Duluth’s Bowery & the Gateway Urban Renewal Project

The Classy Lumberjack was a typical Bowery establishment by the 1950s. (Image: Greg Mattson)

When Duluth’s Union Depot was constructed in 1892, it helped cement Fifth Avenue West’s status as an “entrance” to the Zenith City. The grand Lyceum Theatre and luxury hotels like the St. Louis and the Spalding already stood nearby, as did many other, lower-rent hotels and saloons, many of which catered to lumberjacks, miners, and sailors between seasons with time on their hands. By 1894 Reverend C. C. Salter—whose Bethel on South Lake Avenue ministered to those suffering from alcoholism—decided to open another Bethel along the 500 block of Michigan Street.

Men watch from under the awning of the Duluth Union Depot as buildings along the upper 500 block of West Superior Street are demolished as part of the Gateway renewal Plan carried out in the 1960s. (Image: Doug Fairchild)

The surrounding area—essentially Fourth Avenue West to Mesaba Avenue along Michigan and Superior Streets—became known as The Bowery. (Like many communities across the U.S., Duluth’s Bowery was named for a section of Manhattan notorious for similar social problems; scroll down for an 1899 newspaper article describing Duluth’s Bowery.) Prohibition didn’t end the Bowery’s ills, and the city’s clearing of saloons and brothels on Minnesota Point between South Lake Avenue and St. Croix Avenue in the 1930s only increased the Bowery’s marginalized population. After World War II, the area became populated by retired laborers with no pensions and troubled young men returning from service overseas. Many had alcohol problems.

In the 1950s urban renewal projects swept the nation, trying to eliminate perceived blighted areas to increase urban business opportunities while populations moved out of cities and into suburbs. Duluth targeted the Bowery with its Gateway Urban Renewal Project. The city began purchasing and condemning almost every building in the Bowery and many on First Street west of Fifth Avenue. By 1970, nearly all had fallen.

Many of the razed buildings had once been significant architectural and cultural landmarks, including the McKay Hotel, Holland Hotel, Spalding Hotel, and Lyceum Theatre. Most, however, were not, and many contributed to the Bowery’s social ills. They included the Cleft Hotel, Grace Hotel, Saratoga Hotel, Perovich Hotel, Hill Hotel, Hotel Liberty, Royal Hotel, Park Hotel, First Street Hotel, Sixth Avenue Hotel, Fifth Avenue Hotel and Lamplighter Lounge,  Rex Hotel and Eagle Tavern, Salena Hotel and Tavern, The Classy Lumberjack (pictured), Green’s Crystal Terrace, Pal’s Corner Tavern, Soder’s Bar, the original Club Saratoga, and the Union Liquor Depot. Other businesses fell as well: The Moose Lodge Hall, Chief Motors auto storage,  M & M Supply Company, Mork Food Supply, Minnesota Woolen Company,  Dove Clothing Company,  Al’s Grill, and the St. Paul Restaurant.  The Union Gospel Mission, which was there to help the Bowery’s residents, also came down, as did two houses.

A map of Duluth’s Bowery outlining the buildings that would be demolished as part of the Gateway Renewal Program. (Click to Enlarge | Image: Duluth Public Library)

The 1894 fire station on First Street and a gas station on Superior Street were supposed to remain, as were the Holland House and Fifth Avenue Hotel, but in the end all were demolished. The Soo Line Depot was to be saved and turned into the Saint Louis County Heritage and Arts Center but its basement filled with water, damaging the foundation beyond repair. The Union Depot, slated for demolition, became the Center.  (The photo at lower left shows men standing in the Depot’s entry, watching Michigan Street buildings under demolition.)

In the 1960 s and 1970s  new buildings rose in the former Bowery, including the Ordean Building, Duluth Public Library, KDLH TV studios (demolished in 2014 for the Maurice’s Building), the Duluth News Tribune Building, the Radisson Hotel, the Incline Station, and the Gateway and Lenox Towers senior high-rises; none are considered great architectural achievements. The entire “gateway” concept was compromised in the 1980s when expansion of I-35 allowed drivers to bypass downtown.

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Bowery is Growing

Duluth’s Celebrated Area is Extending Westward

Thirteen saloons Within the Old Limits, Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Increase to Twenty-five Between Fifth and Mesaba Avenues – Prentice Claim Cloud a Factor in the Creation of the Bowery.

Duluth’s Bowery is moving westward. Perhaps it would be more to the point to say that it is growing westward, for that is nearer to the fact. The Bowery has usually been described as that part of West Superior street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues west. This block is more than ever the Bowery in almost all of those characteristics that are suggested by the name, but there is an overflow and the Bowery is creeping westward.
About a year ago there were 13 saloons on the Bowery proper—that is between Fifth and Sixth avenues, but now there are 16. Previously to yesterday there were 17, but Tom Madden has moved his place of business from the old stand at 512 West Superior street to the next block west, and yesterday settled at No. 630. Madden says that the owner of the place he has just vacated has decided not to lease it again for saloon purpose.

Between Fifth avenue west and Mesaba avenue, a little less than three full blocks, there are now 25 saloons. There are 10 saloons on the upper side of the block between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Every inch of available space is occupied in the Bowery proper, and there is a growing demand for buildings in the new extension of the Bowery in the block between Sixth and Seventh avenues. The class of buildings going up in that quarter are all one story.

The places of business consist mainly of saloons, fruit stands, second-hand stores, lodging houses and agencies. But the Bowery proper was never so crowded as now. They have lunch rooms down there of about the same width as an alley in a bowling establishment, and when the floating population is large, business is good on the Bowery. A well known real estate man said yesterday that circumstances created the Bowery; that it did not happen without strong factors shaping its destiny. He said, “The Bowery begins abruptly at Fifth avenue west, and it will probably extend somewhat farther west than Sixth avenue before it reaches its limits.”

The land embraced by the Bowery was formerly a part of a tract one mile square, which was given an Indian named Buffalo, by the United States government. He never transferred the property, but he left several heirs that did. After a large amount of the property had been deeded and distributed among many persons, a man named Prentice dropped in town and looked up the records. He discovered that one of the heirs to the Indian Buffalo had not joined in the transfer of the property. Prentice got a quitclaim to the entire property from this heir and then proceeded to make things lively. A cloud was thrown on the title. Some of the property owners settled with Prentice in order to clear up their titles. Others went into the courts, where Prentice was beaten after several years of litigation.

In the meantime the owners of the property in that part of town known as the Bowery were unable to borrow money with which to make such improvements as they would like. The result was small buildings were erected and business block construction on a liberal scale stopped short at Fifth avenue west. By the time the Prentice claims had been thrown out of court the Bowery was well established. It is now firmly rooted, and when fine business structures will occupy that part of town, which they will some day, is hard to prophesy. It does not pay under the circumstances to put up anything better than one-story buildings down in that part of town.

The people that do business on the Bowery say that trade with them is good despite the fact that there are not as many men in town as in some former seasons. The distinction is, however, that the men have more money to spend than in former years. Many of the saloons have music of a more or less indifferent quality, but it is all calculated to induce people to go inside where it is to “set ’em up.” Gaudy signs on the windows, the work of soap artists in some cases, are popular on the Bowery, and an expensive shooting gallery outfit does a good business.

From the Duluth News Tribune of June 3, 1899

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