news filled an entire issue.

Two days of "the gayest social affairs in the history of Duluth" were planned for the occasion, the Herald reported above an ad for Arco Coffee. The special issue went on to detail attractions such as a Hotel Duluth Barber Shop ("the last word in up-to-date tonsorial parlors in Minnesota"), the enormous expense of building the hotel ($2.4 million, or $41.4 million today), and the sheer majesty of what, in the "unanimous" opinion of early visitors, was the most attractive hotel in the entire country.

view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
Employees move a vintage piece of furniture into place in the bar adjacent to the Greysolon Ballroom on Friday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
The bridal suite at Greysolon Plaza.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Thoreson didn't make any claims quite so bold, but she and her staff are proud of what they've done to maintain "an absolute gem for the city," she said while standing in the lobby. The ornate space, with gilded detailing and a mezzanine circling the perimeter, still looks much as it did 98 years ago.

The former Hotel Duluth hasn't served its original purpose since the 1980s. The hotel's 450 guest rooms were converted into 150 senior apartments, which the rooms remain to this day under the ownership of a New Jersey firm, Orbach Affordable Housing Solutions. The Black Woods Group leases the building's entertainment spaces from Orbach and has "no intention of leaving," said Thoreson.

The building dates to an era when grand hotels were must-have signposts of confidence and prosperity for cities aspiring to prominence. The towering new Hotel Duluth stole some shine from existing establishments, which one after another met the wrecking ball as long periods passed between downtown hotel openings.

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When the space-age Radisson debuted to great fanfare in 1970, for some older Duluthians, it must have echoed the swelling of civic pride 45 years earlier.

In short, they don't make 'em like this any more. The space's unique character has made it a perennial go-to for business groups, college ceremonies and benefit galas. Most frequently, though, the Greysolon Ballroom and Moorish Room host weddings โ€” around 100 a year, with most of the happy couples coming up from the Twin Cities for a Duluth destination wedding.

view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
The Moorish Room at Greysolon Plaza.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The 3,780-square-foot ballroom occupies the heart of the horseshoe-shaped Italian Renaissance building. It's a vault of cream and chandeliers, with gauzy curtains softening the light from tall windows looking over the Historic Arts and Theater District. Rooms branching off a perimeter hallway include spaces where to-be spouses commonly prep with their respective entourages, a spacious bar area, and a dining room suitable for groups of two or three dozen.

After the ballroom, the venue's next biggest space is the 3,400-square-foot Moorish Room. Originally the hotel's "Spanish Dining Room," the Moorish Room has been seen on screen in "Merry Kiss Cam." A scene from "Iron Will" was filmed just outside, in the hotel lobby.

view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
A mural showing a hunting scene in the Moorish Room.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
One of many murals in the Moorish Room. Moors were a group of Muslim people living in Maghreb, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily and Malta during the Middle Ages. The room features a Moorish style of architecture.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Whatever thoughts the hotel's initial visitors might have had about the specifics of the room's imagery and architecture are lost deep in the historical record. The style known as Moorish Revival, incorporating a term historically used by Western Europeans to describe the continent's Muslim communities, would have evoked a sense of cosmopolitan luxury for Duluth's white business barons of the 1920s.

When the hotel opened, the Herald seemed most impressed by the room's facade (complete with windows, awnings and "hand-hammered copper and iron torchieres") beckoning diners in from the lobby. "The entire outside of the dining room suggests an outdoor atmosphere and makes one feel that he is standing on some main street in Spain, instead of in the lobby of Hotel Duluth," wrote the paper.

view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
A meeting room at Greysolon Plaza features an antique stained-glass window found in a storage room.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Thoreson is co-owner of the Black Woods Group, a family company that owns restaurants in Duluth, Two Harbors and Proctor. They've run the Greysolon spaces for 20 years, said Thoreson. She and her sister, Jax Eisenmann, the venue's director of sales, described the challenges of persevering through recent years' pandemic lockdowns.

"There were no weddings for two years," said Eisenmann as music from "Bridgerton" played in the West Wing Lounge. "We had to counsel all the people who had invested their hearts with us and their financial livelihood. When I'd walk in and there was nobody here, and I'd just hear the music playing, I would feel the absolute emotion (of) knowing that we'd get here (with events resuming) someday, and so made a commitment to stay in place."

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view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
The ornate ceiling of the lobby.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"It's a labor of love, because there's always something that needs to be fixed," said Thoreson about maintaining the Coolidge-era venue.

Framed photos document the hotel's history, which included hosting John F. Kennedy less than two months before his death in fall 1963. There's also a photo of a visiting BeBe Shopp, who in 1948 became the first Minnesota contestant crowned Miss America.

view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
This photo of John F. Kennedy visiting Duluth hangs at Greysolon Plaza on Friday, May 5, in Duluth. President Kennedy visited Duluth two months before he was assassinated in Dallas. Kennedy stayed at Hotel Duluth during his visit.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Thoreson also led us into a facility that, in 1925, got more ink than the entire downstairs dining room. Noting the lavish polychrome tile decorating a women's room off the mezzanine, the Herald described a feature that's still appreciated today. The facility has "six private poudre and toilet rooms," the paper explained, "with wash bowl, mirror and mirror door. The doors close on the inside, giving each woman full privacy."

view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
The original chandeliers are still in place in the Greysolon Ballroom.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Looking at one of the aquatic figures pictured in bas relief in the Poudre Room antechamber, Eisenmann mused, "Think of what she's seen."

"Is this haunted?" Photographer Clint Austin came out with the question I didn't dare to ask, though I'd been reminded of "The Shining" even before I saw the Herald's photo of the two "monster" boilers that originally heated the hotel.

view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
The bar that serves the Greysolon Ballroom.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
view of historic room at former Hotel Duluth
The bar in the Moorish Room.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"I don't know that I would call it haunted," replied Eisenmann, "because it's always been joyful." Thoreson then alluded to a supposed ghost at Black Woods' Two Harbors restaurant ... but that's a story for another day.

While many Greysolon events are private, people looking to take a look inside the historic spaces do have regular opportunities through ticketed events like a Mother's Day Family Dinner Dance on Friday, and a Mother's Day Ballroom Brunch Buffet on Sunday.

Thoreson also said her company is planning a "really big" 100th birthday bash to take place in two years' time. "We do want to open it up to the community," Thoreson said. "If you live here, you should see this."

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For more information, see greysolonballroom.com.

more by jay gabler
Readers have submitted two rarely seen photos, including one of young Bobby Zimmerman with three generations of his mother's family.

This story was updated at 1:54 p.m. May 11 to correct a caption for a photo of John F. Kennedy. It was originally posted at 7 a.m. May 11. The News Tribune regrets the errors.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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