The Hotel Rex, aka the Seaway

Today’s “Esmond Hotel,” originally built as the Hotel Rex and most notorious as the Seaway Hotel. The postcard shows the building standing four-stories tall, but it likely never had a fourth floor—and note how small the people and vehicles are in the postcard. The image was augmented to show a much more grand structure—a common marketing tool of the times. (Image: Zenith City Press)

2001 W. Superior Street | Wangenstein & Gilliuson | Built 1913 | Extant (Esmond Hotel)

[Note: Special thanks to Duluth historian Gina Temple Rhodes for additional research that helped us update this story in 2021]

 

In 1913, the Gopher Realty Company, a subdivision of Duluth Brewing & Malting, finished construction of a 50-room, three-story hotel at 2001 West Superior Street in the heart of the West End business district. Building hotels and saloons was common practice for breweries prior to Prohibition, they set them up as “tied houses” and saloonkeepers could only sell the beer of the brewery who owned the building he leased. “Rex” was the name of the brewery’s most popular beer at the time.

But in 1913, when the hotel was built, lawmakers were trying to prevent brewery’s from owning retail liquor establishments. Hence Gopher Realty was created so the owners of DB&M could separate buildings from brewing. Also, it was clear the nation was heading toward Prohibition, so it was a way to prepare for the day brewing would end—the Rex was one of the few buildings owned by DB&M that did not have a bar.

The hotel was designed by John J. Wangenstein, who worked on many buildings for Duluth Brewing & Malting. It stands three-stories high, and when it opened the second and third floors contained 130 guest rooms, each outfitted with a telephone and hot and cold water—some even had private bathrooms. The main floor contained the lobby, dining room, buffet, and four stores facing Superior Street. There was a “commodious” barber shop and a billiard room in the basement. Postcards made at about the same time it was built show a four-story building, but postcards of that era were often augmented (we might say “Photoshopped” today).

The Hotel Rex photographed in 1913 by Hugh McKenzie—print made from a broken glass-plate negative. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

From 1930 to 1942 it was called the Curtis Hotel, and it was the Milner Hotel from 1942 to 1958. In 1959, the year the St. Lawrence Seaway opened, it became the Seaway Hotel. As the Seaway the building was a magnet for trouble, and in 1991 a Duluth Police Officer was killed trying to make an arrest inside the hotel.

Today the building provides low-income housing and has been renamed the Esmond Hotel inspired by a  2015 makeover. Siding and the “Hotel Rex” nameplate was removed from the building’s front façade, revealing a stamped concrete nameplate reading “HOTEL ESMOND,” a medallion with the initials “EH,” and another with the date “1913.”

The front façade of the 1913 Hotel Rex (aka Seaway Hotel) featuring, for reasons unknown, stamped concrete calling it the Hotel Esmond. (Image: Zenith City Press)

This created a bit of a conundrum for historians, as in 1913 Duluth already had an Esmond Hotel, and it wasn’t far away. The original Esmond was built in 1893 at 18 South 20th Avenue West, a block from where the Seaway was built in 1913.

Newspaper articles indicate the 1913 hotel’s name changed from Hotel Rex to New Esmond Hotel and back to Rex, and a look at the 1913 city directory shows the confusion this created, as both hotels are listed as standing on the northwest corner of 20th Avenue West and Superior Street.

So it appears the concrete-stamped “Esmond” nameplate and initial medallions on the 1913 building were installed on the building before the final decision was made to call it the Rex. Then, once that decision was made, they were covered up with the “Rex” signage.

Outside of location, the only connection we could find between the Rex and the Esmond is, Sidney D. Ives, the Rex’s first proprietor. Before he leased the Rex in October 1913, he managed the Esmond. But the 1916 Duluth city directors states that he “moved to Portland Ore.”

The Esmond Hotel still stands, although you wouldn’t recognize it as the building in the photo below. Its top floor was removed at some point and it was covered with siding, and it serves today as Duluth’s All American Club.

Meanwhile, in January 2020 newspapers announced possible plans to convert the Rex/Seaway/Esmond into low-income housing. The report mentioned that just one person remains as a resident.

The Esmond Hotel photographed in 1913 by Hugh McKenzie. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.