Duluth’s Gateway Urban Renewal Program

The Classy Lumberjack was a typical Bowery establishment by the 1950s. When it was demolished it’s liquor license—and 12 others within the Bowery—were redistributed throughout the city to avoid creating another Bowery. (Image: Greg Mattson)

By the 1890s, a section of downtown Duluth adjacent to several railroad passenger stations—roughly along Michigan and Superior Streets between Fourth Avenue West and Mesaba Avenue—impressed visitors and new- comers with the luxurious Spalding Hotel and the grand Lyceum Theater, called by newspapers the “handsomest and costliest building in the Northwest” when it was built in 1889. It also contained a heavy concentration of flophouse hotels and cheap saloons that catered to o -season lumberjacks and other single men of the laboring class who had extra time and a little money, both spent on whiskey. The area became known as Duluth’s Bowery after the Manhattan neighborhood notorious for similar social issues.

Prohibition failed to x the problems, and clearing out the St. Croix district’s saloons and brothels in the 1930s increased the Bowery’s marginalized population. After World War II, the area became home to pensionless retirees and traumatized young men returned from battle. Many suffered from alcoholism and mental health problems.

In the 1950s urban renewal programs across the nation attempted to eliminate areas perceived to be blighted in order to increase urban business opportunities as populations spread outward into suburbs. Duluth’s Gateway Urban Renewal Project targeted the Bowery. The city began purchasing and condemning buildings in and adjacent to the Bowery up to First Street. By 1970, nearly all had fallen.


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

While the razed buildings included architectural and cultural land- marks like the Lyceum, the Spalding, and the Soo Line Depot, most were insignificant. Others had indeed contributed to the Bowery’s problems. 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, Green’s Crystal Terrace, Pal’s Corner Tavern, Soder’s Bar, the original Club Saratoga, and the Union Liquor Depot. But their destruction simply displaced the problems, as Bowery inhabitants moved to the West End and eastern downtown along First Street.

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. 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.

In the 1960s and 1970s new buildings rose to replace them, including the Ordean Building, the Duluth Public Library, the Radisson Hotel, low- income apartments Gateway Tower and Lenox Place, and others, including an addition to and modernization of the Duluth News Tribune building. None are considered examples of landmark architecture. Among the few buildings left standing was the 1892 Union Depot. Closed in 1969, the building reopened in 1977 as the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, which houses the Duluth Art Institute, the Duluth Playhouse, Arrowhead Chorale, Matinee Musicale, the Minnesota Ballet, the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, the North Shore Scenic Railway, and the St. Louis County Historical Society.

The initial expansion of Interstate 35 (I-35) through the city stopped at the foot of Mesaba Avenue, the urban renewal project’s western border. There the city built Gateway Plaza, including a large, concrete sculpture designed to suggest a ship’s billowing sail to greet those entering down- town Duluth from the highway. Two blocks east, Julia and Caroline Mar- shall and Dorothy Congdon privately financed the Fifth Avenue West Mall between Michigan Street and the Civic Center—a grand driveway to the city’s symbolic front yard. There, a fountain was installed in the middle of the Civic Center’s public grounds and named in honor of Joseph “Petunia Joe” Priley, a musician and county commissioner who instituted a nationally renowned civic beautification program in Duluth. Further expansion of I-35 in the 1980s allowed drivers to bypass down- town, compromising the entire “gateway” concept.