Kitchi Gammi to mark 125 years

Next year will mark the 125th anniversary of Minnesota's oldest incorporated social club -- the Kitchi Gammi Club. And in preparation for that milestone, members are pouring about $1 million into the 94-year-old building that is home to the club.

Next year will mark the 125th anniversary of Minnesota's oldest incorporated social club -- the Kitchi Gammi Club. And in preparation for that milestone, members are pouring about $1 million into the 94-year-old building that is home to the club.

The brick clubhouse is receiving a fresh tuckpoint job plus new copper gutters and downspouts with the help of funding from a foundation that club members established to care for the building.

"The work never stops. It's a labor of love," said Michael Orman, a Duluth attorney and president of the Kitchi Gammi Club. "The building is in a constant state of restoration and renovation."

In recent years, a host of improvements has been made to the clubhouse, which locals often refer to simply as the Kitch. The projects have included a $1 million update of the kitchen, the installation of a new $300,000 to $400,000 sprinkler/alarm system and the construction of a $300,000 enclosed fire escape.

Current-day investments in the clubhouse eclipse the original $222,400 cost of the building. But of course, a dollar went further in 1912, when construction of the grand clubhouse began. Club records indicate the carpenters and bricklayers who originally built the clubhouse earned 35 cents and 50 cents per hour, respectively.


The building was designed by Bertram G. Goodhue in the Jacobean Revival style and features ornate stonework, woodwork and plaster. The massive clubhouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has 12 fireplaces and seven smokestacks.


But it takes more than an attractive and well-kept home to keep a club alive. Orman said the club's 485 members deserve the credit for the Kitch's continued vitality.

Mark Tuttle, general manager of the club, said the Kitchi Gammi has held steady at about 500 members for several years now. The high-water mark for membership came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when 540 people belonged to the Kitch.

The Kitchi Gammi Club has endured despite the folding of many other once-prestigious social clubs in the state. Witness the demise of St. Paul's Minnesota Club, the Minneapolis Athletic Club and Bloomington's Decathlon Club, to name just a few of the fallen.

Throughout its history, the Kitch has attracted an elite cadre of business leaders, Orman said. Substantial landowners and titans from the steel, timber and transportation industries have met to socialize and discreetly hammer out deals inside the halls of the Kitchi Gammi Club.

Orman said the club closely guards its roster, out of respect for the privacy of its members. But its past ranks have included prominent figures such as mining magnate Edward C. Congdon, lumber baron Guillford G. Hartley, financier J.P. Morgan and railroad chieftain James J. Hill.

"Lots of transactions have been put together at the Kitchi Gammi," said Orman, noting that the private meeting rooms of the club are well-suited for conducting business. He said the club provides a pleasant yet neutral ground for parties to meet and discuss potential deals in private.


The club's ambiance also creates a favorable setting for business, Orman said. "It's a place that encourages a kind of businesslike decorum that allows business to get done."

But there's a time and place for doing business at the Kitch.

Orman said it's against club rules for any member to openly solicit business at social functions.


While Orman believes the club's fundamental character has remained constant in many respects, the institution has undergone significant changes.

Chief among these changes has been the inclusion of women as members. In 1985 -- just one year after members narrowly defeated a similar motion -- the club voted to allow women to join the club.

The Kitch was slower to accept women than some of its counterparts in Minnesota. For instance, the Minneapolis Club opened its membership to women in 1976.

Orman said Duluth's Rotary Club opened its doors to women members at about the same time. He referred to the decision to become more inclusive as "one of the best things that ever happened" to either organization.


A small but vocal contingent of mostly older members objected allowing women members, Orman said. But he said the club's membership was quick to embrace the change.

"I don't think there is any lingering resistance or misconception that this is a male club any more," he said.

Barbara Elliott, a professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota Duluth, joined the Kitch in 1986, becoming the club's third female member. As the club's social functions generally were already for a mixed-gender crowd -- mostly members and their spouses-- Elliott felt she blended in well. She said it wasn't until the Kitch's male-dominated annual business meeting that she felt a bit out of place.

But Elliott and other women members were quick to earn the respect of their colleagues. Elliott is one of two women serving on the Kitchi Gammi Club's 11-person board of directors. The club now has about 40 women members. Elliott said the Kitch has an almost equal number of former members' widows who continue to enjoy dues-free privileges in perpetuity under club rules.

Elliott said she finds club membership valuable from both a social and professional standpoint.

"It is one of Duluth's fine traditions," she said. "The club is a wonderful place to have a meal or to do business."


The club is far less formal than it once was. For men a jacket and tie used to be required attire throughout the clubhouse, but now, members can shed their ties in all but the club's most formal setting -- the vaulted Great Hall.


Also gone are many of the sporting elements of the club. Members used to routinely compete in boxing and wrestling matches in the clubhouse. But the ring has been dismantled and much of the former gym has been converted into a multimedia meeting room. Likewise, squash courts in the lower level of the clubhouse are now used for storage.

The club still offers lodging to out-of-town members and member guests. It maintains one single-room and four two-room suites on the upper floor of the clubhouse. But that's a fraction of the guest lodging once offered.

Gone, too, are the members who took up full-time residence at the club. At one point, eight members called the Kitchi Gammi Club home.

Tuttle said many rooms formerly used as guest chambers at the club have been converted into private meeting/dining rooms.


Thanks in part to these rooms, the Kitchi Gammi has become a popular venue for private gatherings. Tuttle said the club now hosts more than 300 events per year.

Tuttle attributes part of the club's growing popularity as a gathering spot to its food operations, including a full bakery. Under the management of chef Talferd Jude, the kitchen staff makes almost everything that hits the table from scratch.

"We even make our own peanut butter and jelly," Tuttle said.


The club employs 55 people on a full- and part-time basis. Tuttle said staff members pride themselves on providing personalized service. He said many key staff members have been in place for decades and not only recognize members by sight but know their individual preferences by heart.

Orman knows the club's future will depend on its ability to continually attract promising new members, including young people.

Toward that end, the club's initiation fee for new members younger than 40 is $600, compared with $1,200 for more senior members.

Candidates for membership must be formally sponsored by two club members. Those nominees are then considered by the club's directors, and membership may be denied if any member of the 11-person board deems a prospect unacceptable.

In addition to paying an initiation fee, all club members also must pay quarterly dues of $450 and foot the bill for meals and incidental costs. Members are able to schedule the club's meeting and private dining rooms at no expense.

While Orman said the club's annual budget could not be disclosed without board approval, he said the Kitch operates as "a very solvent business." Accordingly, it holds all members to strict financial account, regardless of their social station.

Among the one-time members who learned this policy the hard way was the well-heeled Andrew Carnegie, who was expelled from the Kitch for failing to pay club bills in timely fashion.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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